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Stay curious: Ian Barnard shares his tips for learning lettering

You’re never too old to learn the art of hand-lettering. Picking up his first calligraphy pen at the age of 34 to learn an entirely new art-form, Ian Barnard is a ​testament​ to this…
Stay curious.

In 2012 my son was born, I left my day-job and my wife purchased Downton Abbey on DVD, so I chose to learn calligraphy to occupy myself while she watched and fed our son. As adults we worry too much about what other people think when it comes to learning something new, it’ll take a while for all the elements to ‘click’, but don’t give up!

I’m not one of these artists who has been drawing since they could hold a pencil, I came to it late and my handwriting is rubbish, but here I am.

Starting a new discipline is just like building a house, it’s important to have strong foundations. So, in calligraphy if you practice the right things you won’t make the mistake of getting good at drawing imperfect letters!

There are three techniques to understand:

  • Calligraphy is the art of writing letters.
  • Lettering is the art of drawing letters.
  • Typography is the art of using letters.

The end result is the same but the way you get there is different.

Getting off to a good start

Learning the basics of type design will help your hand-lettering.

  1. Find a well-made typeface and print out the full alphabet in upper and lowercase. Then simply trace it by hand. This will give you insight into the nuances of how a good typeface is made. Don’t be afraid to use an ‘old faithful’ like Times or Helvetica to learn from, there’s a reason these have been around a long time. There are optical subtleties which you will begin to notice such as the top of an ‘S’ is usually smaller than the bottom, the middle stroke of an ‘E’ is usually smaller than the top and bottom strokes—these are all elements that make letters look balanced.

  2. Keep your traced letters in a place you can see them, like revising for an exam, familiarity is key. Start to freehand draw these letters while referencing your first version. Start drawing custom shadows and dots, get creative.

  3. Start drawing them from memory and they will begin to take on more of your personality and style while still adhering to basic rules. It’s worth noting that letters break down into three main shapes—squares, triangles and circles. This is helpful when thinking about the form of letters.

Master traditional techniques

What underpins my script lettering is the art of Copperplate calligraphy. I learnt this the traditional way—with a dip pen. The limitations of the pen mean learning where to add weight to a letter. This understanding of traditional techniques crosses over to modern pens and digital lettering. I won’t lie, there are a lot of people creating hand-lettering now, but by learning proper technique you will stand out from the crowd.

I’m a book hoarder but my favourite books for learning and inspirations are:

Calligraphy for Dummies by Jim Bennet—this is the first book I bought, it doesn’t go too in-depth but covers the basics and explains the differences between different styles.

Mastering Copperplate Calligraphy by Eleanor Winters

The ABC of Custom Lettering by Ivan Castro—this covers the use of a brush pen, drawing letters, construction and consistency of letters and also covers logo design, layout, composition and combining styles.

Logo, Font and Lettering Bible by Lesley Cabarga—this covers the history of lettering, logo creation, adding shadows, spacing and tips for using Bézier curves and vector lettering.

The Golden Secrets of Lettering by Martina Flor.

Seek inspiration

Stay curious. This is one of my main philosophies. My inspiration comes from experimenting with new technologies like the iPad, different apps, drawing with different pens or with different objects on different surfaces… Recently I’ve been experimenting with electrically conductive paint created by Bare Conductive.

Other big sources of inspirations for me are listening to music, looking at book covers and taking to the supermarket aisles. The craft beer section has a wealth of contemporary hand-lettering, the wine section has more traditional formal scripts, the whisky section is full of vintage serif typefaces. The chocolate aisle is great too, the custom lettering for Monty Bojangles being a personal favourite.

For online inspiration check out Goodtype Instagram feed and popular hashtags like #calligraphy #handwriting and #typography.

There are a couple of books that I’ve had my work published in that you might enjoy too; Good Type - The art of lettering and 100 Days of Lettering - A Complete Creative Lettering Course by Jay Roeder.

Hone your tools
  1. When working digitally I always look for the equivalent of a B Pencil in an app, as this is what use to sketch out my ideas.
  2. My main pen is a Tombow Fudenosuke in ‘hard’ variety. This almost replicates using a dip pen and is my ‘go to’ pen and is what I use for creating logos.
  3. Crayola markers are one of my favourite pens to work with as the nib gives a consistent look. I recently used one to create this piece
  4. Molitow or POSCA paint markers—these are great for drawing on different surfaces.
  5. Tombow dual brush pens—these have a fine nib at one end and a brush tip at the other.
    Ian by Martin Scarland
Make it personal

My focus has changed recently as lots of quotes have been over-used. I’ve started looking at areas of life where I’m struggling or at my own journey and looking for quotes that resonate with those aspects of life on a personal level.

I read a lot of blog articles and find ‘gems’, I also come up with quotes of my own.

If you plan to share that work on social media, think about the caption. People want to understand why this quote is personal to your journey. I’ve had people say that the visual content caught their attention but the caption is what made them stay, consider the work and comment on it.

Sharing is caring

When it comes to social media consistency and patience are key.

My social media posts fall into three main categories:

  • Showing my processes.
  • Teaching and learning.
  • Work that aims to inspire.

Post work that you enjoy making that shows your personality. Social media is personality driven so this will help people get to know you. It’s important to be genuine and sincere and create trust.

Showing your processes is something I feel is really important. Remember that given the same tools and techniques other people will create different work to yours. It’s also important to consider that some of your audience could be potential clients so this demystifies how you work and sells your potential to create similar work for them. I really recommend the book Show your work by Austin Kleon.

Don’t focus on getting more followers, focus on creating value for your existing audience and in time your following will grow. Play the long-game.

Be consistent and post regularly. I look back on my first YouTube videos and Instagram posts and realise how much they’ve improved, it takes time to find your voice and your style. It’s better to be different than to be great. Lots of people are great. You are unique.

To see more of Ian’s work visit and check out his YouTube, Shop, Instagram and Twitter.

Artist relations

Charlotte is an illustrator and arts lecturer who is passionate about the creative industries and is now part of our artist relations team. Her interests include mid 20th century inspired design, comic books, board games, movie memorabilia, baking cakes, feminism and yoga. She shares her 1960’s home with her graphic designer husband and her toddler son who likes to hide her iPad. Get in touch with Charlotte if you have work you have made in Affinity apps to share with us, or tag your work with #madeinaffinity in the usual places.

Credits & Footnotes

All images copyright © of Ian Barnard unless otherwise stated and used with permission.