Drawing Letters, Making Art: Lettering Beyond The Page | Joseph Alessio | Skillshare

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Drawing Letters, Making Art: Lettering Beyond The Page

teacher avatar Joseph Alessio, Typographic Illustrator / Image Maker / Animator

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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.

      Hello & Welcome!


    • 2.

      Project Summary


    • 3.

      Tools and Materials


    • 4.

      Lettering Tips & Tricks


    • 5.

      Prep Your Surface


    • 6.

      Sketching Concepts


    • 7.

      Creating Your Piece


    • 8.

      Touching Up


    • 9.

      Concluding Thoughts


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About This Class

Why should lettering, one of the most versatile and exciting forms of communication, be restricted to a sheet of paper? Explore the possibilities of composition and creativity by lettering on surfaces and objects. Joseph Alessio teaches the techniques and tricks that go into crafting quality lettering, going over the basics and some of the lesser known principles behind letterforms, and then walks through his process in creating his popular TypeLimited violin pieces, guiding you in creating your own piece of typographic art. Get your hands dirty and take your love of letterforms to a new level!

Meet Your Teacher

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Joseph Alessio

Typographic Illustrator / Image Maker / Animator


Hi! I'm Joseph. I'm obsessed with words and letters, combining language with fresh media, concepts and sometimes motion, to create a unique form of communication. I'm a typographic illustrator and content creator, from Detroit, now in Denver. I also play 7 musical instruments, and sometimes I forget what they all are.

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1. Hello & Welcome!: Hi, I'm Joseph Alessio. I'm a typographic illustrator based out of Denver, Colorado. I've worked with a broad variety of clients including Target, Patagonia, and the Art Directors Club. I love working with type and lettering because you get to take the basic building blocks of communication and you combine it with a visual impact. So you're speaking on multiple levels. You're speaking to what a person sees, how they read it, what they think, and it becomes a very powerful method of communication. That's why I get so excited about type and lettering. The exciting thing about lettering, and that sets it apart from other letter-formulated fields is that, there's so much room for experimentation. You're not doing calligraphy where you're actually writing with the tool and you're not doing type design, where you're crafting a font. You're not doing typography, where you're arranging type that's already been created, such as setting type or using a font. You're actually crafting letter forms from scratch, and you're drawing them with outlines rather than writing them. There's endless room for experimentation. You can do anything you want. So you get to learn the rules and then you get to break them by applying them in all sorts of unusual ways. In this lettering class, we're going to learn a lot about typographic fundamentals and apply it by creating a typographic art piece similar to this one by using lettering on an object. We'll go through my process based off a project that I did last year. I'll teach you how to approach a particular medium, the materials we'll be using, the methods that we use, and applying the tips and tricks that we've learned in the first part of the class into creating a piece of typographic art for your home. I look forward to seeing what you'll come up with using these techniques. 2. Project Summary: For this class project, we are going to be taking an object and elevating it to a piece of art by drawing words all over it. For example, my project is going to be this violin, which I've painted white. I've removed the strings and the tailpiece and everything. So it's a perfect canvas for a quote that I've chosen. Something you might choose would be, say, a skateboard deck, something you might use every day, like a mug. Something you can pull out once a year, like a tree ornament, an old tool you can hang on the wall, any number of uses, but as long as it's something that speaks personally to you and provides a good canvas for a quote that also speaks to you. So what we're going to do here is go over the tools you'll be using, the medium, how to approach the medium. We're going to go over the letterform fundamentals and construction of letter forms, then you're going to apply this by creating your own piece of typographic art. 3. Tools and Materials: Let's talk about the tools we'll be using for this project. I like to spray paint the object before I paint on it. I use a lot of generic spray paint. I use a lot of black, and white, blue. Any generic spray paint should work. Once you've chosen an object, you can pick a color. You may not need spray paint, you may want to draw directly on wood or metal or a surface of that sort. But I like to create a solid color background, often for the lettering and so I often spray paint the object before using it as a canvas. For the actual lettering, I like to use Sharpie paint markers. Again, probably any brand of paint marker will do, Sharpie paint markers are the ones that I've found to work well. I can get them in pretty much any color including gold and silver. For this project, I'll be using black. But again, you can get them in a broad variety so there's no limitations there. A couple of things that I don't usually use, but you may want to are sandpaper or a ruler. If you want to have everything very exact, you'll definitely want to measure it out on your object. I tend to improvise, but this is very helpful if you want a super polished look. Sandpaper again, will help prop the surface for painting. If it's a surface that won't grab paint well, if it's really smooth, you want to lightly sand it and buff it a little bit before you spray it or use your marker on it. Of course, you're going to need pencil and paper because you're going to want to sketch this out first unless you're ready to just jump right in and paint all over without having a plan in place. Once you've decided on an object, you also need a quote, and ideally it should be something that's also meaningful to you. It could also be something that's humorous, something that just makes you laugh, or something that speaks to something you've been going through recently or been studying recently. For example, the quote that I chose is a modified quote from George Gershwin, the composer, to fit the musical theme and I'll be lettering, there is music in the heart of noise, which speaks to finding inspiration in unexpected places, which is something that I've been trying to do more and more recently. Again, it's something that's personal, but it doesn't have to be something deep, it could just be something fun. But you'll need a quote that's in medium length. Maybe six, eight, 10 words, something of that nature that you can fit on in the object of your choice. Now you have your object ready, you have your colors chosen, and you have your tools and ready to get sketching. We can jump right into the next part. 4. Lettering Tips & Tricks: Lettering is a lot more complex than it looks and there are a lot of tips and tricks that can help you construct your letter-forms to look right and improve the quality. Before we get into propping the object, I'm going to sit down and go over some letter form fundamentals that will help you in pushing your lettering to a higher quality. You start with your basic structure here, you have your cap height up here, you have your baseline, then you have your x-height in the middle, which is where the lowercase letters go up to. Generally everything stays according to these lines. The baseline of course is the bottom of the letters, the cap height is the top of the caps, and the ascenders vary quite a bit around at the cap height line, but they stay generally in line with this. The x-height is for your lowercase forms. The first thing you want to think about is balance and rhythm. You want to have a consistent and visual rhythm that distributes the weight so the eye can move along the lettering and it's not all like that, or else it won't read very well. You want to distribute the weight of the letters on a fairly even vertical rhythm. Then you work with your basic letter shapes. You have three basic letter shapes, there's the square shape, there's the circular shape, there's the triangular shape. You'll notice that these are not exact, they are intentionally incorrect because you're actually correcting the geometry to appear right, you're working on optical corrections. Your square letter-forms are going to be to the baseline, your round letter-forms are actually going to go above and below the lines a little bit, and the triangular ones are going to go above the line even more than circular ones. For the square letter-forms you have say the H, you have the E, those stay pretty much within the lines. For the circular letter-forms you have of course the O, you have say the top of the lowercase f, you have the lowercase a. It's going to go above the line a little bit because again, you're optically correcting. In order for these to look even the circle actually has to go above the top of the square. The triangle actually because it's so small it actually goes above the line even further. These letters would be say your uppercase A or your V that are going to go above and below the line, again to optically correct. Another interesting optical trick that you'll want to know is that horizontals always look heavier than verticals. If you want your horizontals to match up with your verticals exactly, then your horizontals will actually need to be slightly skinnier than your verticals. Because again the way the eye perceives it, horizontals of the same weight will look heavier than verticals of the same weight. You have to optically correct the horizontals to be a little bit skinnier than your verticals. Another interesting optical trick here is with spacing. Your spacing is not going to be even between all of the letters, because the spacing change is dependent on the shape. Again your square objects, circular objects, and your triangular objects, you're working actually as much with the negative space between the letters as you are with the positive space. You're going to actually have to leave more space between two square characters than you will between say a square and a round character, or a square and a triangular character. One way to think about it is that your spacing should be relatively equal between each pair of letters. If you use this as a volume, you think about the negative space is volume, you think about filling this space with water, the same amount of water should fit in-between each of these pairs of characters. You're going to put your circular characters closer to the square characters, you're going to put your triangular characters really close to your square characters, and leave a little bit of extra space between two square characters. For example, in this little sketch I did for what I'm going to use for the violin, you can see there's a little more space, actually I left a little bit too much space here, so this needs to be corrected. I need to tighten this up a little bit. But there's a little more space between a straight line and a curved line, two curved lines next to each other. Again you see a lot of negative space with the E, so they can be a little bit tighter, again with the A and the R. But then the R and the T are slightly farther apart than say the E and the A because again it's two straight lines and you're working with leave enough negative space here to read properly. When we're talking about the letters actually being geometrically incorrect in order to appear optically correct, we call this overshoot, where the characters go above and below the lines or optical weight, where two strokes: a vertical and a horizontal, look the same, but are actually not quite the same, the horizontal being slightly skinnier than the vertical, that's called optical weight. Then of course with spacing it's applying those same principles and going with negative space to create a more even vertical rhythm. Another important thing to remember is that when you're lettering, it's often very heavily based on calligraphy. The principles that we get for texts that we read well comes from writing for thousands of years back, and so the calligraphic influence is very strong in most lettering. You have a couple of basic, generally classifiable types of calligraphy. You have the pointed or expansive tips where you have like a pointed nib for a calligraphy pen or a brush pen. This is where you get most looks that you'll be using if you're doing a script style, you see you have the thin upstroke and the heavy downstroke, thin upstroke, heavy downstroke. Because when you're writing there's no pressure going up then you put pressure going down. The nib actually expands and lets out more ink, or if you're working with a brush, you trace it up very lightly with the tip of the brush, then on the down stroke you apply more pressure and the brush expands to create a heavier downstroke. This principle again is a very important part to how we read lettering as well, so we carry over some of these aspects into lettering. Always do your thin upstroke and a heavy downstroke. Also in the G you have the thin upstroke here over the curve, heavy downstroke, thin up, heavy down, thin up, and then heavy across. Because on flourishes you can take whatever angle or pressure you want, so there's a lot more room for interpretation there. But generally you want this rhythm that's created by the thin up, heavy down. You also have the broad nib or flat styles where you have a much more consistent angle and width, which you see in a lot of things like black letter, and it creates a really fun rhythm. But it's also a lot harder to read because you don't have the same distinct rhythm that you get from the expansive styles. Again going back to this word here, you can see a couple of these things applied. You can see thin up, heavy down, in the R, thin up, curl, heavy down, same with the T, and of course with the flourish the horizontal stroke can be thick, because with flourishes you get to do it really freely and you can change your angular pressure however you want. Also a couple of additional thoughts that will be helpful in the future. Since the R is a really weird character when you're working with a script, this often has way more overshoot than you'll see in the E and the A. You can see the line faintly here. The E and the A have a little bit of overshoot, but the R goes way up because again you're working with negative space and you have to compensate. The R takes up a lot more vertical space because it has a lot of negative space around here. Also another reminder that the T is always one of the shortest of the ascenders. It's going to be significantly, noticeably shorter than the cap height, and it's going to be shorter than say the F or a lot of other ascenders. I'm not exactly sure why that is, but that's just the way it's done. That was a lot of information there, I'll just do a quick recap here. Again you're thinking in terms of a rhythm, these are eyes tracking across the page, you want to fairly even the rhythm for the eye to follow. You're working with three basic shapes of letter-forms, you have the square shapes, the circular shapes, the triangular shapes. You have to optically compensate for negative space with the point going above the cap height or the curves going above and below the lines, in order to compensate and make it actually look equal to the square shapes. Again optical weight, your horizontals are going to always look heavier than verticals of the same weight. You have to make your horizontal slightly skinnier if you want them to look equal. The negative space between the letters and the spacing, think of it as volume and pour water into each of these spaces and you'll want it to be roughly the same. Square shapes are going to be slightly further away from each other, square and a circle will be slightly closer, and a triangular shape will be a lot closer because there's so much negative space up here. Getting in the general categories of lettering styles, especially when you're working with scripts, you have the pointed styles, you have the flat styles, you want a heavy downstroke and a thin upstroke to mirror the way that calligraphy works and how we read. Having your eyes train that way over centuries. A couple of weird characters here, the R is weird, so you have to give it a lot of overshoot to compensate for the unusual shape in a script R, and a lot of negative space around it. A T is going to be shorter noticeably than a capital and shorter than a lot of other ascenders as well. When you're working with flourishes or crossbars often, you pretty much have license to do whatever you want. As you can see, this is not a thin horizontal and it's shaped because when you're working with things like this you can imagine the stroke being from any direction or angle to create an interesting look. Again the crossbars, you can do whatever you want with them, make them interesting. That was a lot of information, but there you have most of the fundamentals that go behind creating quality letter-forms and making them optically correct rather than geometrically. Now we get to marinate on all of that information while we go ahead and prep our object for painting. 5. Prep Your Surface: While you digest that information on constructing letter forms, let's go ahead and talk about preparing the object. For my violin, I sanded it a little bit and very lightly with some very light sandpaper. You probably want something like 110 or 120-grit for this thing. Because all you wanted to do is buff the surface so the paint lays well on it, and the surface grabs the paint, and it doesn't run. I sprayed it with white. Again, if you're not spraying it, you may not want to sand it, depends on what surface you're using. If it's a wooden surface, you might want to sand it just a little bit to get some of the unevenness out. But a lot of other surfaces, you'll want to forego the sanding. If you're using a ceramic object like a vase or a mug, you will probably want to sand it because the paint will not stick very well, but you'll want to use a very high grit sandpaper, 180 or something like that, and very lightly because you don't want to destroy your surface. All you want to do is create a little bit of texture so the surface will grab the paint. Finally, you'll want your paint markers. Paint markers take a little while to warm up so you'll want to shake them quite a bit before actually using them. You'll want to load the tip before trying to use it on whatever object you're drawing on. As you can see, this is a new paint marker and the tip is entirely white. You have to use something like a piece of cardboard, something you can grab and don't mind getting paint all over. To load the tip, just by pressing repeatedly. You can see the paint begins to creep up to the tip of the marker. Now the tip is black and loaded with paint, and ready to go. Shake regularly, careful not to splatter, and keep the tip loaded. That's really all you need to prepare your object. My object is already prepared. But if you have everything you need in order, why don't you go ahead and prepare your object. Spray it if you're going to spray it and let it dry, and we'll move on to sketching while your object dries. 6. Sketching Concepts: You've prepared your object, you've painted it. It's drying somewhere outside where the ventilation is good and we can move on to sketching. You want to sketch probably pretty small to begin with, to get a sense for the composition. I always start with sketches that are probably about a couple inches max. I usually start with very rough sketches just to get an idea for how the words are going to fit in the space. With my quote, there is music in the heart of noise. That's eight words and I'm fitting it around the curves of the violin. I have this tiny little sketch of a violin, and I think I'm going to display it vertically. You approach it with the idea of how you're going to have it displayed before you start sketching. If I'm going to display it vertically, I want it oriented so I can read it that way. If I were to display it horizontally, then I would want it oriented in a different way. But this way, I'm going to start at the top and have the words progress to the bottom of the violin. I'll take advantage of the curves here and I'm probably going to do the words, there is in a music on the upper shoulders of the violin, because they should fit pretty well in the space on either side of the neck. Again, the way you're sketching is going to be informed by the object that you're using and the space you have available. It's an interesting exercise in composition and fitting the words that you have into the space that you have to put the words into. It's looking like this will work pretty well and then between the sound holes, I can put a couple of shorter words and then the bulk of the space that I have to work with is actually at the bottom of the body of the violin. I'm going to be able to fit heart of noise at the bottom of the body. Now I'm getting a sense of how I can fit the words on the body of the violin. Now I'm getting a sense of how I can fit the words on the body of the violin just by sketching very roughly in small sizes and looking at where I can put the words that I'm working with. Once you have a few small sketches completed and you're beginning to get an idea of how the space you're using will work, you can move to larger sketches. You don't want something too big, but you want room to explore with styles and weights. I'm going to be going with a smooth scripty style to emphasize the flowing nature of music, especially violin music in general. I considered going with a heavier, chunkier style or a more exciting, maybe, Art Nouveau style. But I felt like that didn't communicate the music as well and so I went with more flowing style, a traditional script. Again, your medium informs your message and your message informs your aesthetic. You're going to choose the style that you go with based on the object and the quote. When you're working with styles and choosing a style, you want to be sure that your style evokes the feeling that you want to evoke, because particular styles evoke different errors or different feelings or different regions and so you want the style obviously to work with the quote rather than against it and work with the object again, rather than against it. So you're going to choose your style based on the information that you already have. Again, one interesting aspect of working with an object is that you have to fit your quote into a very unusual shape. A violin shape is pretty unusual, but I'm able to wrap the words around in such a way that it emphasizes the curves and the beauty of the instrument and it actually looks like it makes sense, despite being a rather strange shape. I can put some words up here to curve around the shoulders, go between the sound holes, and then use up the large space at the bottom of the composition. When you're using an object of your choice, again, you're going to approach it with the object in mind rather than the quote and you're going to build the quote around the object. When you're fitting a quote into a space like this, you'll want to take full advantage of any extra bits like ascenders and descenders, swatches. Sometimes you can put an extra [inaudible] , it's like I have up on the shoulder, that aren't connected to a letter. But again, very roughly go over, how is this space going to work? How can I fill this space with the letter forms and make it look like it makes sense and make it look like the quote was made for the object. Another aspect you want to think about when working with the composition is that some words are more important than other words in the quote. There are some words that are mostly connectors, is or the, in, things like that. Some words are really heavyweight words that communicate the point of the message. In my case, heart of noise carries the seed of the quote. That's going to be the largest and most visible portion of the quote. Also, you're working with a hierarchy and so I'm going to have in, the a little bit smaller. Then when I have there as music wrapped around the shoulders of the instrument, music is going to be a larger and more important than there is. Two words are going to take up roughly the same amount of space as one word music in order to provide the counterpoint and the composition and the hierarchy. There is is going to be small, music is a little larger, in the is small, and then heart of noise is the primary portion of the quote that receives the most space. When you're working with the composition, you want to pick the call-out words, the words that carry the seed of the quote and you're going to emphasize those by giving them more space or visual weight. This composition is basically what I'm going to go with. I tend to go with very rough sketches and improvise a little bit as I apply it to the object. You may want to do a more polished sketch, and so you have a more exact idea of what it's going to look like and measure it out on the instrument. But I think I have a good idea here of what this is going to look like, how it's going to be balanced, the weight distribution, and the composition. This is my plan for now, and I'm going to get ready to take it to the instrument and apply it. 7. Creating Your Piece: Before you start applying paint to your object, you're probably going to take it and you'll want to sketch very lightly on the object. I've sketched out by chord, very lightly. You can barely see it. I can barely see it, but it's enough to give me basic guidelines of where the words are going to be. Because when you're translating from a paper to a physical object, it's actually pretty difficult. I'm not going to measure, I just roughed it out very lightly. But I'm going to use that as guidelines for when I start laying paint on the object. Once you're done sketching your lettering lightly onto the object so you have it as a pattern to go off of. You'll want to make sure your marker is loaded. Shake it a little bit. Again, press the tip to the cardboard a little bit. Make sure there's plenty of your paint in that tip. When you start working on your object, you'll want to start in the middle of the object because if you start on the edges and work toward the middle, you're going to smear it. I'm left handed, I do do this regularly, so learn from my mistakes. We're working on this here. While you're drawing here, you're probably going to see a lot of streaking in the marker. I like that as it gives it a very handmade look. But if you aren't a fan of the streak look in the marker, we can go back over it with a Sharpie later and fill in some of the thinner spots. You also want to make sure to keep your marker loaded, but also watch out for if it's getting too runny and so you can dab it on the cardboard. 8. Touching Up: So I've finished painting my violin here. As you can see, it's going to be a little bit rough. There are going to be streaks from the paint marker, there are going to be wobbles, and so what you can do to fix those is you can go over it with some white out or a paint marker that's the same color as your surface to fix some of the lines, straighten them out. You can use a razor blade to scrape off little bits of paint very carefully. You can even use more sandpaper and you can distress your piece if you want. I probably won't distress this because I like the clean white and black. But if you're using something that's more of a rustic or earthy material, metal, or wood, or something like that, that could look really great. Another thing you may want to do, especially if you're working with a more natural or earthy material like wood or metal, is to actually clear coat your piece to preserve your work so it doesn't get worn off. The paint marker sticks around for a long time and can put up with a lot, but of course, if you want this to be an heirloom or something that sticks around for years, you'll probably want to protect it in that way. 9. Concluding Thoughts: In conclusion we finished a pretty exciting project.You learned a lot about letter-form construction in a short amount of time, got to apply this knowledge by creating something new, combining an object and some words that mean something to create something that means even more, really a piece of typographic artwork that you can hang on your wall and you can use it, can place it as a decoration, or give it away as a gift. I want to remind you to be sure to upload photos of your project to the project gallery where I can see it and give feedback on it. I'm looking forward to seeing what you come up with and your process, would love to share with you some thoughts on your work as well. I hope you enjoy your new piece. Thank you for watching. I'm Joseph Allesio.