Decorative Letterforms: Creating a Hand-Drawn Alphabet | Annica Lydenberg | Skillshare

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Decorative Letterforms: Creating a Hand-Drawn Alphabet

teacher avatar Annica Lydenberg, Bad Ass Typographer

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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

    • 1.



    • 2.



    • 3.

      Project Introduction


    • 4.

      Sketching Concepts


    • 5.

      Adapting Icy Caps


    • 6.

      Adapting Sweaty Font


    • 7.

      Tracing, Scanning, and Digitizing


    • 8.

      Working with Icy Caps


    • 9.

      Working with Sweaty Letters


    • 10.

      Working with Vintage Letters


    • 11.

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About This Class

Learn to create a decorative, hand-lettered alphabet by exploring the basic forms, shapes and rules of a letterform. You will follow along with lettering artist Annica Lyndenberg's lettering process, examining letterforms and their foundational basics while using that to inform your own unique alphabet. You will create a decorative alphabet poster, weaving a theme into your letterforms by applying flourishes and style to your work. Let's get lettering!

Meet Your Teacher

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Annica Lydenberg

Bad Ass Typographer


Dirty Bandits is a Brooklyn-based design firm specializing it typography, lettering and illustration run by Annica Lydenberg. Work done by Dirty Bandits is fueled by Annica’s deep obsession with type. Annica is a designer, illustrator, typographer and artist.

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Level: Beginner

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1. Trailer: Hi. My name is Annica Lydenberg. I'm a lettering artist based in Brooklyn in San Francisco. I do work under the name "Dirty Bandits", and have for many years. During this class, which is "Decorative Letterforms: Creating a Hand-Drawn Alphabet", we're going to go over different methods of creating hand-drawn letters and really giving them their own unique personality and style. The idea in this class is to really make it your own. So all of the letter forms are going to be hand-drawn, and this will really help you understand better how the letters are created when you're forced to do it by hand, and there's something about the personality and the familiarity that you find in hand drawn lettering that really appeals to me. That is a great thing to explore. 2. Introduction: I've been into lettering for as long as I can remember. I've always made signs around the house. My first job was working in a bakery, and all I ever wanted to do when I went in was make signs for them. So, I started doing a lot more personal projects with whatever extra time I could possibly find. The first project that I did was a calendar of silly holidays. I was not raised religiously at all, and so I wanted to make a calendar of holidays that everyone could celebrate. This was my first calendar that I did. January ninth was Clean Off Your Desk Day. We had National Pet Oral Health Month. So, for this one, I started doing little bite marks out of the letters and just playing around with a bunch of different styles. I was riffing off of some script stuff using noodles. This project really took me a tremendous amount of time the first time I did it, both to draw and to print, but I really had fun with this. I started doing, you can see June is in his spots there. So, I had so much fun doing this. I decided I would do this every year. I really enjoyed making letter forms out of various items, and not necessarily traditional letter forms. Then, some of them were more just a style that I would tend to write in whenever given the opportunity. So, every year, I started doing this, and it became an item that then I started selling, as well as something that I would send out to clients if I had any particularly special clients. It was really great way to have a promo piece that reminded people that you exist and reminded people what you were doing. What was really nice about working on the calendars was that each month then had a theme that I would start playing with. So, I was exploring both styles of lettering that I was interested in, as well as different themes that would inform how those letter forms took shape. It was also great to work in a series. I would highly recommend that anyone work in a series whenever possible. It gives you an opportunity to show some depth to your work, which is really nice, and also to push yourself further than maybe you would if you only had to do one or two of something. If you're forced to do 12, you need 12 different styles in there. So, you're really looking at a lot of different places, and some of them are going to be more traditional and some of them are going to be Super Wacky. This was the first time I also started a program at Cooper Union in typeface design. So, I actually started using my own typefaces in this, which is something I had never been able to do before. So, you'll see the February, 2012 is done in the typeface that I created at Cooper Union. So, that's it from my calendars. 3. Project Introduction: For this project, we're going to be working from some more traditional typefaces, and then giving them a total life of their own and a personality of their own based on some other theme that you choose. With this project specifically, I would suggest that you start with something that's quite simple in order to give it as much personality as you can, that comes from you and not necessarily from what's already been designed into the letter. The way that I look for inspiration for any project depends entirely on what the final product is and what style that I'm going for. Something that I tend to look to a great deal is photos that I've taken on my phone. So, it could be every place I go, I'm always snapping pictures of signage that I really like, lettering that appears in weird places that I wasn't expecting to see. So, I would suggest that you start with something that's quite simple. There's going to be a list provided of various typefaces that you can look at. I'm going to make three different alphabets during the course of this class, and you'll see all sorts of different techniques. You'll see using pencil, you'll see using pen, you'll see coloring by hand, and you'll see coloring on the computer. Any of these are options for you wherever you feel most comfortable is where you can end up, but I would encourage you to play with each style before you commit to doing it for your whole alphabet. In this class, I'm going to focus a lot on legibility of letters, which isn't something that you need to necessarily incorporate and everything that you do. But, I will be touching on proper weight distribution, where serifs go, things like that, when it comes to doing your letters. By no means do you need to stick by this, but this will be some sort of guide that will be provided to you, so that you're paying a little bit of attention to how a typeface actually functions. 4. Sketching Concepts: I'm going to start off by first drawing a whole mess of different A's. I'm going to look at different styles and different forms, and really have some fun and play around. So, I've started off by printing out a couple of sample alphabets to look at. I use these in order to reference proper letterforms. You can start with the full alphabet if you want. If you are more confident in your lettering and your understanding of typography and you would prefer to start with some other sample that you've found, that's totally fine, it's completely up to you. There are a number of alphabets that I would suggest, that are very simple and you can find those in the resources section. I've started off here with a copy of Avenir, Lubalin Graff and Cheltenham. I don't know if I said any of those right, because I mostly just read them. I'm just going to start thinking about whatever it is that's going on with me, that I'm interested in, that I'm drawn to these days, things that I've seen recently, or anything that I've just always been obsessed with. I'm just going to start sketching letters. After this, I'll go through. I'll review which ones I really am feeling, which ones were the most fun to execute and then I'll begin doing the full alphabet based off of that. But first is just playing time and we're just going to do a bunch of sketching. So, I always start off sketching on graph paper. Ultimately, I end up retracing everything later. So, I'm not worried about the grid showing up or anything like that, with my sketches. The graph paper allows me to keep proportions, it allows me to maintain a baseline and a cap height. It's really incredibly helpful. So, starting off, I'm just going to sketch out first what the rough shape of my letter is. I'm going to be looking at these a little bit. Some of it is from my head, some of it comes from here. But let's say I'm going to start off with an A. Maybe I want to do something, it's not something that I have printed out, but maybe I want to do a bifurcated Taskin, which means the serifs at the end split. Then, you get this fun, circusy vibe. I'm not worried about going over lines over and over again. Things can start off really late until I know where they're headed, and then I go back in and draw over them. Everything ultimately can look a little messy at this stage and that's fine. I love icy caps. This is really fun alphabet to work with. Then, I like the idea of doing the frozen letters, and then we also have the sweaty melty letters. Then this type of signage is just something that I truly enjoy and it's got a lot of different elements going on here. So, I think this one might be fun to work with too. So, I think these are the three that we're going to work with moving forward. So, I'd love for you to take some time and actually go through and sketch a number of original letterforms. You can look at whatever reference you want, but the idea here is just to get yourself warmed up and ready to go. Once you feel like you're in a groove, you can go through and start to select which ones you want to move forward with. 5. Adapting Icy Caps: The first alphabet, I'm going to start sketching out is my icy caps alphabet and for this, I'm using Avenir as my reference. So, I've got my reference here and I'm going to look at it from time to time when I need a little bit of help figuring out anything about the letter forms, but it's really just a guide and I would recommend you really draw the letters yourself. You'll get your own personality in there, you may choose to do some things differently and that can be pretty fun. That's really nice working with the graph paper because you're able to be consistent. I'm sketching it now, just the the basic forms of these letters and I'm going to start to go in and decorate them a little bit. So, with these, I want some piles of snow on the top and I'm going to think about how snow actually sits and how would it sit on top of this physical letter if it were in front of me. Where would it pile up all these little corners? You're going to try and make sure it's not gravity defying snow. Then, let's start to get some icicles hanging off of the edges, maybe have some icicles coming off the bottom of the letters, some smaller ones, but we want anything too big on the bottom since this is going to be fitting together in a poster. I can't have them crashing into other letters. So, more piles of snow and I'm not going to worry anything about erasing parts of the letters in there. Everything is going to stay as is because ultimately I'm going to be redrawing this. Now at this node, I feel almost like it's been piling up there. So, what I did in these first three letters was, I established an overall width and made sure that they all are looking like they're part of the same typeface. The diagonals are going to count out to be a few more squares wide at the bottom than the verticals are. That's simply because when you take something and you want it to be the same width when you turn it sideways, it occupies a little bit more of a footprint. When we do round letters that hit the cap height and the baseline, there's something called overshoot where they go a little bit over. When you're working on the B the top bowl is a little bit smaller than the bottom bowl. It's always really nice to use math and the grid as much as you possibly can but ultimately optical should trump logical. 6. Adapting Sweaty Font: So now I'm going to go on and I'm going to do another alphabet. For this one, I'm going to use a different typeface, the typeface that I've chosen for this one has Serifs and it also has a lot more thicks and thins. So, there'll be a couple other things that I'll point out in terms of the letterforms that you didn't see on the last alphabet. Alright. So now I've got basic outline of where my forms are, I'm going to draw my decorative letter over this, and I want something that's pretty blobby, and I'm going to think about how water would be sliding down the sides of this, how it would pool together to drip at the bottom. Maybe there's some dripping off of the crossbar too. So, I'm really going outside of where the letter form is because I really want this to feel like the letter has been covered in something. So, I'm not concerned at all about having straight lines because I want the letter to look covered in something. I'm going to add my little trip marks coming out of here, and maybe I'm going to go in and put some highlights. I'm going to try and keep it a little bit consistent, if I think about putting highlights on these letters. I've decided my light source is here. So, it's going to hit on this side and this side and this side. That consistency can help as you put together your whole alphabet try and make sure that you always got your light source coming from the same place for all of the letters. It helps make it look a little bit more continuous. For these you'll see that I've tried to keep the weights of the thicks consistent as well as the weights of the thins, and no place do I want thins to get two small especially not compared to the serifs. I really enjoyed this typeface how chunky the serifs are on these. So, I've beefed them up even more with lots of drips coming off of them. With the K, diagonals can get a little tough, and it's important to think about where the weight goes, and in the diagonals you'll see in the A it goes on a downstroke. If you think about what it would be like to draw all of these letters with their original tool whenever you're pushing up, it's going to be thin and wherever you're pushing down it's going to be thick. That's generally true of calligraphy, and it's also true in these letterforms. So, the only place that gets kind of confusing is with the K. So, generally the weight falls in the K in the bottom line here, but I didn't like just how thick this was getting. So, in mine I actually had that cut in. K's and R's do some interesting things. So that's something you can be mindful of while you're working on this alphabet. You'll see again in the U, the V, the W, you'll see with all of these where you're pulling down with the pen it's thick and when you're pushing up it's thin. So, the downstroke on the U is thick and the upstroke is thin, same thing with the V and the W. So, some people will draw the W heavy on this side and side with the middle part thin. I've also seen that on Ms, and well you are free to do whatever you please with the weights of your letters. If you can't figure out why something doesn't quite look right it, might be that the weight is in the wrong place and so you can try playing around with it in different ways. There are certain styles of letters where I always do thick, thick and then thin, particularly if I want to do like a tattoo style letter. I really like doing my Ms, like that and doing something playful in the middle. But, for the purposes of this, I wanted to stay truer to the weight distribution in this alphabet and so that's what I've kept. You'll notice the same thing with the Y and the X. Now the X is interesting and something that I've exaggerated a bit here, is that it doesn't need to be two perfect strokes that cross, it just needs to be two perfect diagonals. I actually break this stroke of the X into two pieces. So, the weight falls and the stroke that goes from left down to right, and then this stroke I've broken up. That's really nice when you're doing really heavy letters and you don't want it to get really just super heavy and filled in, like it can close up that space. But if you break it, and you pull this guy out, and you pull this guy out, you can free up a little bit more space in there, it is not the best thing in the world. Then again with the Z, you'll see with the S and the Z there's a diagonal in there and the weight falls in the diagonal. Now would be a great time if you want to go ahead and scan in and upload to share the progress that you've made so far in your alphabet. It would be awesome to see full sketches of all of your letterforms. 7. Tracing, Scanning, and Digitizing: What I did next after I was done with my pencil sketches is I scanned everything in and I actually blew things up a little bit larger. So, when I create the final artwork, I have something larger to work with. I can get tighter corners, I can get better control over what's happening, and then my artwork can be used much larger ultimately in the end. I really enjoy working on a light table. I think it makes a huge difference for me and I can use different kinds of paper and I'm not stuck using tracing paper, which doesn't always have texture that I wanted to have. Sometimes I use regular printer paper, sometimes I use marker paper, depending on what type of tool I'm going to be using. For each alphabet, I've used different pens. I use a lot of sharpies, and I really enjoy some of these pilot jilted pens, those are really nice and of course microns. I have a bunch of different sizes and I'll tend to print out my work larger than what the final product is going to be so that you don't see quite as much in terms of the edges when I shrink it down. So, if I'm going to be filling in, if I'm going to be tracing something that I'm going to use as a fill, I'm not worried about what the inside edge looks like. All that I care about is the outside edge, the letters. One thing that I've found if you do want to create straight lines and since you're doing a hand-drawn typeface, it's really not necessary that they be straight. But if you want to do straight lines, something that I found helps a lot, is not to move your hand a whole bunch. I mean not to move your fingers a whole bunch to move your entire hand. So, I will move my arm to drag my hand down the page while I'm not changing the angle that my pen is at. This is something that happened for me when I started doing sign painting, is that you keep your brush held at the same angle and you move your arm. So, because this letter is just going to be a solid film, these overlaps can happen, I don't need to stop and then continue there. This is fine the way it is. It also helps with the counter forms if you have them connected, so that when you go in and delete shapes, you don't need to knock this shape out of the larger shape. So, on a separate piece of paper, I'm going to be doing the snow and I'm also going to be doing the icicles and both these will be separate pieces for my final. When I combine them, they're all going to be treated differently or they might be different colors. So, I want to have as much flexibility as possible. A quick trick that I found when doing multiple layers for letters is that I will label it before I go through and do the embellishments otherwise it's really hard to figure out what snow cap goes with what letter. I'm using a slightly finer pen for this, in case I decide I want to keep this outline. But I think ultimately it's still going to be a fill. I'm going to use this thinner pen again when I do the icicles. At this point, it's important that you decide how you want your final execution to go. Do you want to use pencil sketches? Do you want to have solid fills that are done in Illustrator, do you want to have texture in there? It's important to decide now how you want to be able to use the letters. So, for the icecap alphabet, I decided that I would like to have the letters be solid fills. I wanted the snow to be a solid fill as well, and then I wanted the icicles to simply be outlines. First I went through, and I trace just the fills of the letters on my light table. Then I went through and I traced just the snow caps, and these I went through and labeled which letter was which so that after I scan them in, I can reassemble everything quickly and easily without too much struggle. The last thing I did was the all of the icicles. The next alphabet I decided I wanted to do something a bit different. So, for my sweaty letters, I really wanted to have this solid outline. When I traced it, I used a thin pen and I did not join any of my counter forms with the outlines. That's something I'll have to handle later in Illustrator. I was able to do the highlights on the same tracing, because they're not touching anything, and they can be easily turned into two separate colors. Everything that I did with these I trace both the icecap and the drippy letters, I traced with markers because I would like to bring them into Illustrator and color everything in Illustrator. For my last alphabet, for the vintage neon lettering, I wanted to do something a little bit different. I wanted a lot more texture in there and I wanted it to have a slightly grittier feel and less, I didn't want to speak quite as graphic. So, with these, I did my tracing with pencil, and not only did I do my tracing with pencil, I also used pencil to do all of the shading that you see in the outside of what would be the metal letter form. I will later go in and do all of my coloring for this in Photoshop, simply by drawing directly in Photoshop using the pen tool. 8. Working with Icy Caps: The Icy Caps alphabet. I have all of my scans that I have CocoaPod traced. I have all of my labels here which indicate which layer or which letter all of these things correspond with. So, I've labeled all of my files icicles, snow. Somewhere must be actual letters. Here we go. First things first, I will bring in all of my letters. So, I have my 11x17 and I have my grid. As I bring in these letters, I will change the angle and change the spacing. I may increase the size of everything slightly, but just to show you guys how this works with the counter forms. These are going to be a lot easier using the direct select tool. We hit Delete twice, and you get the whole fill onwards. So, because I have these lines that connect the counter forms to the outside edge of the letter, I don't need to do what I did with the last alphabet where I had to use the Pathfinder in order to delete this basis. I'm going to get all of my letters in here once I get them on the grid and we have them all set up. I get all my letters in place. Here they are in my grid, and this grid is really just a guideline that you can choose to ignore as you please. For me, it was more important to keep this spacing in-between the letters the same rather than to have each letter fit perfectly within each box. So, with some, you'll see they fit nicely, but with other lines, I felt that it was important to bring them in, and you can treat them however you see most fit. When I redrew these letters I, actually redrew two versions of them because I knew that I wanted to have a drop shade on here, and I didn't want the drop shade to be an exact duplication of the letters that were already there. Any chance that I have that I can draw something a second time, I will always take that. It gives me more practice and it gives the final piece a little bit more life. So, here is my first alphabet and my second alphabet, and so I'm using one for the drop shade and one for the letters themselves. Sometimes, I find that when I bring stuff in from CocoaPod trace, there are a excessive number of points on here. So, occasionally, I will select everything and go to Path and simplify. With these two sliders pushed all the way over to the end on preview, you can still see just how many points it can take care of without actually losing much of the continuity of the letters. So I'm going to go ahead and do that. Then I'm going to bring in all of my snow, and I may bring these in just a couple at a time. Pick a new layer and lock everything else underneath it so that it's easy to see to move these around. So, I'm going to do the same thing again. Use the direct select tool and delete out the insides of all of these ones. If you ever get anything done pretty good about closing these forms, but you never get anything where the form itself isn't completely closed, so if it's to give you an example, now there's a little space here where you hadn't quite connected your pen marks. What I prefer to use is this tool here, and just like a blob and it automatically connects those guys. So, it's a quick easy way to not having to draw another shape and then use the merge with Pathfinder. It's just a quicker way to get that, that little bit filled in that needs to be filled in. After I add in my snow everywhere, change the color to white. Turn off my grid. Now all I need are my icicles. I've placed all of my icicles in. I may want to move them around and adjust them slightly. I want to pay attention to where they hit on the letters and the drop shade, and I really like these tiny icicles hanging off the bottom. This alphabet like the last one feels like maybe it needs a little something extra. So, I went ahead and I drew a little penguin friend to go in here and make some room for him down here, and now it's feeling a little bit more complete to me. 9. Working with Sweaty Letters: I went through and scanned in all of my pen drives. Sometimes, I'll go through and I'll open stuff up in Photoshop first, and mess with the levels there before I worry about having stuff traced and brought into Illustrator. We'll see how these go without doing that. I prefer to use a program called Cocoapotrace, which does essentially the same function as Live Trace. I've simply been using it for a long time and I quite like the way it works, so I just tend to do this. Another option is that you simply use Live Trace. If you are interested in trying this program, it is free. You can find it online. I believe it comes from a Japanese website so you might not understand much on the website, but you are in the right place. Look for something that looks like a link and download it. You can find a link to it in the resources section. So, all you do is you drag the scan on one side, and I have always left this with the default settings. I'm sure there's much more you could do with it but the default settings usually work fine for me. Then you save it as an eps file and you can open it right up in Illustrator. So, I'm going to save these, and I've actually already saved them all. So, here we have all of my eps files. We'll open up in Illustrator. When you bring everything in, it's already grouped together. So I just tend to ungroup it, and we can work on laying all of this out on my little grid. I go through here, and I'm just going to copy and paste all of these into here. I may end up scaling these up. This next line, it's going to have all five of these. Once I have everything laid out in my grid, I then am going to go through and create the fill layer for all of these. So, the easiest way that I've found to do this, is simply to duplicate this layer and then I'm going to turn it off. I no longer need my grid. Using the direct selection tool, I click once on a point on the outside edge of the stroke that I want to delete. When you hit delete twice, you end up getting the fill shape, and what you'll see here is that you end up with two shapes that you'll have to go through and use the Pathfinder in order to knock that out. I'll do that, all of the letters with counter forms. Here I group them together, and then I knock them out. Once I have my fill layer, I then can play around with whether or not I want it to be directly underneath the outline. Might be kind of a nice to offset it slightly, maybe that's too much. But this sort of gives a nice screen printing effect which might be kind of fun. All of the small fills, I've gone in and deleted the inside part and colored those white. So, here we have our sweaty, drippy letters. There may be some things that I want to go in and move slightly now that I've shifted the fill. One thing that this might be missing is just one element that's a little bit different, that's a little bit fun, that helps define what this alphabet is about more. So, something like the I or the O are very easy letters to swap in or out some other element. Anything that is straight can be the I or anything round could be the O. So, I might want to have a life preserver in here, or a beach ball in here. And, in fact, I think this alphabet really needs a little beach ball in there. 10. Working with Vintage Letters: The first thing that I did after I scanned in my alphabet was I laid it out on a grid in Photoshop. And you'll see. Here is my grid which is provided in the resources section if you want to use this as a guideline, but you certainly don't need to. So, here are all my letters. I applied levels using an adjustment layer. This way I can always go back and move things around and I don't have to worry about maintaining the integrity of the original scan. After I did the adjustment layer, I then selected all, copied everything, made a new layer, and paste to that there, and then I went in. I'm just using the one tool with a tolerance of two because I really only wanted to get the white. I went ahead and I deleted all of this, so I would have just the letters themselves. So, now I'm going to turn off my original scan and put in a background so I can see what's going. Then you'll see the counter forms still all have white in them. So, I went through and deleted everything from the counter forms. I duplicate this layer, and I'm going to lock it and I'm going to fill it with this background color. Something a little bit darker than this, not too much darker. Then the layer with my alphabet on it, I'm going to multiply. So, now I have these letters on a separate color from the background. I'm going to duplicate this back layer again and move that down in to the right. Because the 3D on my letters is going down into the left, I'd like the shadow underneath it to be doing something slightly different. I'm going to fill it, send it behind that one. I'm going to knock back the color. I'm really liking what's going on here, but the letters themselves still need a little bit more. So, the next thing I did was I went through and I created a single layer, put the color for all of the highlights. Because I did this in a different version, it's slightly off. Then I went through and I did another darker color for the outside edge. So, you'll see what happened on each of these letters is the inside edge which was lighter and my pencil drawing I did with a lighter shade of this turquoise, and then the outside edge I did with a darker shade of the turquoise. All of the fills, I simply did it using the brush and Photoshop. It was nothing fancy. I haven't done this last row yet. So, if you look at the layer just on normal, you'll see it's pretty loose. I don't really worry if I'm not coloring inside the lines. Can go back with the eraser and easily get those stray bits, and then you'll see when it's set to multiply. Now that's working, I'm going to make another layer on top of the background of my letters but behind the pencil sketch in order to do the light bulbs. For this, despite the fact that my light bulbs are not perfect circles, I may actually start off with a circle. So, I also want them to have a glow too. So, I have the full white fill, and I duplicated that. Now, I'm going to do a Gaussian blur on this next one here and maybe I wanted a little bit stronger blur. Now, I'm just going to merge these two layers together. I'm going to call this light glow. There's about to be a lot of these. I'm going to put them in their own folder. So, I'm just holding down option, and I'm going to click and drag this behind all of these weights. Now, this is really starting to look more like these vintage letters. So, then I'm going to go through and do that for the rest of the alphabet. Thank you so much for taking this class. Be sure to upload all of your progress in your final pieces to the project's boards so everyone can take a look at what fun and creative decorative alphabets you've been able to draw. 11. More Creative Classes on Skillshare: