Interested in diving into brush lettering but don’t know where to begin? This guide on how to do brush lettering is perfect for beginners. We will explain what brush lettering is, show you the best brush letter pens, and provide you with step-by-step brush lettering tutorials so you can get started.
Here’s what we cover in this guide:
- What is brush lettering?
- The difference between calligraphy and brush lettering
- Supplies you’ll need for brush lettering
- Best brush lettering pens
- Best paper for brush lettering
- Brush lettering basics
- Letter anatomy
- How to start brush lettering
- Mastering basic strokes
- Forming letters
- Common mistakes in brush lettering
- Classes to take your skills to the next level
- Brush lettering artists on Instagram
What Is Brush Lettering?
Brush lettering is a type of calligraphy. However, unlike traditional calligraphy created with a pointed nib and ink, brush lettering is created with a brush pen (or sometimes a paintbrush) that features a flexible tip. That tip responds to varying levels of pressure, so you can achieve the signature thick and thin strokes of modern calligraphy.
How Long Does It Take to Learn Brush Lettering?
You can probably pick up the basics of brush lettering in just a day or so—but mastering the art form will likely take a few weeks to months of practice. The overall concepts of brush lettering are simple: thick downstrokes and thin upstrokes. However, applying those concepts to all the letters of the alphabet takes finesse and repetition. Our recommendation? Practice basic strokes, letters, and words for 20-30 minutes a day, and within several weeks, you’ll notice great improvement in your brush hand lettering.
What Is the Difference Between Brush Lettering and Calligraphy?
Both brush lettering and calligraphy are styles of artistically writing letters. However, brush lettering is different from traditional calligraphy in several ways, including the tools you use and the rules you follow. Calligraphy requires a traditional dip pen (or nib and nib holder), which can create stunning letterforms but can be tricky to master. Traditional calligraphy also follows fairly strict guidelines regarding spacing, the slant of the letters, and consistency.
Brush lettering offers a bit more flexibility and room for creativity. As mentioned above, you use a brush pen, paintbrush, or even a simple marker, which is generally easier to learn and control than a traditional calligraphy pen. Brush hand lettering also tends to be a bit more freeform; artists who use this style may opt for a more “bouncy” look, in which the letters don’t all rest on the same line or aren’t spaced out uniformly.
Supplies You’ll Need for Brush Lettering
Learning how to do brush lettering requires just two basic (and easy-to-find) tools: paper and pens. Below, we’ll outline the best brush letter pens and papers.
Best Brush Letter Pens
Brush lettering for beginners starts with making sure you have the right tools at your disposal. The type of brush or pen you use will have a huge impact on the quality of your designs. There are a ton of brush letter pens out there to choose from, but with the help of one of our top teachers, Peggy Dean, we’ve narrowed the selection down to the very best brush letter pens on the market.
Best Paper for Brush Lettering
While you can use nearly any type of paper for brush hand lettering, Peggy explains that quality does matter. With a smooth paper, your pen will glide more easily across the surface, allowing you to achieve a cleaner, more precise look. A paper with a rough texture can snag your pens and shorten their lifespan. For beginners, she recommends the following types of paper:
- HP Laser Jet Paper: Unlike inkjet paper (which contains tiny fibers that can snag your pen), laser jet paper is smooth and offers the ideal surface for brush lettering. It’s also inexpensive, which makes it perfect for brush lettering for beginners.
- Rhodia Paper Pads: These pads of paper not only include high-quality paper; they’re also available in four styles: plain, grid, lined, and dotted. These marks can act as guidelines for your lettering, so they’re especially helpful for novices.
Brush Lettering Basics
Now that you have the right supplies, you can get down to the nitty gritty of learning how to do brush lettering. Like any other skill, the key to developing a solid brush lettering career starts with strong foundations—which, in this case, is a firm understanding of letter anatomy.
Artists create fonts and letters by following guidelines—not figurative guidelines, but literal lines on the page that help you determine the dimensions of the letterforms. There are four major lines you can use to guide your designs.Four basic lines create the foundation for all letters in modern calligraphy.
Perhaps the most important of the guidelines, the baseline is where all the letters (both uppercase and lowercase) are supposed to sit.
Midline or X-Height
The midline (also called the median or the x-height) serves as the upper bound for your lowercase letters. So a lowercase x is drawn from the midline to the baseline.
Certain lowercase letters like g, y, and q have tails that fall below the baseline. The line that those tails extend to is called the descender.
This line is the upper bound for lowercase letters that have extensions above the midline. Examples of letters that reach the ascender are h, b, and f. Many artists also use this line as the top limit for uppercase letters, although some use an extra “caps height” line, which falls just below the ascender.
How to Start Brush Lettering
Step 1: Master Basic Strokes
Congrats! You’re officially a letter anatomy pro. Now that you know your ascenders from your descenders, we can get down to the fun part: the actual brush lettering. Most letterforms that you’ll create with your brush pen will be composed of one of these 10 basic strokes. The first step toward learning brush lettering is to practice these strokes as much as you can. Repetition of these basic strokes will quickly lead to a mastery of all types of letterforms.
To get the best results, hold the brush pen at a 45-degree angle.
The downstroke and upstroke are the atomic units of brush lettering. These are the two basic strokes on which all other strokes are formed. The downstrokes are your thicker strokes; they’re where you apply additional pressure to your pen.
To master this critical stroke, practice repeating downstrokes, each extending from the ascender to the descender. Practice downstrokes that are completely vertical, as well as some that are at a bit of an angle. Make sure to get a feel for the pen too, as each brush pen will make downstrokes differently and require a different amount of pressure.
The upstroke, on the other hand, is your thinner stroke. You should apply a minimal amount of pressure to the brush pen, with the tip only grazing the paper. Your hairline upstrokes should contrast heavily with your thicker downstrokes. Practice your upstrokes straight up from the descender to the ascender, and then practice some that are at a bit of an angle.
The next basic brush stroke that you should become comfortable with is the entry stroke. It’s a light upstroke with an added curve. The entry stroke will lead up into many of your letters. The ideal entry stroke will curve up from the baseline and land at the midline.
The next brush stroke on your list is the underturn, a u-shaped stroke that transitions from a thick downstroke to a thin upstroke. It’s important that you apply enough pressure on the downstroke to create the thick part of the underturn, and then ease up the pressure on the upstroke to create the thinner part. Transitioning pressure without lifting your pen is a pivotal skill to develop as you learn more about brush lettering.
The overturn stroke is the Jenny to the underturn’s Forrest Gump. The overturn is the shape of a lowercase n and starts off with a lightly applied upstroke. Then it transitions back down into a thicker downstroke. Again, being able to transition pressure across a letterform will come in handy countless times as you work on becoming a brush lettering expert.
Compound Curve 1: Thin, Thick, Thin
The next two strokes we’ll be looking at are the compound curves. The first compound curve is an overturn transitioning into an underturn. You’ll start with a super thin upstroke, transitioning to a thicker downstroke, and then lifting the pressure again to create an upstroke.
Compound Curve 2: Thick, Thin, Thick
This next curve is basically the inverse of the first compound curve. It’s an underturn curve transitioning into an overturn. You’ll start with a super thick downstroke, laying off the pressure to create a thin upstroke, and then coming back with another downstroke.
Source for photos: Brush Lettering: The Beginner’s Guide, by Peggy Dean
Your oval will serve as the foundation for many letters, including the lowercase o, a, and d. Think of this shape within a square framework: Start with a slightly curved upstroke near the upper right corner, curve downward to the left, and then create a light upstroke connecting everything together. To give yourself some more space, try practicing these ovals from the midline to the descender.
Ascender Loop Stem
This ascender loop stem is a basic stroke that you’ll use a lot in your lowercase letters—specifically ones that have an ascending tail (like b or d). Start on the right side with an upstroke loop, and then curve around with a thick downstroke on the left to close the loop. This stroke should extend from the baseline to the ascender line.
Descender Loop Stem
The last of the basic strokes, the descender loop stem, is mainly used for letters with descending tails—like a lowercase g, y, or j. Again, start on the right side, this time beginning with a downstroke from the midline. Then loop around, transitioning at the descender to an airy upstroke, finally closing the loop.
Learn the Fundamentals of Basic Brush Strokes
Brush Lettering: The Beginner’s Guide With Peggy Dean
Step 2: Form Letters
Once you’ve mastered these different strokes, your next step is combining them to create letterforms. There are no hard and fast rules for forming letters, but there are a couple of principles that can help point you in the right direction, especially as as a beginner.
Drawing your guidelines before you actually start brushing any letters will help ensure your letterforms are consistent. It will create a visual framework for you to work within. We suggest drawing your guidelines with a pencil so you’ll be able to erase them once your words or phases are complete.
As far as where exactly to begin, our instructors offer a couple of potential techniques.
Technique 1: Start with an i
Skillshare instructor Carmel Wilson recommends starting with the letter i, as it’s the most basic of the letters and can usually be created with a single stroke.
In the class Brush Lettering Essentials: Starting Out, Carmel demonstrates how you can then use that i as the foundation to create other letters. For instance, an m is essentially three i’s connected by two upstrokes. It’s important to think about your letters in relation to each other so your lettering looks consistent. Working from there, you’ll soon be able to create an entire calligraphy alphabet.
Technique 2: Trace Over Existing Alphabets
When you’re first starting out, it can be helpful to find some existing brush lettering alphabets and trace over them. If you go this route, consider investing in a lightbox, which can aid in tracing different letterform designs. Eventually, if you trace these alphabets often enough, the brush motions will root themselves in your muscle memory, and you’ll be able to incorporate the letterforms into your original projects.
Common Mistakes in Brush Lettering
Mastering the art of brush lettering takes practice. Being aware of some of the most common brush lettering mistakes can help you avoid the pitfalls that can get you off track.
Mistake #1: Being Afraid to Pick Up the Pen Between Letters
Because brush lettering often looks like a fancier version of cursive writing, you may be tempted to try to connect all your letters without picking up the pen. However, if you watch any of our instructors write out words or phrases, you’ll see that they typically pick up the pen quite often in between letters. This gives you the opportunity to reset, visualize the next letter, and move on when you’re ready.
Mistake #2: Using the Wrong Paper
Earlier, we explained that using smooth paper can help you achieve optimal brush lettering results. If you use whatever you have on hand—a notebook, inkjet paper, construction paper, or any other paper with a rough surface—you can make your markers fray or dry up faster than they would otherwise. And, your letters probably won’t look as crisp and clean as they would on smoother paper. To avoid unnecessary frustration, make sure you have the right type of paper on hand.
Mistake #3: Getting Frustrated and Giving Up
Picking up any new skill can be frustrating—especially if you don’t master it immediately. Learning brush lettering takes time, patience, and repetition. If a letter or word doesn’t look quite right, try again! Repeat your basic strokes over and over until they feel like second nature. Eventually, it will click and you’ll begin to build more confidence in your skill.
Classes to Take Your Skills to the Next Level
To really dig into the basics and practice with a pro in real time, we recommend that you check out some Skillshare classes. The following brush lettering tutorials are taught by brush lettering experts who know the art form inside and out. They’ll show step-by-step instructions for both how to draw basic strokes and more advanced techniques, and many of the classes come with helpful worksheets to guide you through drills and brush lettering practice alphabets.
An Online Skillshare Class by Peggy Dean
This comprehensive, 49-minute class goes through choosing a brush pen, creating basic strokes, and even designing a project. While Peggy makes brush lettering look easy, she understands how to explain the basic concepts and guide you through the practice it takes to develop your skill.
Peggy’s class also provides students with an extensive brush pen guide along with three basic strokes practice sheets that include pre-printed guidelines. You’ll also get access to a folder full of straight and slanted practice guides that are integral for any beginner.
An Online Skillshare Class by Carmel Wilson
Carmel Wilson’s informative class walks you through the tools you need for brush lettering, how to warm up, why the guidelines are so important, the letters and their relationships within an alphabet, and how to custom brush letter a quote.
Carmel’s class features a basic strokes worksheet, as well as a traceable brush lettering alphabet. In addition, you’ll receive a supply list featuring brush pens, microns and fineliners, and other basic brush lettering accessories.
An Online Skillshare Class by Andrea Campos
This accessible, 28-minute class really nails down the basics. Even in a relatively short amount of time, Andrea Campos icovers a lot of ground: how to get comfortable with your brush pens, why guidelines are so important when starting out, how to draw letters correctly, and when (and how) to break the rules.
Brush Lettering Artists on Instagram
Instagram is the perfect platform for artists to showcase their brush lettering work. Follow a few of the artists below, and you’ll find daily inspiration in your feed. What better way to motivate yourself to pull out your brush pens and start practicing?
Take Your Brush Lettering to the Next Level—With Color
Lettering in Color: Colorful Brush Lettering with Fudenosuke Colors with Kiley Bennett