Hand Lettering A Digital Comic, Part 1

The advent of cheap or free font packs, some designed specifically for comic books, has made it a lot easier for comic artists and cartoonists to letter their work in a clean, professional-looking manner.  It may therefore seem strange to suggest applying old hand lettering principles to a digital art format.  It’s not as odd an idea as it might seem, however, and has some significant advantages over font lettering.  It’s also a lot easier than you might think.

Lettering a comic by hand has the advantage of giving you, the artist, maximum control over the visual style and composition of your comic.  This can be extremely important, since visual unity on a page can be made or broken by good or bad lettering.  Moreover, in choosing a font to letter with, you’re basically making a compromise that you may or may not want to make – you’re taking a font someone else designed for their own purposes and shoehorning it into your own art style.  There’s also the problem that, if you’re using a pre-made font, it’s going to make your comic look like every other comic that uses that same pre-made font, particularly if the font is over-used (like Anime Ace) or badly designed (like Comic Sans).  If you hand-letter your comic, you don’t need to live with any such restrictions.

One of the things that keeps more people from hand-lettering their work is also a misconception that it’s incredibly difficult to do.  It isn’t.  To explode the main myth underlying this hesitation, realize that lettering is very different from handwriting.  Lettering has much more in common with drawing than with writing.  It shares many of the same hand motions and stylistic conventions, and so it’s important to divorce lettering from writing in order to get a good grip on using the technique in a digital medium.  Although it helps to have good handwriting habits, you can have sloppy handwriting and still be a great letterer if you understand some underlying principles of lettering as an artistic skill.  Like any other art skill, it just takes a little time, practice, and planning.

Fortunately, the planning stages generally only have to be done once.  Once you’ve gone through all the preliminaries, you can use the same setup again and again.  The most important thing you need to start lettering is a clear idea of what it is you’re going to letter – that is to say, a well-written script.  By “script,” I don’t mean that you have to have a piece of paper with every word in the whole comic on it, but you should know what the words are that are going on the page you are going to letter, so that you can get an idea of how you’re going to compose them.  Lettered words have different shapes and sizes and you should know in advance what you’re up against so you can size your words properly.  If you’re going to try to put the word “uberschallgeschwindigkeit” in a dialogue balloon, you had better plan ahead.

Now, let’s talk about equipment.  In any art setting, it’s important to respect your equipment and materials, and to use the right tool for the right job.  To letter digitally, you’re going to need a tablet of some kind.  It can be done with a mouse, of course, but it is extremely difficult, because the motions involved are not the same as with a pen or stylus.  Fortunately, most digital comic artists already have a tablet that they use for coloring or inking (or both), and if not, they can be found very inexpensively these days as refurbished or secondhand units.  Personally, I saved for about three years and bought a Wacom Cintiq 12WX, which cost about a thousand dollars but makes the entire process as close to actual pen-on-paper lettering as is presently possible.  But any tablet will do, so long as you have some kind of pen operating on some kind of hard, flat surface.

Now, whether you are lettering on paper with a pen or in a digital format, like I’m discussing here, there are some universal elements that I think are very important to learn and practice early on.  The first is how to hold a pen for lettering – there is such a thing as a right and a wrong way to do this.  True, a lot of artists I know ignore this and still produce excellent results, but I’m convinced, and have always believed, that proper hand posture makes the process of lettering a lot easier.  To say it in words, a lettering tool, whether pencil, pen, quill or stylus, should be held lightly between the first finger and thumb, rested against the first joint of the middle finger, and guided with the third finger, while held between 90 and 75 degrees from the surface on which you are lettering on (a tablet or a piece of paper).

You should keep your wrist relaxed but firm and your palm open, and make any straight strokes by moving your entire forearm, rather than your hand.  This will use all your best-controlled muscle groups to their maximum potential, and avoid wobbly or inconsistent lines in your letters.  You might think that gripping the pen tightly or with more fingers gives you more control, but in fact, it’s quite the opposite.  Gripping the stylus with more than your thumb and forefinger, choking up too far towards the tip, gripping it too close to the palm of the hand, or trying to make long strokes with the wrist instead of the arm, will cause stress in the ligaments and fine muscle groups in the carpal and metacarpal areas of the hand, leading to writer’s cramp and actually reducing your fine motor control, and consequently, causing sloppy lettering.  A good rule to follow is that the only points of contact between your hand and the writing surface should be the soft, meaty portion of the outside of your hand, from about the knuckle of your pinkie finger to about an inch above the wrist – the wrist, palm, and other fingers should never touch the writing surface.  This is not the way most people hold their pens or pencils – I had to retrain myself to do this about ten years ago, but it has saved me a great deal of pain, literally.  You should get this posture right, practice it, and get used to it before you really try to letter in earnest.  It is really, really worth learning to do right.

The next thing you need is a good set of guidelines.  Lettering freely on a blank page can be done, but it is quite difficult, because the letters will then follow your natural hand stroke rather than the straight print lines you expect a lettered page to have.  Fortunately, using programs like Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator, you can very easily make guidelines that will help you size and straighten your letters.  It’s important to note, of course, that these are not meant to make your letters completely straight – part of the charm and interest of hand-lettered comics is that they aren’t entirely perfect.  You basically just want the lines of text to align overall, not to be perfectly ruled straight.  You can set your guides to numerical distances using the “New Guide” option, either Imperial, Metric, Printers’ or Pixel measures.  I recommend that you set your guides but leave “snap” off – both options are found in the “View” menu in Photoshop.

Set your guidelines with reduction in mind.  Normally, I draw my comics as two-page spreads at 300 DPI, 11 x 34″, and then reduce them to 66% of their original size to print or post them online.  In this scale, I make most of my lettering 1/8″ high (0.125 inches, for decimal entry), and it seems to be about optimum for my style.  Depending on how you draw your guides will vary – you just have to experiment to find the right height.

Now you can set up your pens.  Most, if not all, tablets are set for pressure sensitivity, but for lettering I recommend turning this off, or at least to a very narrow range, say five percent of variation – you want the lines of your letters to be relatively consistent in order to be readable.  Depending on the look you want, you can play around with the pen settings found under “Brush Presets” in the tool palette.  For lettering my comics, I have found that settings of 7 point, 1% spacing, 100% hardness, 10% roundness, angle 45 degrees, gives me a very good result for 1/8″ lettering that’s intended to be reduced by two thirds.  The possibilities are essentially infinite, though – Photoshop is like having every possible lettering pen right there, and you can play around with them until you find a setting you’re comfortable with.  Lower “roundness” will give a harder, more metaled look to your letters; spacing will add an uneven texture, less “hardness” will make the edges seem softer and more feathery.  The key is consistency and readability – you want your lines smooth, crisp, and easy to read.  Avoid extremes or gimmicks – simplicity is usually best.  But always endeavor to find some interesting variation – this is what will set your comic’s lettering apart.

With all this planning done, you’re finally ready to put pen to paper.





See Mathieu’s webcomic and blog here: www.viciousprint.com/6commando

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3 Responses to “Hand Lettering A Digital Comic, Part 1”

  1. Janine Alyssa

    Thanks for the informational post!

    I have to admit, pre-font packs are awesome, and I probably depend on it a little too much…

    However, I have been trying to get into hand lettering recently. And the one thing that’s always scared me away from hand-lettering is the thought of how difficult it looked to do- that, and my awful handwriting. Thank you for clearing those misconceptions up. 🙂 I think this has inspired me to and hand-letter my next comic.

  2. Thijs

    First off, thank you for this very elaborate and helpful post.
    I was wondering about the following: “…a lettering tool, whether pencil, pen, quill or stylus, should be held lightly between the first finger and thumb, rested against the first joint of the middle finger, and guided with the third finger…”
    When you say ‘guided’, do you mean it is used to rest on the drawing surface or to determine the weight of the stroke? My usual way of holding a pen is pretty much like this, except for the third finger, which I don’t use. Some pictures would help to clarify.


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