Watercolor Lettering: Serifs | Amarilys Henderson | Skillshare

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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.

      It's a Big Deal


    • 2.

      Supplies Shown


    • 3.

      Basic Principles


    • 4.

      Exploring Serifs


    • 5.

      Graphite Exercise Step 1


    • 6.

      Graphite Exercise Step 2


    • 7.

      Graphite Exercise Step 3


    • 8.

      Watercolor Base


    • 9.

      Watercolor Shading


    • 10.

      Watercolor 3 Highlights


    • 11.

      Watercolor Bag of Tricks


    • 12.



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About This Class

Get comfortable creating that "wow" factor with watercolor handlettering. Get personal, quirky, and only slightly technical as we start with your humdrum handwriting and push it to create serif typefaces. Once you've gotten the hang of those "little legs," take out your paints to follow the watercolor steps to gorgeous letters. 

Amarilys has enhanced her portfolio with her watercolor lettering so much that clients repeatedly request it--with or without additional illustrations. Understand her process and challenge yourself to take on a fluid medium with creative letter forms. 

What to expect:

  • Dive into serif fonts
  • Understand what gives letters personality and what gives them balance
  • Learn a little lettering lingo Step by step exerices
  • How to apply watercolor painting principles to letter forms
  • What makes watercolor letters pop Watch several demos
  • Feedback on your project post

This class is the first in a series of Watercolor Lettering classes by Amarilys. Create your take on serifs and then get ready to explore more!

Meet Your Teacher

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Amarilys Henderson

Watercolor Illustrator, Design Thinker

Top Teacher

Hello! I'm Amarilys. I process on paper and I problem-solve with keystrokes.

As a commercial illustrator, I've had the pleasure of bringing the dynamic vibrance of colorful watercolor strokes to everyday products. My work is licensed for greeting and Christmas cards, art prints, drawing books, and home decor items. My design background influences much of my recent work, revolving around typography and florals.

While my professional work in illustration is driven by trend, my personal work springs from my faith. Follow along on Instagram


Learn a variety of fun and on-trend techniques to improve your work!

See full profile

Level: Intermediate

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1. It's a Big Deal: Hand lettering as a market is huge. The lettering has exploded. I didn't realize how big hand lettering was until I did my first trade show. Who would stop by and say, "Oh, I love your work.'' They are looking at things and then they would say, "So you hand wrote that?" I'm going to encourage you to just use what you got. You can't get away from your own handwriting. In this class, I'll take you from writing your alphabet to creating a serif font that you can actually paint in watercolor. It's not going to feel like a lettering class because I wouldn't know what those are like. Already you have been doing hand lettering. Welcome to my messy studio. 2. Supplies Shown: Like I said, we will start off with your handwriting and then move on to watercolor. The first question is, always supplies. We're going to use pencils. You can use a mechanical pencil, just your regular number two pencil. You can use graphite pencils. In this class I'll be using the HB in the 6B from there, always keeping our kneaded eraser handy, we'll move on to watercolor paints. The watercolor paints that I use, Mijello Mission, the brush I'll be using is a 6. round sable watercolor brush. At the end we will be adding some white touches with a signal white gel pen and Dr. Ph. Martin's pen white. The paper I'll be using is, 140 pound canson cold press watercolor paper. But first we'll just sketch on regular sketchbook paper. 3. Basic Principles: The principles are pretty simple and you probably already intuitively know of them, but let's break them down. One of the basic principles is to press down when you're going downward and light up when you're going upward. It seems really easy to remember, but it's so crucial and it can be easy to forget. Especially if you're doing cursive letters, you'll definitely feel that in that script it needs to be more voluminous and thick. When you're going down on those slopes and as you go up, your brush is going to do fun crazy things, and so you want to let up light on that. It also gives you such an interest in your letters to have a variety of thick and thin lines. The word baseline is basically where the letters are ending here at the bottom, and where they're grounded. That doesn't necessarily mean that they don't hang off a little bit, especially if there's a curve on a B, on a D, something like that, they dip down just attach under that line. Traditional fonts, traditional writing has a very consistent baseline. Something that is really trendy is bounce lettering, so bounce letters don't have a consistent baseline. Sometimes they'll dip lower, sometimes they'll jump higher, and then you connect those and make those look fabulous. But either way, you need to be familiar with that term, baseline. Even though you have variety, we need to maintain consistency. When I use the word design language, I mean that there is a theme, a visual dictionary of the work that you're creating and it needs to be consistent. If your letter I is dotted or if it's not, if your Ts are crossed high up, we keep that consistent. If you're creating an alphabet, or title for a book, for writing just a letter, be somewhat consistent with your uppercase versus lowercase. Sometimes you use title case, meaning that the first letter is uppercase and the rest are lowercase. Sometimes we play and just use all uppercase, all lowercase, and you can do either, but it's a lot clearer when you are somewhat consistent with your uppercase or lowercase or title case when you're doing your lettering. The first exercise that we're going to be doing, we'll include serifs. I call them little eggs in the next video. A serif hangs off the edges of a letter and they give a sophisticated look. Learn these rules while you are working, while you're practicing, and when it's show time, feel free to break them. 4. Exploring Serifs: As I dove into the topic of hand lettering, I was overwhelmed at what a wealth of a topic it is. I decided to break it down into the three main wheelhouses that fonts usually fall into. That would be serifs, sensors or gothics and script. First we're going to tackle serifs. I find them interesting and challenging and they give your writing a personality with hardly even trying. My first task was to explore letters in all kinds of different serifs. I challenge you to do the same. To get your juices flowing, look at a book, look at different fonts, watch the next couple of videos of this class. First, I'm going to introduce you to some different ways to approach serifs.The first kind I'm going to talk about is bracketed, that is how most serifs that you see, most fonts that you see with serifs are built. They basically have a curve or a wedge, or a connection between the end of a serif and the stem of the actual letter. Of course, you can also do a serif that's not bracketed and those would be your slab fonts. They have a very clean, minimal look. They started out being used for graphic, easy to read designs. Enough about the serifs themselves, we're going to talk about the stress. So that would be where the lines are the thickest. This is the most common way to add your stress and that's the vertical stress. We are adding thickness where the letters are going vertically on the letters. Now, a way to push it and make it even more modern would be to add even more thickness. That's something that we just commonly do. We discover a new way to do things and then we push it a little further. In that spirit, in the second way that stress is added, we add stress diagonally. This is really tricky. I had a hard time with it. I really can't think of very many fonts, very many typefaces that do this already. But you can see, for one, how italics work when you add that diagonal stress and it adds a really unique feel and a funky feel often used in Western images. I think of the 70s is to add a horizontal stress. We are adding more thickness into the letters where they are going horizontally and those lines are going from left to right, then those are the thickest parts of the letters. Next up, I'm going to take you step-by-step through a process to, just like I did great here, build on your own writing to create a serif font. 5. Graphite Exercise Step 1: I want to start off with something very approachable and easy to just jump into. When it comes to hand lettering, you're usually already doing it in pencil or pen. We're going to go with pencil. We're going to explore graphite but first, we're just going to use a mechanical pencil. I want it to be as simple as possible so that we can get going and you can see some of the things that naturally happen when you're working on hand lettering. I'm going to invite you to just write your A-B-Cs. As you can see I made my alphabet as serif font. Serif fonts have little legs at most of the ends. I'm going to show you the letter G, for instance. It does not have a little leg at the end of that. Or the letter J only has the top but it doesn't have a little leg at the bottom. I'm going to be using very technical terms. I don't want you to get bogged down by whether a letter has a serif or not. Serif being the little legs. I want you to just do it intuitively. You have seen so many printed materials and have looked at so many fonts already. It's not going to be too hard to get going. I don't want you to get bogged down by that. Just write the letters as you would like to, something that is a base for what you want to work on to improve. 6. Graphite Exercise Step 2: With these letters, I am going to improve them by adding some thick and thin. Thick and thin lines are usually created by brushstrokes and the pressure that you're using with that. Since we're doing a pencil, that is not going to happen, you're not going to get much variety in the thickness of the line. You're not going to get much line quality. But we can play with it and manufacture it. It's also an exercise that will help you to see how those are incorporated into letters, so that why did we pick up the brush or the brush marker, you know exactly when to put extra pressure and when to make those lines a little thicker. Let's add a little dimension to this. We're going to extend from the left-hand side of anything that's going up and down like this vertical. That's all we're going to do. As I take this letter A, I see that this is a vertical line on it right there. I'm going to extend it just a touch, connect those lines. I'm going to leave it just like that. We are only going to extend one of the lines per letter. I'm losing some of my serifs, so I'm going to make those a little more pronounced where that line got thicker and overlap the serif. Let's do it on the letter B. The letter C, I'm going to go in on that curve, I'm going to make it actually much straighter because we've got this huge curve. If I were to extend it, it would look too wide for this font, so I'm going to just add it in right there. Letter D is pretty easy. Letter E, I'm going to extend that from the back end and so on. This time we're going to add thickness, second round. Not quite as wide, but a little thinner, but it's still going to be more pronounced and then that stick fly. Here on the letter A, this is my other vertical that I could have thicken. I'm going to thicken it just a little bit because it looked a little more finished. Now with the letter B and then a thicken it by working in just a little further in. The letter C is just fine. We want to keep those areas where the serifs are pretty thin, that makes it have kind of a classic look. The letter D could handle a little more. We're going to leave E and F because these are horizontals. G will leave. H we could add a little something, there is another vertical there. K is tricky, we could or we couldn't, so I am going to play with that. How about just one and let's try two. With a diagonal, you could have some choices to make and that is up to you. Now, when I thicken both of those, so that all the lines are not big, it doesn't quite go. We're going to leave this top guy and only thicken the bottom. That works with the language of the rest of the letters that were writing. The letter V is another tricky one. Would we add another one here? No. Now it looks like the entire font should be thick. The letter U, however, I do want to add that other line too. Reason being that it's straight up and down. See with V and with K, we had some liberty because they were diagonals. But with the U, these are both going straight up and down so, we are going to obey that design language and keep it consistent. R, just like we were at the letter B, we're going to add a little bit more and I am going to add to this N too simply because we've got a horizontal here, which keeps with the language of not always thickening our lines. Q, a little bit, P, just a little bit and so on. I'm going to take the trickiest one and do it with you. That would be this one right here, the letter S. Now, this is why we used a pencil. If I were to thicken these lines, I would need to do a basically right in the middle. I'm just going to erase the original line so that I can do that. Now, we have our letters with one vertical line that's thicker than the rest. You can leave it this way or we can keep working. We're not going to use this pencil any more. I'm going to use my handy kneaded eraser, kneaded as in bread that is kneaded, K N, E, A, D, E, D. I'm going to basically lighten the work that I've already done so far. I don't want to erase it completely, but I am going to take off the excess so that I can still see it and basically traced over my own work. What I'm left with is a faint alphabet.That I can see thankfully, better than you can on this video. Now, I'm going to take out our special pencils. Let me introduce you to what these pencils are and how they work. I'm choosing to work with an HB and 6B. H pencils are lighter, but they'll leave an indent on your sketchbook and I don't want that. I want something that I can erase easily and that provides a little texture. An HB is right in the middle of the road and the 6B is much darker. Let me show you. Just feels like a standard pencil. This 6B is obviously much darker when I'm writing and when I'm smudging. Be careful with that if you really hate smudging in your pieces, you'll have to also get a can of spray fixatif, or make it a little lighter with a kneaded eraser. I'm going to go over my letters with the 6B. This is just a matter of preference. You'd like to go bold, goes with 6B. If you want to just play around and practice and tinker, you're going to like the HB better or maybe something even minor. I'm going to use the 6B because it has texture, it's old, and it's probably going to give me a few unpredictable elements that are going to make this font a little more interesting to look at. I'm basically just tracing what I have. The great thing about tracing is that you trace what you love and you leave what you don't love behind. My pencil is a little blunt. I'm going to fill in those areas that we made thicker. I've got a nice little almost like a little coloring books situation here. It looks pretty cute. One stroke for these thinner lines. Color in those thicker areas. 1,2,3 for the thicker area, one line going around in one more line. For that medium thickness. Sometimes I rotate my pencil and it's really dull like this, so that it feels like it's been sharpened a little bit. This letter K is a great example because I've got a thin line, a very thick line, and a medium thick line, so I'm doing my thin lines with one stroke, my serifs and my horizontals. Doing about two thicknesses for the medium and three for the thick. Seriously, I'm pretty happy with this. This is a very basic style that looks really interesting just because I did it by hand. 7. Graphite Exercise Step 3: Let's take the same principle, now that we've done the whole alphabet and add a little quirk to our letters. Ways to add quirk, slant. So tilt your letters just a little bit and they look like they're moving, like they're fun and it works really great for a fun message. Another way to add some quirk is to add some pattern or design within those thick areas instead of just coloring them in. Maybe you want to create your alphabet with wobbly letters and make your line to snap consistently the same thickness throughout. Maybe your serifs are a little bulbous, a little curves or bubbly at the end. There's really no end to how you can embellish your hand lettering but I'm just giving you some ideas to take what we've learned so far and then push it a little further. This time I'm going straight to the 6p because I want to make little quirky mistakes along the way. I'm now going to do my first sketch. Here's my A, starting with just the pencil, just the 6p. You see how I just tilted those two horizontals, little bit almost looks like the A is going to walk away, compared to this A, which is a little more grounded, still sketchy. I noticed up here that the B I already made a little inconsistent with the top portion being much bigger than the bottom. I think I'm going to echo that again. I know I have my thick area here. I even have my B up here as a reference. Give it a big head and a little body. Cute. It's okay to geek out on your own work. My C wasn't very unique. So I made this little slanted, so it's a little thicker at the top and thinner at the bottom. As I continue to add quirk to the letters, I do things just a little bit differently each time here with the K. I'm going to make the legs a little uneven. With the L I'm going to extend that serif a little further than it usually is. There's really so many ways that you can add quirk and you can't really help it because it's your hand working along. Whenever you feel like you need to get a change or to adjust a little bit, always sharpen your pencil just a little bit. It feels like you have a brand new instrument on your hands. Here are my quirky serif letters in graphite. Now it's your turn. I have written many of these alphabets and they've informed me so much and actually I use them in my design work now. Show us your graphite, preferably serif alphabet, remembering to just start with your basic ABCs and build on top of them. 8. Watercolor Base: Lettering in watercolor has to be my favorite way to letter. Now, I don't usually plan things out quite this much, but when it comes to something that I want to fit together and have a good composition, it's great to do my pencil lines first. As usual, I push them back just a little bit with a kneaded eraser, erasing it so that it's just light enough for me to be able to see and be guided by. It's basically laying in the colors that you want everything to be. It'll look really washed out, it won't look awesome. But I do like to combine 2-3 colors within a letter form to make it look more dynamic. This is my base layer, my first layer of watercolor. The paints I used in the palette there on the left top are Mijello Mission Gold, and the colors that I used were red, violet, and permanent violet along with that brown, which is a burnt sienna. 9. Watercolor Shading: Now I'm going to be using a split complementary color scheme. All that means is that next color that I'm using is not going to be in the purple family but rather something that is three steps beside it on the color wheel. If I'm starting from purple, I go over to pink, then red and then red orange, so this is vermilion and this red orange is going to be just such a great complement to set off this color scheme, to make it look not just all purple, not just all monochromatic but to have something a color that's in the family, something that makes up that color and complements it, so it's both unifying and complementary. What I'm doing is I'm going in and doing basically shadows but these won't serve as my shadow, so I'm making sure that these lines are really thick. I'm going to go in with more layers than that, so I want to use really thick brush strokes because on top of it, I'm going to use narrower brushstrokes and smaller brushstrokes. With watercolor, you start from light to dark, big brush to little brush, you'll hear me say that from time to time. Right now, I'm building in those reddish hues that are going to complement the purples that are going on and later on, I'll worry about making these shadows darker and darker. Did you notice that we're taking it up a notch, now we're going a little bit darker. What's funny about watercolor paint is that when you lay it on, it looks darker than how it will dry, so you'll see pretty soon here that even though this looks like it could be the darkest violet that I could possibly use, it's not going to show up quite that dark. The way that you make a very dark color to slightly lighter is by adding water with watercolors. It's so very simple but it's hard to maintain that ratio, so you watch your paints, you make sure that as you're painting, as things are getting a little darker because your water is drying out and you're left with more pigment, then you want because you want it to still be a bit light, then you add a little more water from your cup straight from your brush. I'm not going to lie, doing these shadows can be a bit nerve-racking because you've already put in some time into that base layer and you're having to be very delicate with your brushstrokes. It's so important to have a brush that has a very pointy tip to it. That pointy tip is mostly what is touching my paper, the body of the brush is not, so I have more control and I'm really just using the tip of that brush for those edges to just kiss these edges and create a nice crisp line. My one word ask is gaining a lot of definition, I'm going to give you a close-up look right here. How do you know which part to shade? I'm going to use these words because they're much simpler to start with. We are always going to be shading typically with a drop shadow on the left-hand side and on the bottom of a letter. Watch how I do this. On the left-hand side you're seeing that I'm putting that darker dark and on the bottom of each dimension is where I'm adding those shadows. Layers and layers of these shadows where I started with a vermillion, a reddish orange hue, to the red violet that slightly less thick to a dark, permanent violet that whose line is much thinner and they continue like that and you create a bit more of a 3D effects, some interest for sure but we're not quite done yet. 10. Watercolor 3 Highlights: We've gone from light to dark, but we're going to go back to the very lightest and add in our highlights. You true water-colorists are going to hate me for using white. But I'm an illustrator, not a fine artist so much. So we're going to use this white that I like to use is Dr. Ph. Martin's pen white. It's usually used for calligraphy, but I liked that it has a chalky finish to it so I can actually work with it just like I do with watercolor. Another brand that I use is FW Rowney's Acrylic Ink. I'm mixing this white with a little bit of watercolor. If you took the Watercolor Floral Three Ways class, you saw me do this for the vintage tutorial. It creates a bit of a gwash look. As I mix the colors I've already been using in the letters with that white, it creates almost a completely different color. It's not going to be the light purple that you get by watering down your watercolor. It has a different consistency and it brings a cool touch. When I say cool, I mean that the hue, the color is cool and not warm. That quality just really creates interest. It makes it different, it juts out just a little bit. As I add in these light whites, now I am going to my bright whites, but I am moving up to that just like we did with the dark ones. I am mixing that color with the white so that then the last thing I'm going to do is to add pure white. The places that I'm putting these are somewhat arbitrary, which is probably going to kill you, isn't it? In real life, when something is lit, it's not necessarily going to be lit in these areas. But let's say if this were a beveled edge, a curved edge, then it would have this shine to it. Just a bit of a curve to it. That's the idea that I'm playing with. When you're adding in these dark-ish lights, we'll call them, then you're wanting to put them in places that, one, need a little more attention, be it because they look a little stale, little boring, or because they are important. But when you're going with this bright white and we're not going to mix any color with it, make sure that your brush is clean and as you see, it's a little gloppier than your watercolors that you're used to. You are definitely going to be only focusing on the areas that really need that pop of interest. It can be really easy to get carried away with highlights because it's so exciting to see them come together but hold off. Put in your highlights where you absolutely need them step away, look at it, and then figure out where else you want to add some white. We added in a pop of color to our base layer, we added a medium shadow, a dark shadow, the purist purple, at least in this color scheme. Then we went back and went light again, mixed the white with a color and then added pure white, where we really want to create interest and want to draw the eye. 11. Watercolor Bag of Tricks: I'm going to show you how to go about lettering with watercolor, and just some very simple techniques. Right now, you see me putting a drop shadow on that L, we did that earlier, but with this time I used a very bright color. I tried to keep my lines very bold because I wasn't going to do several layers of it. Now I'm going to move on to another letter, this letter T. I'm going to do a two toned technique. You see me dropping in a fleshy pink color and then wash my brush, I use a completely different color which creates a natural blend, a natural gradient, and a pop of color just on the bottom. To do this slightly differently, I'm just using a darker color instead of a bright color on the bottom. Again, that adds some interest, but it also anchors the letter down, and since I already have a darker color, I'm adding a little bit of a shade on just one side while I'm at it. Similar to the two tone this time, I'm using three colors within the same body of the letter, and there's really no rules to where you want to place those colors. Definitely, if it's important to the form you wanted to keep, those areas may be darker, and the areas that you can play with a little more to add a pop of color. This 3D style reminds me of a sketch book as a sixth grader, adding dimension to your block letters was definitely cool points. This is similar, but it does really look pretty great, especially on a serif font. A really fun, more advanced approach is to create inner ornaments. With my first base layer painting, I'm creating a lot of outlines, just outlining some of the areas so that I have a space to add in some flowers or some details. I wait for this to dry and then I will go to work. Simple lines, simple florals geometric patterns, anything goes. But it's a fun way to just add a lot of personality into a letter. You want to use a letter that has a lot of body, so that you have a lot of space within the letter to work. You know, it comes down to details and adding layers, simple writing is wonderful, it takes boldness and that's the last step I'm going to give you basically going freehand with watercolor, that's a learnt trade. You will gain confidence to get to the point where you basically can write with your brush. 12. Close: This is where we go, yay, we did it. We wrote letters, we built on them, and then we figured out the design language of these letters, in order to translate them onto watercolor paper, and paint them in a few different ways. I want to challenge you, to design your own design language. That's redundant, to create your own design language, how's that. Post your project, if you happen to post it on Instagram or Twitter, use my handle @watercolordevo, so that I get to see it too. This class is the first in a series. Feel free to offer any input, as we continue with watercolor lettering. It's a great game to be a great letter.