In this previous post, I discussed how to create calligraphic thicks and thins, and what it means to create thick downstrokes and thin upstrokes. However, it's one thing to define terms, to know which parts of the a letter should be thick and which should be thin, but it's entirely another to know transition smoothly from thick to thin, and vice versa. It is notoriously difficult to make your curves graceful, smooth, and not too sudden or blocky.
If you find yourself irritated with your clunky transitions, there is a solution for you! It is possible; don't give up! Here are some tips that have been helpful both to me and my students.
This is the simplest solution, and it almost always helps. While you're learning, I recommend writing larger than you usually would. If you try to add thick downstrokes to small letters, you lose a lot of detail, and sometimes you can't quite see exactly what you're doing. Letter shapes often get drowned out this way too. This is why the lines on my free hand-lettering workbook pages might seem uncomfortably large at first—I want you to "zoom in" on your work, see the details of how each stroke meets. When you write your letters larger than you normally would, it pushes you out of your comfort zone, and reminds your brain that you're not just writing normally, you're trying something new. So, if you find yourself irritated with clunky curves, "write bigger" is my first suggestion!
One of the best things about hand-lettering or "faux" lettering is that, to get started, you don't need any special tools. You can just pick up the nearest pen or pencil and jump right in. I stand by that! However, if you're really struggling with adding depth smoothly and writing larger doesn't help, it might be beneficial to pick up two pens of differing sizes or thickness. Pens with a really fine line are great for the initial formation/outlining of letters, but are tedious to use to fill in those letters. Thick pens, on the other hand, are great for filling in letters, but usually make the outlines muddy and a smooth curve difficult to achieve.
By the way, this is why I highly recommend either Microns or Gelly Rolls (unfortunately Amazon does not sell a multi-size pack, so I recommend buying separately or locally), and why I give these to my students. There are multiple sizes available, and you can get a pack of multiple sizes for cheaper than just buying one or two. Both of these brands contain archival ink that will withstand aging, won’t smudge in notebook pages, and won’t run if you use other mediums over top of them, like watercolor.
Trace the Curve
When you are adding depth, you can create a smoother transition by picking a starting point further back along the letter’s existing curve, tracing it for about 1/8 inch before extending beyond it and creating depth (see the green dots in the first "h;" you can click on the image to make it bigger). When you finish creating the downstroke and join up with the original line again, trace a little bit of the original line there too. This ensures a more smooth transition between thick and thin.
Lessen the Contrast
If you’ve used a thinline pen to do your outlining, and the style you want to achieve involves pretty thick downstrokes, there can sometimes be a pretty stark contrast between your thin upstrokes and thick downstrokes. Believe it or not, there is such thing as an upstroke that is too thin, especially if your downstrokes are extremely thick. You may want to trace over your entire word once again after you add your depth, just to thicken those upstrokes just a tiny bit. Sometimes, when the contrast between your thicks and thins are really stark, your piece can look obviously faux-lettered.
Add to the Right
When you add depth, I recommend that you add it to the right of each downstroke. This helps maintain the structure of a letter; for instance, if you were to add depth to the right side of one letter and the left side of that same letter, the inner hole might be smaller compared to all the other letters in the word, or the letter itself might just appear muddied. See the “g” in the example above, which has lost some key characteristics, particularly where the arrows are pointing. In addition, you will almost certainly run into spacing issues; for instance, in the example, there is a larger space inside the lowercase “h,” and then not nearly enough space between the “h” and the “t.” All of this is fixed merely by adding depth to the right of the original line.
This is not a universal rule to which you should adhere rigidly, but the priority is the clarity of the word, the size of the inside of the letter, and the space between letters. Usually, if you actually need to switch between adding depth to the right or to the left in the same word, you are likely compensating for poor structure in the original word that you wrote.
Follow the Shape
As you add depth, think about the shape of the original line. For some reason, it’s really tempting to think of the depth as if it has a mind of its own. In reality, the line you use to create depth is meant to be an echo of the original line. This is why it’s good to think of hand-lettering as a sort of “faux calligraphy.” You’re mimicking what a nib or a brush pen would do. If your downstroke has inconsistent depth (for example, the depth is weighted more toward the top of the letter), that would indicate inconsistent pressure or a shaky hand. Save for stylistic deviations, your depth should follow the downstroke almost perfectly, but just a few millimeters to the right—almost as if the original line were duplicated, and inched to the right. The only time your depth is not a perfect echo of the original line is when it tapers on either side as it joins up with the original line.
Only downstrokes are thick, so don’t start creating depth too soon or cease creating depth too late. The line should be thick only when the original line is heading south on the page.
When you are lettering an entire word or several words, make sure that the width of your downstrokes are consistent. Some downstrokes should not be thicker or thinner than others.
Where to go from here?
- Check out my free printable eBook, Simple Script, which features a brand-new, innovative method for learning calligraphy—the simple way!
- Read some other articles on learning hand-lettering below.
- Get my free practice paper.
- Follow along on Instagram, where I regularly post tips, tricks, and inspiration.