Monday, January 16, 2012

Hand Lettering: Why I Do It and How

Nearly all of the comics I draw are hand lettered, sometimes with a brush, usually with a Rapidograph pen (or a mixture of the two). Computer fonts are, of course, how it's usually done these days. Some of these fonts look mighty stylish, but they all suffer from one major fault: they look like computer fonts. Hand lettering has an subtle organic life you just can't duplicate or approximate with software.

The first pro lettering I did was for a story drawn by Jeff Smith and Paul Pope. Based on my first page, Paul recommended I give the words more room to "breathe", allowing more white space between the words and the balloon. That advice has served me well over the years.

I use a standard size for most dialogue in my pro comics: 1/8 an inch high, with 1/16 inch between the lines. I don't use some fancy schmancy lettering guide for this, but a metal ruler I bought in my first year of college in 1980.

The lettering is then penciled in. If the lettering needs to be placed symmetrically in order to fit an approximate size for a word balloon (which is most often the case), I jot down the words separated in lines somewhere else on the page, count the number of letters in the longest line and pencil that line of lettering first. I then use the ruler to figure out the middle of that longest line, draw a vertical line through the balloon with the middle of the longest line as the anchor and pencil in the other lines, making sure each line has an equal number of letters or spaces on each side of the anchor line (see above).

The lettering is then inked with the Rapidograph pen. What you see above is the lettering in a rough state. After the ink is dried, the pencils can be erased and the letters and balloon fixed up/repaired/perfected with a fine small brush and white and black paint. The end result doesn't have to be perfect, but it does need to be consistent, smooth and professional.

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Javier Hernandez said...


There is indeed a very organic, naturalistic feel with hand lettering. And the fact that something is hand-lettered always let's me appreciate a cartoonist's work just a little bit more.

Your process here seems simple and direct, but of course it was honed after years of experience. Your lettering and word balloons always compliment your artwork.

Me, well, one day I should at least try to hand-letter an assignment.... :(

Jack Bertram said...

Thanks for sharing this. I like hand lettering too. When I look at computer lettering my eyes glaze over and I don't want to keep reading. I force myself and get past it, but hand lettering just seems to belong with the art. I appreciate the neatness of your lettering. I am kinda unkempt when it comes to lettering. I don't take time to center it.