Have you ever looked at a hand lettered piece of art and wondered how the artist created such a perfect layout and design? Well, you’re in the right place because in this step-by-step advanced hand lettering tutorial we’re going to take a look at how to create beautiful compositions for long sentences and quotations.

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Colorful and playful piece using a simple composition by Andrea Stan

Before you dive in, make sure you read our tutorial on the basics of hand lettering. Here’s a quick recap of what that guide covers:

  • What is hand lettering and how can it be used
  • The anatomy and construction of letters
  • The basic lettering styles (serif, sans serif and script)
  • How to add shadow, dimension, details and decorative elements
  • How to bring personality and emotion to your designs

But hand lettering does not only consist of always drawing single letters or words. Often times you’ll want to draw your favorite quote or song lyric. Or you might be commissioned to draw an even longer sentence. As intimidating as that can be, I assure you that once you get the hang of it, you’ll find the process fun and creative!

Let’s start with some inspiration, just to see the many, many different ways that lettering can be used.

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Such a simple but beautiful composition by Colleen Tracey
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Intricate composition by Cyla Costa using many styles but having color to tie it all together
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Beautiful piece that uses a well balanced composition by Lisa Quine

The rules of advanced hand lettering

Hierarchy

First thing you want to do after choosing your sentence is look at your words and try to establish a hierarchy.

You will want to EMPHASIZE the RIGHT WORDS in order to MAKE your piece EASILY UNDERSTOOD. Otherwise, IF YOU accentuate ALL the wrong words, THE reader WILL get disoriented AND your message will lose ITS power.

(See what I did there?)

You can emphasize words with a few different techniques.

Size

Draw the most important words in a bigger size. This automatically brings them to the front, leaving the smaller, less important words in the back.

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Establishing hierarchy by variating size. Work by Shauna Lynn Panczyszyn.

Style and weight

Choosing two or more lettering styles can also influence which words will be more noticeable (we’ll talk more about this later). You can play with the weights of the letters, too. A bold, slab serif for example will be noticed first, compared to a thin sans serif. Alternatively, adding details, dimension or swashes to a word will make it the center of attention.

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Establishing hierarchy by using different styles. Work by Kasi Turpin.

Color

Play with color, as well. If a word has a bright, vibrant color it will be visually louder than a lighter or duller tone.

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Establishing hierarchy by the use of color. Work by Kiren Louise.

And of course, you can definitely combine all these techniques.

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Color, size and style all play a role in establishing hierarchy. Work by Kaitlin Lewis.

Composition

Hierarchy helps emphasize the most important words from the sentence. But if you don’t combine these words properly in a well-balanced composition you’ll end up with a piece that is hard to read. You have endless options to create the structure of your composition by adjusting form, size, and positioning.

Start with rectangles

The most common shape for creating a grid is the rectangle. From here, you’ll be able to create many different compositions.

Rectangles and design

Design tip:

  • Use bigger shapes as a base for your most important words
  • Use smaller shapes for words like and, if, of

Stretch your shapes

Use these basic shapes and transform them to achieve a more dynamic and interesting look. Try to skew them, make them wavy, play with how they interact with one another and how they all fit together.

Rectangles and design

Design tip:

  • Make sure you use the same slant for a consistent look.
  • Try to play not only with symmetric layouts, but with asymmetric ones as well.
  • Play with how shapes interact with one another. Try to nest them together.
  • Fill out spaces between words and boxes with decorations or illustrations.

Combine your shapes

If you’re feeling adventurous, you can always combine all these different shapes to create one complex grid.

Rectangles and design

Design tip:

  • You don’t have to stretch one word to perfectly fill a shape in your grid. Use swashes, for example, to fill out the rest of the shape.
  • You can even add two words into one shape, if it fits. Get creative!

Fill your shapes

Once you have your grid, you’ll need to fill the given shape with a word. Most of the time, you’ll have to distort the word, take it apart, combine it again or even blend letters into one another. But most importantly, keep the word legible!

Handlettering tips

Design tip:

  • When lettering on a wavy baselines, keep your letters upright. Don’t skew or distort them.
  • If a letter doesn’t perfectly fit a shape, don’t force it.
  • Bigger letters will always seem larger so make sure to draw them slightly thinner to have all letters optically match.
  • Don’t be afraid to use as many guides as you need.

Styles

You may want to use a bunch of lettering styles in just one piece. As appealing as that sounds, you’re better off keeping things simple and consistent.

Start by looking at the message of the sentence, quote or lyric you are lettering. If it’s about love or being kind, consider using scripts and organic shapes, probably some elegant serifs. If it’s about being wild and adventurous, go for something bold and loud, not delicate. Try to choose styles that compliment each other, or use the same shading treatment for all to make it look like it all fits together.

However, there’s an exception for every rule. You can combine two styles that are completely different if that’s the mood you want to evoke with your piece. Maybe you want to create some sort of contrast or emphasize a certain difference.

Be brave enough to experiment with combining them but be careful not to go over the top! As time passes and you keep practicing, you will learn what goes best with what, as well as develop your own style and aesthetic.

A step-by-step tutorial to advanced hand lettering

Now that we know these advanced techniques, we can move on to putting these rules into practice!

1. Create your hierarchy

First, choose a phrase, sentence or quotation to letter. It could be a thought that keeps popping into your head, your favorite song lyrics, or a quote from a book you’re currently reading. Your selection should have at least five words.

Write that sentence down, underlining the words you think are most important. Just use your own handwriting without thinking about layouts or styles.

Present choice and action

Readers will most likely read the emphasized words together. So, in this case, I can’t emphasize the words NOT, CHOICE and ACTION because read together, it will have the opposite meaning of what’s intended.

2. Build your composition

Time to move on to sketching. You can do these on a paper with a pencil, on your iPad with Apple Pencil, or on a desktop computer with a Wacom tablet and your favorite app.

Decide what format you will use for your piece (square, portrait or landscape), and start with a few thumbnail sketches to figure out your overall look and composition. Do these sketches in a smaller size—small enough to not leave space for details, but big enough to nicely fit all words. This usually ends up being just 2-3 inches wide.

Don’t get precious with these sketches, and don’t spend too much time on them. Just let your ideas flow and do as much as you can.

Present choice and action

From here, you can go in two different directions: create a well-defined grid or sketch as you please with vaguely-defined grid around each word.

I prefer the second option because it gives me more space to experiment. It’s like drawing on a blank paper versus a lined paper. If you have lines, you will most certainly try to fit and build your drawing to them. There’s no right or wrong way to do this! Try out both techniques and see which one suits you best.

If you want to explore more defined grids, Stefan Kunz created a bunch of grids so that you can choose the one that best fits your quote and just fill it out. You should definitely check them out!

Grid example
Super helpful premade guides by Stefan Kunz

3. Finalize your grid

Once you feel like you’ve exhausted your possibilities with the composition, look at each one and choose a favorite. Roughly sketch it again at final size, making any fixes you see. And then do that again and again. Use your sketch as a base, and draw on top of it.

If you’re using paper and pencil, having some tracing paper at hand is super helpful. If you’re working digitally, you can do the same thing with layers.

Finalized handlettering grid

Once you’ve pinned down your composition, start creating a final polished grid to your sketch. Add another piece of tracing paper or create a new digital layer on top of your sketch and draw a clean grid.

Handlettering grid

This final grid will be the base on which you construct your letters. Reference your original thumbnail sketch as you build your letterforms.

Handlettering grid

4. Draw and polish

Now start to draw and redraw your letterforms until you reach a version that you can call final. Do this several times and explore the possibilities of styles and flourishes. With each step, keep the details you like and modify the ones that you don’t.

Handlettering grid
Handlettering grid

Once you have every word in its place, decided on the styles, swashes and flourishes, you can start to polish your piece.

Again, use the last sketch as a base and draw on top of it. This will require a lot of patience and attention but to be honest, I find this step to be extremely relaxing. It’s basically just copying!

Don’t start adding color yet! This may distract you and cause you to add more and more details. Just concentrate on the shapes of the letters.

Handlettering grid

If you’re working digitally, make sure you have everything on a separate layer. If you chose analog tools, you can similarly use separate tracing papers for each element. This way you will be able to further edit, move and give color to your piece more easily.

Handlettering grid

And there you have it, the finished, polished base of your letters! If you used analog tools to build your piece, scan them and edit them in Photoshop or Illustrator. But, we’re not finished yet! We still need to add colors, dimension, shadows, and details.

5. Add color and detail

When it comes to adding color to a piece, I rarely have a specific color palette in mind. More often, I have a vague idea of an emotion, feeling, or general color scheme.

Since this piece talks about making choices and taking action, I chose red because it’s a loud color that inspires strength. Always think of the message and the emotion you want to evoke your piece, and choose your colors based on that. Try out different ways of combining the chosen colors.

Handlettering color

Once you have selected a favorite palette, pay attention to the overall balance and make sure the right words are emphasized. Then, start adding more details, dimension, and decorative elements and so on.

Handlettering color

I couldn’t decide which of these two versions I liked better, so I chose to finalize both. Sometimes having a complete, finished piece will help you decide on the best combination!

Get creative with a little help from hand lettering

See, wasn’t as hard as it sounded! Now, you can letter longer phrases with more confidence! Isn’t that cool? Building a well-balanced composition shouldn’t be something to be afraid of. Just remember to take it step-by-step. Don’t rush it and don’t be afraid to make mistakes!

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