What is Lettering?

Let’s start with the basics – what is lettering actually? In the broadest sense, lettering is the practice, craft, and art of drawing letters. Often, lettering is contrasted with (or mistaken for) typography. Whereas typography is based on the placement or arrangement of pre-created letters using movable typesets or digital manipulation, the term “lettering” can refer to a variety of expressive, artful means of creating and presenting letters. And while typography typically refers to arranging pre-drawn letters in a document or interface, lettering can be performed one letter at a time, using digital technologies, brushes, chalk, pens, or drawing by hand.

Lettering Styles

Lettering is a broad and varied art. There are many different methods that can be used to craft exquisite, beautiful letters, using numerous differing materials and tools. Some of the most popular artistic lettering methods used today include Hand Lettering, Brush Lettering, Chalk Lettering, Calligraphy, and Vector Lettering. There are many advantages and unique features to each lettering type, and choosing the proper lettering method is essential to creating a polished, appropriate final product. So how do you decide which lettering method to pursue? Below is a short introduction to each of these five methods. Click on any of them for more specific detail.

Image credit: Megan Wells

Hand lettering is the art of writing beautiful, carefully crafted letters or documents by hand, typically using a pen or pencil. Hand lettering is an intricate, carefully performed process based on years of practice and development of technique; even the most advanced and talented lettering artist continues to learn and develop new techniques as styles as their career continues to progress. Hand lettering can be performed on a variety of materials, including all types of paper, card stock, cardboard, and other surfaces. Hand lettering is an incredibly versatile and diverse art form.
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Image credit: Jasmine Dowling

Brush lettering is the creation of letters using thick paint, ink, or watercolors and a brush. Brush lettering has a distinctive, painterly style, and tends to be more softly curved or swooping than some other lettering styles. A work of high quality brush lettering may exhibit clear paint strokes or deliberately uneven filling of letters, giving the final product a handcrafted, one-of-a-kind style. Brush lettering is widely regarded as elegant, easy on the eyes, and expressive, and so it is best for projects where style and mood are of the utmost importance.
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Image credit: Gemma O’Brien

Chalk lettering involves drawing or constructing letters using chalk, and is often performed on a non-paper surface such as brick, concrete, or a chalkboard. There is a soft, fuzzy quality to some chalk lettering, though highly saturated, bold chalk letters can also be created for a stronger effect. Because calk is commonly viewed as an erasable material, there is a fleeting, ephemeral quality to works of chalk lettering, and a sense of impermanence. Chalk lettering is ideal for creating a fun, informal tone, or for conveying changing or up-to-date information.
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Image credit: Scott Biersack

Vector lettering is a digitized and software-driven process, though it retains the same potential for artistry and craft as all the lettering forms described above. Vector lettering involves the use of minute geometric shapes such as fine points, shapes, or lines to construct larger shapes and images in a digital file format. In the practice of vector lettering, letters may still be hand drawn using a pen or brush technique, and then converted into a vector image for digital or online use. Vector lettering is ideal for web design projects, ebook covers, or for the drafting of any image that will be printed at a variety of sizes.
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The History of Lettering

Lettering has a rich and complex history dating back to the origins of written human language. Most cultures with complex, individual languages rapidly developed their own systems of recording information and writing down words using either ideographs (which represent entire words or concepts) or letters (which combine to form sounds and words). Some of the earliest records of hand-lettering include the engraved words and records found in the Rosetta Stone, as well as the engraved signs, grave markers, and political records left behind by the ancient Greeks and Romans.

Throughout early human history, writing and lettering remained a rare art set aside only for those of the highest social status and education levels. Up until the Middle Ages, only appointed scribes, monks, and scholars were permitted to train in the art of hand-lettering. And until moveable type and the printing press became widespread technologies, hand-lettering was one of the only available ways of transmitting information. Hand-lettered books and letters were constructed with immense care by vaunted experts, and virtually all lettered items were of extremely high value.

As education and literacy spread throughout the Middle Ages and into the Early Modern period, people from a variety of societies across the globe were beginning to develop complex, richly beautiful methods of hand-lettering. In the Middle East and East Asia, intricate calligraphy techniques were being invented and shared amongst respected artisans; in Europe, monks and other religious figures passed down methods of hand-writing letters and documents, particularly the Bible.

While the advent of typesetting changed the cultural landscape and made it much easier to print text, the art of hand-drawing letters continued to evolve. Calligraphy and fine handwriting were still extremely valued skills among the educated and elite, and beautiful patterns, whirls, and other lapidary details continued to be added to hand-written notes, books, letters, and journals alike.

While the most respected and challenging of hand-lettering styles are no longer required skills today, the craft of lettering remains alive and well. Today, there are many different distinctive methods of lettering that are used to express a wide range of messages, moods, and meanings. Among the most popular contemporary lettering styles are Hand Lettering, Brush Lettering, Chalk Lettering, Calligraphy, and Vector Lettering. Each style has many unique traits, and can be used in everything from storefront signs to wedding invitations to thank-you cards.