Graffiti Lettering 101: Sketching Your First Piece | Rolandas Ivanauskas | Skillshare

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Graffiti Lettering 101: Sketching Your First Piece

teacher avatar Rolandas Ivanauskas, Graffiti Artist & Digital Generalist

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Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Watch this class and thousands more

Get unlimited access to every class
Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Lessons in This Class

10 Lessons (22m)
    • 1. Introduction

    • 2. Class project

    • 3. Basics of lettering

    • 4. Unifying elements

    • 5. Additonal elements

    • 6. Outlines

    • 7. Drop shadows/Dimmensions

    • 8. Colors

    • 9. Background

    • 10. Final Thoughts

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About This Class

In this class, I'll show you how in a few simple steps you can create your first Graffiti styled piece.

This class is for everyone who wants to create something new or simply explore traditional Graffiti techniques. 

Those who already have some experience in it should also find some insights into using a different style or just firming up their basics to improve their current works.

  • First I'll walk you through some basic tips and techniques for you to start working on your letters one by one.

 Like how to deconstruct letters to their basic form and manipulate them to make them look even more interesting.

  • Then how to gradually add elements that help join those letters together into one good looking piece that you would be proud to share with anyone.
  • As a bonus, I'll show you a few common graffiti background elements that you can draw inspiration from and make your lettering POP-OUT even more.

I’ll be using the Procreate® app on my iPad for this class to better illustrate all of the elements that can go into building your letters but feel free to use anything that is most comfortable for you to draw on.

Meet Your Teacher

Teacher Profile Image

Rolandas Ivanauskas

Graffiti Artist & Digital Generalist


I am a Graffiti artist from Lithuania.

I collected many bits and pieces throughout my career on
Graffiti styles and techniques that I would love to share it with you!

See full profile

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1. Introduction: Hi, My name is Rolandas. I'm a Graffiti artist from Lithuania. I've been mastering it for over 15 years now. When I started my journey, there were no curriculum for it. A big part of my learning process was spending numerous hours on the internet going through bunch of seemingly unrelated tutorials and just taking bits and pieces that I can adapt into my own work zone. I know how hard it can be to try to learn something as new as Graffiti. If you are asking yourself, why would you need to know how to do graffiti lettering? Let me just say that, Graffiti community is full of nice people and it's increasing popularity means more widespread opportunities for you to succeed in it, to fit again in numerous job opportunities and lifelong friends. Know that at least it can be that extra edge that you might need for your next project. Also, lets face it. Being able to draw even tiny bit of graffiti makes you look like 10 times cool. Worry no more, I'll try my best to help and guide you through your first steps. Since I said through steps, it's time to talk about what is waiting for you in this class. Your class project is to make fine graffiti lettering piece. For this class, I'll use in my iPad because it helps me make quick key adjustments efficiently, but please, feel free to use whatever you're most comfortable drawing with. To make all of this as easy as possible for beginners, you'll find handed templates to work and draw inspiration from in your project resource. I can't wait to see what you-all are going to come up with. Let's get started. 2. Class project: Hey, I'm happy to join you. Without further ado, let's go straight to your class project. You'll need to think about what, preferably between four to six letters long, that you want to use in your piece. It can be anything from someone's name to the neighborhood or city you grew up in. Quick tip, If what they want to write is too long, try to abbreviate it. Although your piece can be in any of graffiti styles, I'd love to see cohesive style lettering, so don't forget to add some repeating elements to help you achieve this. Your letter should have clear outline, and if you like to be a little bit extra, splash of color and some background elements would go a long way for this project. When you're ready, don't forget to post in the project gallery for everyone to enjoy. If you get stuck in any steps along the way, please don't forget to check handed templates that I left for you in project resource. I would be more than filled to give you some directional feedback to help you with. Now, grab your pen and paper, or graphic tablet over choice, and let's get sketching. 3. Basics of lettering: Let's look about basic graffiti lettering styles. Tag; simple handwritten lettering. Throw-ups; quickly drawn letter outlines with or without any fill. It looks empty with just the outline, so I'll add the drop shadow to make it somewhat more visually interesting. Don't worry, I'll show my techniques and drop shadows in the later stages. Next in our list, block buster. More of a geometric style lettering, maintains classic letter shapes. That's why it's usually the first style that is fairly easy to master. I'll draw a quick sketch to help you see the underlying structure. Now the outline, for this particular style, I think thicker outlines work best. Also drop shadow will give you an instant thickness. One of the reasons I prefer sketching on a tablet is that I can quickly make these decisions, and if I don't like something, I can just remove it instantly. But of course, nothing beats the feeling of pencil sliding on a paper, so just keep practicing and you'll get better at it. Next is bubble style. Letters look like conflated balloons, mostly made out of smooth curves. This one is my favorite style because it looks softer and more friendly than the others. It's easier to enjoy drawing it because of its fluidity and relatively simple construction. Wild Style; have complicated letters usually with lots of additional elements complementing overall structure and composition. It can be one of the most challenging and time-consuming styles to produce. I know it looks cool, but I wouldn't recommend starting on it unless you are determined to go all the way to the end and make a killer piece, because it's not only the added elements that make it look good. It's composition, how well your lines are executed, color balance, background elements, and proportions, just to name a few. The most important rule I would like you to follow is to have fun while doing it. Don't go too much over your head with making extremely detailed sketches just for the sake of it. I'd rather see you making more creative decisions with your interpretations. Either way, I'll be waiting for your progress charts in the project Gallery. So don't hesitate to ask anything. Now that you've seen fundamental graffiti styles, let's go to the letter building part. Because even though there are many different styles, the underlying principle in all of them is that your lettering needs to be legible. The basic principle of constructing the letter is to imagine each part of the letter to be made of planks that are arranged in different combinations. Letters like S, B, D, O, P have curves and letters like A, E, F, H, I have only straight lines. So to achieve the consistent look, you should draw them in similar fashion. For example, letter P is the same as the letter O, but just with one straight piece attached to it. If you're also a fan of softer looking letters, my personal favorite technique is what are called volume building technique. Use thicker brush to lay down the overall shape and later draw the outline on top of it. Don't worry about the outlines just now because I'll talk about it in more detail later down the line. The good overall shape is nice to have, but correct inner elements are almost every time what makes letters recognizable and legible. So pay close attention to them. Here, I'll draw a stylized version of an A. Now look what happens if we change the shape to more of a diamond, a square, or even an oval. The same outer shape that can be used for letter O, can be used for letter A and you still read them as total different letters. This means you can be more creative on your overall outer shape. One of the ways to achieve more interesting look is to distort the basic shapes. The easiest way is to grab warped transform tool and stretch it in different directions until you are happy with the result. We can already see what the difference makes and we haven't drawn anything else. Just move and stretch different parts of the letter. If you modify it with few additional elements, it's hard to imagine that these two came from the same structure. When you feel ready, add some more unifying elements that will help you connect individual letters into a whole word, the word that you chose for this project, or at least I hope you did. 4. Unifying elements: Great. You're still here. Let's talk about unifying elements. How to customize your letters to fit the style you're creating. I'll start by sketching out simple letter shape. I'll add just a few more letters so you could see the differences across the whole word. For my letters, I have used some wing-like shape on the upper serifs. Letter C in this example doesn't offer much flexibility in that regard. I'll draw some helping composition lines to keep my elements in the same order. I like to keep my main letter parts close to the baseline and give more space for the top of the letters to give that funky dynamic look to it. That also helps unifying proportions across the whole word without changing the underlying structure of the letters too much. Another technique that you can use to unifying your letters is to add a slight tilt to them and by maintaining that angle, you can create simple letters that look more interesting already. Just make sure to adjust your curves and straight lines to follow the guides. Another thing to pay attention to is that usually more curved letters should be a little bit larger than the straight ones because they take up less visual space with their curves and when cramped into the same space as the other ones, they look smaller. That's [inaudible] tip on how I keep them looking consistent across the whole word. Of course, if you repeat every element on every letter, it might start looking boring and unoriginal and since I said on the original, I jumped to the dazzling some classic additional elements on our lettering that you might have seen in most graffiti pieces these days. 5. Additonal elements: By this point, you should have drawn at least some of the letters, if not all, in your chosen work but if you're still looking for ideas on how to make her letters even cooler-looking before you go and attack the whole work, this should do the trick. Let me start by drawing stylized but simple shaped letters. The very first thing that's going to help your work look like a one solid piece is keeping the letters close together. Not close where you have every inner part of them intersecting but just close enough to keep them close and comfortable between each other. One of the most classic elements that you can add is arrows. We can also join them with additional connectors but just make sure that their structure is not overpowering the main shape of the letter. Next is another classic. By adding simple geometric shapes close to the letters, we can make it seem like it's just part of the letter and that were meant to have it in there since the beginning. They don't need to have any specific purpose but it always looks best if you use them to make your composition more interesting. Just by simply breaking the silhouette of the letters, we can make it look interesting enough even on the base structure but if you're anything like me, you would love to have meaning for most of the parts in your piece. We can imagine that this half of a circle is a hat for an A. A letter with a hat is always something that sounds cool to me. If your composition is still missing something, there's always an option to add some stars. I know it might sound cliche, but it's classic for a reason. Everyone can draw one and it looks great on every style. Last but not least, you're just adding and eroding pieces of the letter. In this example, I use more of an organic type of erosion, with some drips breaking the silhouette but you can make simple cracks or just plain geometric shapes intersecting with your geometry. Also, if you use that volume building technique that I showed earlier, it's twice as fast and requires less planning beforehand, which gives me 100 percent creativity boost in exploring overall composition and silhouettes of individual letters. In the end, just look at your overall composition and how individual letters fit in. Sometimes you come up with great chips, they don't need any support from additional elements, and other times you just feel like you need to cram as much of them as possible. Both of them are equally fine to make and, please, don't discourage yourself from using anything that works to achieve your vision. Next time we'll learn everything that you need to know about the outlets. It would be perfect for you to have your sketched out letters ready because the outline is usually the defining part of y our piece, so any changes would be difficult to make afterwards. 6. Outlines: Okay. So now it's time for us to work on the outline of our lettering. Two most common types of outlines are single width and [inaudible] width. Let's start with a single width outline. It works great on bold style as well as on blockbuster style lettering. It's defined by, you guessed it. It's having the same width across the whole word. So I would recommend using a wider pen or brush for this. It is great for when you have a classic clean look because all we have to do really is to try to keep it the same width. If you made a mistake along the way, make it wider on some parts, and don't worry yet because if it still looks good enough, you can make it wider on the rest of the piece and nobody will ever know that that's not what you intended. Make happy little accidents like some would say. Next, let's have a look on [inaudible] width outline. It's great when you want to give your letters even more dynamic look than they have already. You can use on in-styles that we talked about. That helps to emphasize some parts of the letters so that there some part of it that you love, you can add more weight to it by making a slightly wider outline in that area. Please note that it can be easily overused. So use it sparingly. Like I'm leaving bottom of this L here. It will compete with the bottom of the R. Because my R is partially obstructed by O, I want to give it more attention. You can finish it here. But if you are as clumsy as me, you can go around and clean some of those lines to give it even more emphasis by contrasting the narrow and wide parts of the letters and making those corners crisp. Now that we know how to make those outlines, let's jump into adding shadows and give your piece some dimension. 7. Drop shadows/Dimmensions: In this lesson, I'll show a few techniques on making shadows or adding dimensions to yours already well outlined piece. For me, drop shadow is the easiest choice and usually the quickest one so if you love your letters as they are now, that's great. Small drop shadow will add just another level of DDos DOPS and will definitely show that you gave them extra care. For some reason, you feel that you don't love your lettering, first, how dare you? All the letters are beautiful and should be loved equally. Second, by adding dementia state, you can make a composition stand out and that might be the last piece of a puzzle that you've been missing. To begin laying out drop shadows, site on where your light source is going to be. I'll do the classic option of having my light source going down from the top left on around 45 degrees angle. But drawing parallel lines, it can mark your guides from each corner, then just be the edge lines to connect them. Is just like an offset projection of your letter. Another great trick for those who work digitally, you can just duplicate your outline letter and upset it and only erase overlapping parts. Sometimes doing it too technically can give you boring result. For example, here, allow shadow under the buyer, but I would like to emphasize that part for instances, I'm breaking the rules just to make it look the way I want it and then graffiti, that's what matters. Knowing when to bend the rules to make yourself happy with the result. Now, let's go on and make a dimensions. There are two ways to draw dimensions, one is drawing parallel lines and another one is drawing them in perspective. Parallel lines work best with verbal block buster, while style, and in some cases even look good on forbes style lettering. Their ventures that are drawn in perspective on the underhand usually look cooler, but in my opinion, don't fit many styles because of the complex look it gives to your piece. It goes best with wild snow lettering and sometimes can work with block buster lettering. For parallel, you just need to draw parallel lines from the outer edge and then connect, similar to drop shadow but usually they're quite thicker, and have connecting lines all the way to the edge of the letter. To chief respect your look, you just need to have point at all of the lines would converge into, in this example, I pick the most common spot center. Now that you have your outline, you can give more definition to it by shading it in simple blocks, so just pick a side that would be lit and the all of the other ones should be filled to make an impression that there isn't a shadow on our dimensions. Music, more graphic approach so instead of smoothlful blending the shadow, I use alternating with lance to give feeling of gradation. You can simplify it or just have it filled in boldly. Tensors had bolding at Stanford, one of my favorite parts of the whole process, [inaudible]. 8. Colors: We're already at easily my favorite part of the whole process. Colors can be something you love or avoid at all costs, but there's no question that coloring can be the least constrained part of the whole process. Here you don't need to follow any rules of composition or maintaining sufficient ratios of repeating elements to the structure of your letters. For this lesson, I'll use my favorite style of lettering. I call it funky style letters, because they're a mix between the bubble and blockbuster styles and can be made into anything you want. I usually incorporate some character by replacing one of the most basic letter in the whole work. It gives me a lot of real estate to work with in terms of playing with coloring and doesn't take that much time to construct, which is a great recipe for fun. Let's start with the base color. While working digitally, it's quite easy to just use the outline as a reference and fill in the bars between them. But if you work with traditional media, give some time for your outline to dry out. Or even better, filling the colors before you're doing the final outline that way you won't get those nasty color bleeds that happen when you go over the already drawn outline. I usually pick some sort of a palette and work out what colors I'll be using for the fill and the background elements. I don't use every color inside the letters and then be left out to use same colors for the background. The key rule to follow is to have your colors in similar contrast. That way you won't create high contrast areas where they shouldn't be and the wide mass outline contrast as it should be the most contrasting element in your piece. For the more interesting fill-in options, there are few techniques that you can follow too. First is bubbles, dots and drips. The same way you have seen me use bubbles stands the shape of my letters, you can use them to fill-in. Secondly, use geometric shapes to break flat look on your letters. You can combine as many shapes as you want and in any orientation; just be aware that if you're working with more curved lettering, there might be some dissonance between the shape of the letter and the sharpened straits shapes inside of them. Total option is also my favorite. Gradients, it's not as easy as the other ones, but if you execute it well, it adds great level of polished work piece. Four-fifths is the one I use the most. It's patterns; I particularly love the zebra-like pattern as it has great level of graphic presence in the piece. If you choose your less contrasting colors, it can be that cellular detailing that brings your piece to another level. But of course, feel free to use any kind of pattern. Almost anything will work just fine. Another detail that you can add to your piece is semi-highlights. It's less contrasting highlights, usually made out of a slightly lighter shade on the base to give that cellular detailing. As you can see, by using a subtle color contrast values, and by not going overboard with detailing, I can incorporate almost all of the techniques mentioned and still maintain cohesive look. Now just to make your piece pop even more, we need to add some highlights. I'll use the same glide direction I used for my drop shadow. The key part of drawing the highlights is to pay attention to where your light sources and what edges it hits. So for example, now every edge that is closest to the light source should have a highlight on it. You can choose between thin outlines and more stylized ones, like I'm using. Of course, finish it by adding slight blinks it to make it extra fancy.Next super extra thing that you can make, and it doesn't work with every style, but it definitely works with mine is adding inner shadow to your letter to further define its volume. Judge this placement by having them on the opposite edge than the highlight. 9. Background: Our last lesson is going to be on backgrounds. This step is totally unnecessary if you're drawing it on the paper. On the graphics tablet, you already have a clean white background, which is fine for what we are trying to achieve now. But in fact, you might benefit from it if you become hooked on benefited the same way I am. Backgrounds are usually neglected by many artists, but it's that thing that shows how much you care about the whole look on your piece. Bad background can make your whole piece look unfinished. No matter how much detail you tell your lettering has. It's like wearing nice clothing, but putting on dirty shoes. Same as with coloring, we can go through some of the most popular background options that you can use as your guide. Once again, lets start with Bubbles. As you have seen already, it's one of the most versatile options to use because there is no defined shape. You can mold it to fit your composition easily. Another one of the most popular is Slime. It's just stretched out organic shapes that resembles slime and gives this interesting edgy look without being too geometrical. Also, it works best with letters that have bigger gaps between their elements. As you can see, I'm struggling to attach the slime to something in particular, so I have to make it go out into space around it. The great thing about it though, it looks good as additional drips on top of the outline and makes your piece immersed into the background. Any geometrical shapes will work just fine. But my most favorites are brick shaped rectangles. It also can be any other pattern that you fancy. In this same sense, I find beauty in it not being perfectly leveled and just being scattered around a piece instead of drawing a flat brick wall. Another benefit of making just a few cholesterol bricks is that it allows you to give them an outline and its own shadow, which on itself will give you another level of depth into a piece. Just remember not to use very contrasting colors so that it stays relatively as a background element and not the foreground. Last but not least, I'll show you the Classic cartoon explosion or splash technique. It will definitely bring dynamic look to your piece. It can be your best companion if you're going for a bigger impact. Layering the inside with lighter shades will give you that extra finished look. As before, you can mix a few techniques to give it that advanced Look. Some will work better than the others so pay attention to how it plays with your overall composition. I'll go again on some of the layers and try to make it fit my style better. I figured that this organic stretched splashes will work great with merged geometric shaped bricks. I also using the colors that I haven't used in my fill or at least different shades of it just to make it look that much more advanced coloring ways. Now that you have your background finished, one last detail that you can add is what's called secondary outline. As you might guess it, it's a second outline over the main outline and the shadows or dimensions. The key reason to use it is that it helps further separating slightly from the background layer and of course adds another dimension to it. One thing that you should pay attention to while drawing it is that the second outline should be thinner than the main outline so that the main outline would retain its dominance. Also, you might be tempted to draw it over the whole word, but unless you want to completely separate from your background, you'll be better by just drawing it in few key places where you have the busiest background interaction. That way, it will not only save the time and energy by not tracing the whole outline again, but you'll show further creativity by designing which areas to amplify and which ones to keep toned down. Because as I mentioned before, when everything screams for attention, you don't know where to focus really. 10. Final Thoughts: Congrats. By now, you should have your piece ready, embellished, and connected with additional elements. Colors, and either dimensions or drop shadows looking beneath. Of course, if you dot S01, let us see that effort you put in building your background. I would also like to see what those rebels who didn't follow all my advice adapted in their own way. If you enjoyed this class, I would like for me to create a more advanced class and graffiti like what paint to choose in what surfaces, or how to go about painting your piece on the actual wall, just let me know in the review step. Thanks and see you in your project gallery.