Ryan Hamrick
Hand-lettering & Design


Letter-Building Method One: Scaling & Shaping

In an effort to consolidate the sharing of my thoughts and experiences with lettering into one archived, searchable resource, I’ll be reposting entries here from my column on The Industry. The following was originally published here on October 29th, 2012.

Over the last few weeks, we’ve been talking a lot about the things you can do to prepare yourself for getting started in lettering. We’ve looked at some of the tools that I personally rely on for getting from point A to B in my work. We’ve also looked at some good sources of inspiration.

But I reckon that if we don’t start looking at some actual process stuff and how-tos, you guys aren’t going to keep sticking around for much longer. I get it. So let’s do it. 

On Friday night [last October], we went to pick up our second Shiba Inu puppy from the breeder. I eventually plan on getting a photo site up to share pictures of our two pups, so I thought why not put together a custom hand-lettered header “logo” for their site. So there we go, subject matter.


Reizo & Remi

For these first couple process posts, I thought it might be good to go over some different methods of iterating and building concepts to get to

What I want to show you today is a method I’m going to call “Scaling and Shaping”. At a high-level view, what we’ll be doing is shrinking and enlarging our sketches to easily and quickly move from rough initial thumbnail sketches to Illustrator-ready final concepts. File this one under “Working Smarter, Not Harder”.

When I first began playing with this approach, it admittedly felt a little dirty. I was sketching and doing a ton by hand, but instead of drudging through all the tracing and redrawing that it seemed most or all of the pros were doing, I was using the computer to, uh…not have to do all that. One of the first things I realized when taking on my first couple commissioned lettering gigs was that typical processes and good old due diligence weren’t very cost effective. At least not until I got better and faster at those processes. So I used what I already knew to compensate for what I didn’t. I turned to Photoshop.

Now, I see that this hybrid analog/digital approach is not only perfectly acceptable (if it’s okay for some to go all-digital, there’s definitely nothing wrong with playing both sides), but it’s also a great starting point for people just like you, who chances are, are very familiar with Photoshop, but maybe not so much with sketching. So let’s begin.

Rough “Thumbnail” Sketches

With any new lettering project, you first have to get a feel for the letters and words you’re going to be working with, to see what kind of character they have, what they look like next to each other, and where the opportunities for creative expression may lie.

Initial Thumbnail Sketches

Pull out a sheet of paper, sketchbook, whatever, and quickly sketch out as many ideas as you can, trying to make them as different as possible. This is something I’m trying to improve on, personally, and if it’s not inherently obvious, this is where those sources of inspiration can come in very handy.

IMPORTANT: It’s very easy to find inspiration and let it dictate where your “creativity” goes. Fight to keep your ideas your own and your concepts as original as possible. Practicing someone else’s style and concepts is great for learning. Using them to avoid the hard work that is creativity and imagination is not so great, and very bad for making friends.

Moving Forward with an Idea

Before too long (hopefully), you should have a stand-out concept that you feel really good about. For me, it was this simple linear script with somewhat tight spacing and a modest slant. Once you’ve picked an idea, pull out a ruler, draw out some guides for yourself (Assuming your concept is flat, of course. If not, sketch out some guidelines in the shape you’re looking for. Example: http://cloud.ha.mrick.me/JlqG), and try to redraw your idea a little cleaner, maybe a little bigger, and get it closer to the shape and look you have in mind.

Chosen Rough Sketch

We still don’t want to spend a ton of time at this stage, but more than our rough initial sketching. At this stage, you’re focusing more on how you want everything to interact and flow, and less on drawing it perfectly.

Scan that Shit

Once you’re happy with the form of your sketch, it’s time to hit Save. Huh? Right.

This is super-crucial realization number one about working in analog. You don’t always know exactly where you’re going with a project until you’re there. But if you go where you think you’re headed, that place could totally suck when you get there, and you might want to go back to a time when you were still stoked and didn’t hate everything about what you made. Checkpoints, guys. For this, we must scan.

REMEMBER: When working in analog, there is no Undo; only Redo. Scan that shit.

If you don’t have a scanner, you don’t need anything fancy, and can get one pretty darn cheap (I still use the printer/scanner I got for free when I bought my MacBook Pro two-and-a-half years ago). If that’s still too much, I’ve gotten by just fine by taking a straight-on-as-possible shot with my iPhone camera in a pinch. This may not re-print as nicely, but it’s not nothing.

So at this stage, we’re going to scan this sketch for two reasons. First, for saving purposes. Should things ever go terribly wrong, you can simply print this sucker back out and start from a happy place. Secondly, we need to pull it into Photoshop for the next step.

Scale and Duplicate

Create a new printer-paper-sized Photoshop document

Now that we have our monolinear sketch on our computer, let’s open a new Photoshop document that’s the size of a piece of printer paper. Since mine’s a more horizontally oriented piece, I’m using the custom preset I saved for U.S. Paper Landscape. If yours is more vertical, well, you know.

Now we’re going to place our scanned sketch into the document. At this stage, let’s not worry too much about rotating or doing a ton of cleanup, unless you’ve got some absolutely crazy things going on with yours. Mine, for instance, is slightly rotated counter-clockwise, probably from lying funky on the scanner bed. We’ll fix that later.

Boost levels to darken the sketch

For right now, we can use a Levels adjustment like in the shot above to bring out the sketch some more, if your scanner just likes to tease you with a light hint of what you wanted to scan like mine does. Once we can see everything clearly, we’re going to scale this bad boy down. There’s no certain amount you should reduce it, since it all depends on the size of your original sketch, but the idea is to substantially reduce its size so that your letters are, say, no taller than a half-inch on paper.

Reprint several copies of your scaled-down sketch on a new sheet

Once we’re sized down, we’re going to simply copy it a couple of times and then print out a sheet like the one above with several of the same sketch included. Why the hell are we doing this? I’m glad you asked.


When you’re trying to decide things like what the contrast should be (the difference in the “thicks” and “thins”), or how heavy or light to make the overall shading of your letters (how thick those thicks are), you have a couple of options. You can try to redraw your piece over and over, doing it a different way each time, or as I like to call it, settling for the first thing you do because dude, I don’t have time for this shit.

Or, you can do it the smart way. Shrink things down, print out a few as a guide, and quickly “mock-up” what several scenarios might look like. Not only will they all be a more accurate representation of what the end result would be since they’re all from the same basic skeleton, but it’s also worlds faster to flesh things out small than doing the same thing full-scale. I always notice my spacing and balance problems much quicker when my work is scaled down, so starting there just sets me up for fewer issues later on.

Finding the desired weight and contrrast

 Most times, I’ll just keep working in pencil, building the letterforms up stroke by stroke, but some times, I’ll grab a brush pen to see what actual single strokes might look like as well. What matters is getting to a weight and contrast that you like; the method is up to you.

Back to the Scanner

Now that things are shaping up the way we want them, it’s time to jump back into Photoshop. Scan your best weighted sketch in, and once again, plant it firmly in a paper-sized document. You should always scan your sketches in at 300 dpi, so that when you’re using them in a 300 dpi, 8.5 x 11 inch document, they’ll be represented just as they were on paper.

Resize & rotate

 So unlike last time, we’re going to be scaling up now. Resize your sketch to essentially dominate the middle of the page. Drag out a horizontal guide to the baseline or x-height (as shown) and rotate your sketch so that it’s level, if need be. Now you’re ready to perfect.

Duping and Masking

This is the fun part. After adding some weight to my letters, I now have some spacing issues, it seems. No worries. One way to approach this would be to break out the tracing paper and redraw each letter, shifting the original ever-so slightly underneath until you have them all perfectly spaced. A fine practice to sur—wait…now that it’s done, you see another spacing issue. Well, I guess we’ll do it again. We’ll get it this time, for sure.

Guys. Photoshop.

Maybe you’re already doing this, and if so, golf claps to you. For the rest of you, this is so awesome, but when I tell it to you, you’re going to flip at how easy this is. You should have your sketch large and centered on the page. Now duplicate the layer and click the “Add vector mask” button at the bottom of the layers pallete. Do this once with the copy selected, and once with the original selected.

Duplicating & masking

Now hide your copy layer and click inside the vector mask on the original. Grab your brush tool (B) and make sure your foreground color is black (if not, hitting ‘D’ will quickly make it so). Now, your going to start from the left and see where your first problem area lies. For mine here, I’m seeing that the spacing between the ‘e’ and ‘i’ in Reizo is a bit tight for my taste. Not a problem, I’m simply going to start masking out everything to the right of that ‘e’. Yes, everything. Then, I’m left with this:

First mask

Now, I’m going to essentially do the same thing with the copy. First, make the copy visible, and hide the original. Click inside the vector mask in your layers panel, and with your brush tool, mask out that initial ‘Re’.

Second mask

Now, you have two separate parts. Make sure they’re both showing, and with the copy selected, use the Move Tool (V), and nudge the second layer to the right until you’re happy with the spacing. Has the light bulb come on yet?

Improved spacing

I’ll continue on with this until I’ve bumped everything around to my liking, each time essentially splitting up the last copy made until I have it in the right amount of parts to get it perfect. The GIF above shows the original scan on top, with the improved spacing version below, and I’ve colored the different sections I made to get my spacing the way I wanted it.

Quick setting tips

The image above shows two more important notes. As you start moving these copies around, you might notice that your unmasked white areas start covering up the other layers. To quickly avoid this, change all layers to the “Multiply” blending mode so that only the dark shows.

Also, it can prove extremely helpful to rename each layer to the letters it contains so you can quickly select the one you want for moving or mask touch-ups.

Fade and Print

Now that we have our sketch all cleaned up and properly spaced and balanced, we’re ready to move on. select all of your individual sketch layers, and drop the opacity at the top of your Layers panel. How much depends on how dark your original sketch was, but the point here is to leave it just dark enough to see the edges, but no more. When you think you’re good there, print away.

Fade & print

New Guides and Final Sketching

Once we have our neatly spaced, almost invisible sketch printed as a guide, we’re ready to complete a final, perfected sketch. I like to start by drawing in some new guide lines just so I can get everything looking really sharp. Notice how I drew my slant guides directly through the body of each letter. This will just make it that much easier to avoid straying from my slant as I finish my line work.

New guides

With the guides in place, it’s time to start carefully and meticulously drawing in the outlines of each letter, considering any improvements that may need to be made to any curves or corners.

I want to make a quick comment about my personal experience with differences in pencil posture (Is this a thing, or did I just make that up? Let me know, if you know.) as it pertains to this stage in particular. I have a long habit of holding my pencils at a pretty low angle like the image on the left below. I always thought it was a much better approach to drawing smooth curves, and while this is definitely not completely false, I’ve found good reason to believe it’s not the best for everything. If you’re like me and sketch with numerous, quick, and short strokes as you move along your intended path, you’re probably well-familiar with “fuzzy lines”.

Pencil posture tip

One way I’ve found to limit this is to hold my pencil more vertically like the image on the right above. Kick it up about as close to vertical as you can comfortably draw and you should see a drastic improvement in the cleanliness of your lines. It also seems to keep you with a respectable point for slightly longer than drawing on the side of the lead. This could just be me, but who knows, give it a shot and see if it makes a difference for you.

Final outline

Once you have your final sketch outlined, you can chose to scan it back in for drawing your vectors in Illustrator, or proceed to color it in. I typically always fill mine in for a few reasons. A completely filled-in sketch is much better for checking spacing and even weight distribution than outlines, and it’s also easier to see any bum curves that need a little last-minute love.


So that’s just one example of how you can get through the concept and sketching phase of a lettering project a little easier, and maybe a little faster. I’d like to go over at least one more approach in the next week or so, but then, we’ll move on to Illustrator and talk about a couple different ways to move from fine-tuned sketches to client-ready vectors!

You should follow me on Twitter to keep up with any updates to this post or even the methods themselves as they happen.

Several of the tools featured in this post can be found and purchased through my "Things" page where I link to products people ask me about the most.