Improving Your Lettering Through Copying


Most of the time, I learn by myself. There are a lot of courses out there. But sometimes, I just have to prioritize saving and adulting. I can't possibly attend all the courses I want without ending up in debt. So what do I do? In those cases, I sit down and do research.

After identifying what I want to learn and looking through the theories behind it, I would find samples from my Inspiration board/Swipe file, and think:

What would <insert your lettering hero here> do?

How did you learn how to write?

You'd probably remember your parent or your teacher holding your hand while they guide you. They will teach you what strokes to draw first. Then after you learn the basics, what else? You guessed it, through tons of copying and tracing. For some who have been taught penmanship, you would be familiar with workbooks upon workbooks of examples and guides/lines. And this is what can do to improve your lettering.

But wait, isn't copying plagiarism?

Yes and no. Copying is encouraged, as long as you don't post it and claim it as your work. You can privately copy whatever you want at your own pace and on your own time. You can look through Seb Lester's work, or Jon Contino's. You can imitate their pieces to learn the ropes. That's totally fine, as long as you do it in private, and only for practice. It becomes plagiarism when you start posting it, and worse if you start claiming it as your own.

Use tracing and copying as a stepping stone.

  • Benefits of tracing:
    • It is an exact replica of the one you want to copy.
    • You can always print and write over, by printing it and tracing over, you ensure that you can always trace using a perfect example.
    • It helps build muscle memory.
    • Benefits of copying:
      • It trains you on measurements and perspectives.
      • It is as if you are landscape painting. Observe how each form is connected. Look at the distance between objects and lines. Copy the shading and the elements.
      • It helps you see things differently and more intently.

As you do this more, you'll slowly find your way through lettering.

Everyone does it.

Most lettering instructors teach about understanding fonts as a basic step, and it is what it is - copying fonts. Everyone does it. It's one of the best ways to learn.

Of course, nothing beats learning from a mentor. However, even if you don't have an opportunity to speak to one, it does not give you an excuse. It may take a bit longer, but you can still continually hone your skills on your own.