Typography is the art of arranging the written word. It includes several different types of expression under its umbrella—some that have been practiced for centuries.

Many people find joy in the act of hand lettering or calligraphy. It’s calming and expressive all at the same time, and you can take your art virtually anywhere. Not only are you learning and creating, but you’re unwinding in the process. In fact, the act of creating is part of the relaxation process. From invitation lettering to designing typefaces and fonts, typographic works can bring joy into an artist’s life—and, in many cases, turn a profit in the process. 

Lettering is like any other expressive art form when it comes to fulfillment. We can break from the confines of the mundane, creating fonts and other text designs that express ourselves in ways that the words sometimes can’t do on their own. Tapping into our creativity can offer immense satisfaction. In fact, research suggests that working on visual art can even improve the quality interactions between different parts of our brains. 

With these benefits, it’s no wonder that people are curious about how to create art themselves, but many beginners struggle with where to start. The search can take time, and there’s no harm in trying different forms until you find your preferred medium. Once you discover the right art form, learning and growing as an artist will come naturally. When considering typography styles, you have a few choices—here, we’ll cover a few of your options and share the tools and courses you’ll need along the way. 

Calligraphy: A Lost Art

In calligraphy, artists use brushes or special pens to create beautiful hand-lettered designs from scratch. People have practiced calligraphy since around the seventh century, and many forms of art—particularly the way designers create their works—can be traced back to the field. 

But calligraphy has been called a “lost art,” and it spent many years slowly fading out of practice in modern culture. The training is time consuming, and teaching modern audiences can be challenging as pens and brushes become less commonplace in favor of touch screens and computers. But calligraphy isn’t going anywhere just yet: While the medium may be tech-averse, that doesn’t mean its artists are. Online outlets like Instagram offer an engaging platform for the calligraphy community, and in sharing their work, calligraphers can expose beautiful art to audiences that otherwise may not have taken notice.

Today, talents like Seb Lester, Linda Yoshida, and Artem Stepanov are just a few of the personalities racking up views and followers—and inspiring a fresh wave of new typographic artists in the process. By harnessing video and sharing mesmerizing clips of calligraphy in process, these trailblazers have taken a dwindling art form and given it a breath of life. Now, calligraphy is part of the modern conversation once again. 

There are few things as satisfying as seeing a pen gracefully create a work of art in a single stroke. It can be intimidating for many beginners. Take each step knowing that you won’t have a perfect calligraphy script overnight. Leave yourself plenty of time to practice, and learn about your materials and tools. Soon enough, you’ll be enjoying how each piece flows through the strokes of your pens and brushes.

Art by Skillshare teacher Seb Lester
Art by Skillshare teacher Seb Lester

Typography

If you want to work with typefaces and fonts, consider typography. In this field, designers create art that transcends layouts and maintains consistent form.

Many believe that typography is merely the evolution of calligraphy, but that’s a misconception. While similar, they each offer unique aspects that you won’t get in other forms. Typography, for example, can be a bit more technical than calligraphy. Both require clarity, but calligraphy allows for more abstract lettering, while typography emphasizes clear font styles. Thanks to technology, creating letters in typography is usually much easier—its clarity lies in your kerning and tracking.

Typography reveals itself in many parts of our lives. In fact, typography factors into works like:

  • Logo design
  • Advertising
  • Business communications
  • Promotional materials
  • Product instruction manuals
  • Product designs

Typographic design is everywhere, and learning typography is an excellent way to engage with your surroundings in a different way. Your newfound knowledge of font families and other fundamentals could even open doors professionally.

Art by Skillshare student Emily C.
Art by Skillshare student Emily C.

Brands known the world over have embraced typography. Consider Coca-Cola and Pepsi, both of which have famous logos with roots in calligraphy. As time progressed, each incorporated typography into their brands, too, achieving a more modern feel without abandoning their iconic looks.  

From art to wearables and everything in between, you can incorporate typography into many aspects of your business and personal life. Use it to transform just about anything into a work of art: Especially when paired with graphics, typography can go a long way in helping you develop the perfect design.

Learn Typography

Establish a strong foundational knowledge of typography in How to Look at Type: Fundamentals of Web Typography, a Skillshare Original from designer Jason Santa Maria.

Hand Lettering

Hand lettering uses many of the same principles as calligraphy—you’ll notice the same thick (downward motions) and light (upward motions) strokes—but subtle nuances differentiate the two art forms. 

Calligraphy, while beautiful and artistic, can largely be considered writing. When practicing calligraphy, you are almost sure to use a single stroke in each letter. Hand lettering, on the other hand, is really more like drawing—multiple strokes are encouraged. Furthermore, hand lettering blends fonts with different shapes and styles. By using multiple strokes, you have a wider range of options in what you can create. In calligraphy, you are a bit more confined to the rules. 

Hand lettering examples from Hand Lettering Essentials for Beginners
Hand lettering examples from Hand Lettering Essentials for Beginners

If you’re a beginner, give hand lettering an extra bit of consideration. It’s noted for being an incredibly beginner-friendly medium, and classes on the subject are easy to grasp and quite fun.

Hand lettering has its own difficulties, though. Like any other style of art, it takes commitment, practice, and repetition to succeed. However, persistence will pay off. One advantage to pursuing this form of art is improved wordplay, or working with letters and words in artistic ways. Hand lettering can give you the foundational knowledge to later learn calligraphy and typography—think of it as its own style, but one that can also serve as a 101 course for two other critical artistic endeavors. 

Hand lettering can be an excellent avenue for full-time and freelance work, opening doors for jobs designing invitations, print packaging, labeling, and much more. If you are a beginner nervous about your learning curve, or if you want an in-demand professional skill, hand lettering may be the art form for you.

Get Started with Hand Lettering

Join Mary Kate McDevitt as she takes aspiring artists through concepting, sketching, and refining hand-lettered designs in her Skillshare Original.

Choosing the Right Materials

Without the right instruments, your words will never come alive as intended. Below, you’ll find the tools needed to succeed on any path you choose.

Tools for Calligraphy

Calligraphy materials extend beyond pens and brushes. Over time, trial and error will help you understand what works best in any scenario. Then, the fun comes when you pinpoint the tools that help create the art that best suits your personal brand. If you’re ready to learn calligraphy, make sure you have some of these for your class:

Pens

Calligraphy pens come in a variety of models. Some sound just like office writing tools—ballpoint, fountain, felt tip, gel, rollerball—while others are specifically for calligraphy.  

Consider starting out with felt-tip pens as you begin to learn your ink levels and how to correctly apply them to the paper. As you progress, you’ll work with fountain pens. Eventually, you’ll master the standard tools and begin working with more complex pens like dips and brush pens.

If you begin with advanced tools, you may run into the following issues. 

  • Brush Pens: Brushes come in a variety of thicknesses, and each presents a different learning curve. Mastering a thin brush is difficult for a learner of any level—it takes a greater level of pressure control to get the ideal amount of ink onto the page. Studying how to write on paper isn’t the best time to also learn how to apply pressure with your brush properly.
  • Dip Pens: The three facets of a dip pen—handle, nib-holder, and shaft—make it more complicated than beginner pens. Nibs and reservoirs moving positions from tool to tool can add an extra degree of difficulty that a new learner might not be ready for. Eventually, dip pens are likely to become one of your most commonly used devices. With dip pens, you afford yourself more freedom to adjust your three pen components to the specifics you prefer—just wait until you’ve gotten comfortable with calligraphy generally before you try them.

Nibs

Nibs are what an artist uses to touch the paper with a fountain pen. The nib and its holder are just as important as any other calligraphy component. When lettering art and script in calligraphy, the right nib and holder are crucial to your work’s outcome. Key factors include: 

Screen+Shot+2020-12-11+at+12.38.01+PM.png
  • Shape: Choosing between italic and point nibs comes down to design needs. For a more substantial line that remains consistent, italic is the way to go. It’s also the obvious choice if your alphabet requires an italic appearance. Meanwhile, point nibs offer more variety in their lines. You will use points in most projects, from logo design to contemporary calligraphy. For thin lines, select a point with minimal flexibility—just know that it will also result in limited line variations.
  • Mount: Your mount size depends on the nibs you choose. Mapping nibs work best on smaller bases (around 3mm), whereas regular nib options tend to be around larger 9mm bases. When choosing your mount, always go with the best fit for your instrument.
  • Size: Nibs are categorized by either their fineness (medium, fine, or extra fine) or their size in millimeters (C-1 to C-4). Depending on which you choose, line thickness and consistency will vary. A medium tip will produce a thicker line with a more defined end point. Meanwhile, an extra fine will leave a bit of a tail and narrower path. For a thicker line, a C-1 will do the trick. Regardless of which millimeter size you opt for, you should see lines as thick or thicker than a fine tip. Each should also produce an end line closer in appearance to a medium tip.
  • Form (Nib Holder): Choose between oblique or straight. For hard to design angles, use an oblique. However, straight holders offer a range of sizes and shapes that help achieve looks that an oblique couldn’t.
  • Material (Nib Holder): This choice that all boils down to what you prefer: plastic or wood.

Brushes

There is no shortage of options when it comes to brushes. From marker to brush tip, each style can significantly alter your art. It takes extraordinarily high patience to create with brushes, and they are categorized based on five distinguishing traits.

  • Firmness: Brushes can either be firm, medium, or soft. Firm tips yield firm, familiar strokes. Medium brushes give your strokes a bit more freedom, but they can just as quickly get away from an untrained designer. And soft brushes are often the hardest to learn—they’re all about subtlety, and any wrong movement can throw off your delicate effects.
  • Fineness: Fineness refers to fine, medium, and broad tips that define line thickness. The distinctions are rather self-explanatory from there. The more detail you’d like, the finer you need to go.
  • Elasticity: Designated as pressed, halfway, or lifted, this category refers to the flexibility of your brush. If you want a brush that holds its form well into a project, you’ll find yourself opting for elastic tips.
  • Ink Flow: Do you want your paper wet, medium, or dry? That’s the question when determining your brush’s flow. For a darker flow, wet is the way to go. Meanwhile, dry flow leaves lines that, at times, create exquisite gradations. To achieve a dark, yet slightly inconsistently-spaced line, a medium flow brush is the tool for the job.
  • Pigmentation: Though pigmentation categories are broken into gray, light black, and dark black, some calligraphers do use color. The more you want your work to stand out, the blacker your brush should be. If you need a more subdued, supporting element, go with gray.

Ink

Ink is key to conveying your work accurately. As you develop your personal style, ink becomes increasingly more important. Do you work with acrylic or water-based? Or, is oil your preferred method?

You’ll have access to different inks depending on whether you use fountain or dip pens. You’ll also need to consider the base of your ink. Do you prefer pigment- or dye-based? This choice goes hand in hand with the pen you choose to use. With cartridge pens, you gain more flexibility with your ink, thanks to converters. However, if your cartridge ink isn’t convertible, it’s best to use the ink recommended by your pen’s manufacturer. 

Paper

Don’t use regular paper in calligraphy. Choosing to do so almost assuredly results in bleeding. You want to select a higher quality paper that will retain its form and your ink. Picking paper for practice and for work will vary as well. Some are better for presentation and final products, but aren’t worth the cost if you’re just practicing,

Depending on your pen and other tools, you may notice your ink holding or feathering in some situations more than others. Artists sometimes find that a 70gsm piece of paper will bleed, while 80gsm or higher is better for retaining the form they desire. However, some designers adapt to their paper through diluting their ink. The choice is yours.

From Gabrielle Brickey's Skillshare class, "Start Drawing: Techniques for Pencil Portraits"
From Gabrielle Brickey’s Skillshare class, “Start Drawing: Techniques for Pencil Portraits”

Guides

Calligraphy can feed off of other art skills, too. For example, learning pencil sketching can improve your pressure skills when holding your pen or brush, and taking an illustration course can open your mind to the creative process in calligraphy.

Despite it being an important and often tricky medium, calligraphy is an art form you can learn. If you feel stuck, take a pause and learn from a different guide. The beauty of art is that you can make an example out of anything and apply it to your preferred style of art.  

Get Started with Calligraphy

Try your hand at the centuries-old practice of calligraphy with Bryn Chernoff’s Skillshare Original Introduction to Modern Calligraphy.

Tools for Hand Lettering

With the right tools and the desire to learn, you can learn hand letter fonts and letters in no time. Here’s what you’ll need.

Pens

Pens are one of hand lettering’s essential tools. They come in a variety of types and each serves a purpose. Some of the more common types include:

  • Felt: Felt pens are perfect for outlining and filling in fonts. Just don’t use felt tips when writing a letter—they’re not that kind of pen.
  • Nib: This is where hand lettering and calligraphy really cross over. You could spend years trying new nibs for different effects. From fine and refined to broad and bold, nib pens offer a plethora of options.
  • Brush: For more line versatility, choose a brush pen. With these, you can choose between hard and soft brushes. For more control, opt for harder brushes.
  • Flat: Flat pens work best for everyday use. If you’re in a pinch and need a writing tool, a flat pen will work. They also work well on text that requires noticeable font and letter differences.

Hand lettering works with a variety of other creative utensils, too. Some standard tools you may come across are:

  • Markers: You may not have realized it, but your earliest school days were introducing you to hand lettering. Use your Crayolas to get a basic understanding of the craft. From there, expand into more intricate markers. Some will contain dual uses for fun new projects, while others help create bold, fine lines.
  • Lead Holder: This is a multi-use tool that can extend well beyond its hand lettering usage. Learn how to craft everything from handmade invitations to font families. If you like mechanical pencils, this is the tool for you. Just remember to keep it sharp!

Paper

Your paper matters in any art form. With hand lettering, it’s particularly important. From its look to its touch, paper makes a significant difference. And just like in calligraphy, paper for work and practice will vary, just as will it depending on the project. When working in hand lettering, consider these options:

  • Sketching/Beginner Studies: When you’re starting out, the paper is less of a concern—it’s more about practicing and learning than perfection. Don’t worry about your paper unless you are working with certain pens, like a soft brush, that specifically require heavier, smoother paper. Laser paper from your standard printer should be suitable.
  • Grid Paper: Grid paper is excellent when you need an extra bit of guidance to create your typographic art, but it’s not the best paper for your final product.
  • Marker Pads: For an affordable way to stop ink bleeding, use a marker pad. Top quality marker paper provides you with the thickness needed to hold the ink, while leaving a smooth surface for your creation.

Some of the more reliable names in paper include Canson, Rhodia, and Fabriano.

Guides 

If you thought calligraphy offered outside the box options for learning, you’ll find even more choices with hand lettering. Since it is rooted in several styles that combine modern and classic elements, learners can gain helpful information from an array of classes. Here are a few.

There are many more guides out there to help you grow your skills. Find what intrigues you and apply it to your hand lettering lessons.

From Yasmine Creates' Skillshare class, "Pen and Ink Illustration: The Basics for Creating Magical Drawings"
From Yasmine Creates’ Skillshare class, “Pen and Ink Illustration: The Basics for Creating Magical Drawings”

Tools for Typography

Designing typefaces and fonts is intriguing to design experts and novices alike. Type design can be overwhelming if you don’t know where to start. It’s easy to get lost in the multiple programs needed to achieve the best website font possible, and there are many apps and programs on the market. So which works best for you?

Font Editing Software

To get started, you’ll need to choose your font editing software. Depending on your preference and budget, you can select a high-end option like FontLab Studio, or freeware like FontForge and Birdfont. The latter offer fewer features, but can generally achieve a similar end result.  

Some designers just use font designing software. In other cases, they opt for adding more programs to the process, preferring to have the ability to edit images (raster editing) and work with vector graphics (vector editing) that font editors don’t match up with. Here’s how to choose between vector and raster editing. 

Raster Editing Software

With raster, you’re usually working with larger files and bitmaps. The pixels in bitmaps make your files larger due to their high dots per inch (DPI). The industry standard for raster editing software is Adobe Photoshop. It’s a high-quality program for refining your font’s errors, just like it is for other imagery. You can even use Photoshop to do some vector editing, although this may not be the best idea for your designs. Only try it after you’ve gotten a good handle on the path tool.

If you need to keep costs low, GIMP is an excellent free option. It does most of the same work as Photoshop, but often comes with extra steps. You will sacrifice efficiency for cost here, but Gimp will still allow you to make the revisions needed for your work.  

Vector Editing Software

Vector editing programs offer you more options for creating fonts. Again, Adobe is the industry standard, and Illustrator provides several tools to create your works. To get started, explore some tutorials. Start with the basics of the shape builder and the pen and pencil tools. Then, explore more advanced topics. A free option that many beginners use is Inkscape.

In Illustrator, you can work with different types of typography in order to better understand text and display creations. Designers choose Illustrator because of its many tools, including useful features that update imported text documents into typography-ready texts and smart quotes. It helps streamline the process so you can focus on the real typography work.

There are plenty more options out there to consider. Some jobs may require you to know Adobe programs, so keep that in mind. But it never hurts to explore new and exciting technology that can help make your typographic art look its best.

Fonts and Typeface Packs

Fonts and typefaces are quite different, though the two words have become interchangeable in some circles. In reality, a font is a singular entity, such as Garamond Bold. Meanwhile, typefaces represent the families that individual fonts make up.  It’s important to have packs of both to achieve the look you want in your design. While most come at a price, you can get many for free. Some of the best sites to find free fonts are Dafont and FontSpace.

If you want to stay updated on the hottest designs in the field, you’ll need to pay the premium. While the free options listed above sometimes have similar styles to their paid counterparts, a designer can usually spot the difference. Each year, the design world praises hot newcomers as well as classic designs. Undeka, the modern sans serif font family, has received plenty of praise in recent years. Meanwhile, Tazugane Gothic is adored for its ability to blend modern and classic Japanese design in its work.

Analysis by Hongkiat found these 10 typefaces to be the most popular premium typefaces in the design community:

  1. Helvetica
  2. Gotham
  3. DIN
  4. Futura
  5. Neo Sans
  6. Adobe Caslon
  7. Skolar
  8. Kautiva
  9. Caecilia
  10. Fedra Sans

The most popular free typefaces were:

  1. Myriad Pro
  2. League Gothic
  3. Cabin
  4. Corbel
  5. Museo Slab
  6. Bebas Neue
  7. Ubuntu
  8. Lobster
  9. Franchise
  10. PT Serif

Explore these options. Then, consider breaking away from them—only you can determine which packs will influence your style and inspire your next typographic designs.

Other Useful Tools

In the beginning, there’s no need to buy everything. The following tools can certainly help your typography work, but they are far from mandatory.  

  • A tablet or convertible PC: Tablets allow for more mobility than a PC or laptop. As phones become better at design, some designers may opt for mobile instead of a tablet. However, don’t be fooled by mobility—a tablet’s larger screen makes a big difference when it comes to editing your creations. A good convertible PC also works. If you like to change up your workstation, this may be the best route for you. But if you prefer a traditional setup, this works as well. No matter which device you choose, make sure it’s high-powered and capable of the workload that comes with designing.
  • Digital Pencil or Stylus: Any tablet can benefit from a good stylus for designing. Today, digital pencils and styluses act as much like the real thing as anything we’ve ever used before. Now, the reaction time between your tool and the screen is mere milliseconds.

Today, the tools to learn calligraphy, typography, and hand lettering are more accessible than ever. With online classes, beginners and experts alike can learn about the art form as a whole or focus on specific facets. With persistence, becoming a master at your craft isn’t as far away as it once seemed.

Whether used for profit or for personal enjoyment, all three art forms are excellent choices. Designers are always in demand. With the ability to take a hand-lettered design into a program like Illustrator, you begin to build your professional credentials.

The personal benefits of this skillset are just as valuable. From lending us greater patience to sparking joy through self expression, art makes us better. So choose whichever medium speaks most to you. Start today by enrolling in online classes and assembling your pens and paper—beginners can find affordable kits at many craft stores. Begin your course of choice, go at your pace, and be sure that you understand each lesson before moving on.

In time, you’ll develop a deeper understanding and appreciation for these incredible art forms—and maybe discover more about yourself along the way.