PROCESS: Gary Lettering

I have a love/hate relationship with lettering.  I LOVE the aesthetic of hand lettering.  I have the utmost respect for comic artists that do their own lettering.  Larger publishers have pretty much done away with it, replacing it with a completely digital process.  Surprisingly, indy comics artists are increasingly using computer generated fonts as well.  Obviously there are advantages and disadvantages to a totally digital process, and I don’t think hand lettering is necessary for all comics.  However, I tend to appreciate any aspect of an artistic medium that allows you to see the artist’s hand and the struggle for mechanical perfection in their work.  Of course, I DO use digital assists for a variety of reasons, and I’m aware that might seem a bit ‘hypocritical’.  But hey…

I suck at hand lettering.  That’s the ‘hate’ part.  It can be a deceivingly difficult and time-consuming aspect of comic art.  It takes a lot of time and a thorough understanding of your process to become proficient at hand lettering.  Obviously, there are many aspects of both digital and hand lettering that are congruent.  This discussion could easily careen into a larger discussion about fonts and the like, but as usual I’ll focus on my specific (backwards) hand lettering process.  Briefly, I should mention that lettering (in my humble opinion) should change to fit the style of the piece.  For instance, in my book MightyI use a more ornate style influenced by byzantine fonts.  For Gary I chose a subdued and straightforward font, that I try to keep fairly flat and avoid variation. Gary is not an overly operatic or melodramatic book and should feel more factual than inflammatory.


The first thing I learned was to GET AN AMES GUIDE.  It will make your life as a hand letterer infinitely easier.  This is a very cheap piece of equipment and can be used in a variety of ways.  The most basic explanation of how I use it is: I make my lines with a 3H mechanical pencil with my ames guide set to 5.  I use the 3rd line down and skip every other line to give me some nice spacing between rows.  Once I get my lines drawn, I pencil in the lettering with an HB mechanical pencil. I do my best to keep good spacing between words.  When I first started hand lettering my biggest downfall was that my tracking (space between letters) and word spacing were all over the place (you can see this in Mighty).  Consistency is key. Now I check my spacing after every line is pencilled and before I ink.  After pencilling I ink with a Pilot Razor Point.  I love those guys and do most of my other line work with them as well.

Then I’m left with something like the above.  This is scanned and then I do some cleanup in Photoshop (I’m still using CS).  The cleanup is basically the same cleanup I do on the pages (adjusting levels and fixing smudges or inconsistencies).  Occasionally I’ll clone a letter to replace one that I have botched horribly.  Then it looks nice and pretty…


Then I start inserting text into the pages.  Before I start the lettering on a separate bristol board, I will usually sketch the bubbles onto the original page to check placement.  As always, when I start compositing in Photoshop, I often change my mind.  Once they are placed,  I drop in and adjust my balloons behind the letters layer.  Each text and balloon get their own layer, to make fine tuning as easy as possible.

I have a few balloon templates that I drew by hand.  However, they get distorted as I adjust them.  The aspect I pay the most attention to while distorting is the line weight.  If it gets too thin or thick it ruins the way they read.  They will stick out like a sore thumb.  After the balloons are placed behind the letters, I make the balloon pointers (or tails) with the polygon lasso tool.  I fill with black then shrink my selection (8pts to be exact) and fill with white.  Finally I white out the seam and round off the point.  Yeah I know… ‘why not do the tails by hand too?’.  Well… This is such a simple task that I really don’t think doing it by hand makes as big of an impact as the actual lettering itself.  The time it saves far outweighs my guilty conscience.  In the end, I hope the lettering appears fairly seamless and blends in with the quality of the line work on the rest of the page.

The date boxes are pretty much the same process with a bit more cloning involved (especially if I’m pressed for time).

How do you letter?

– Tyrell

Gary, Ch4, Part 2

My apologies for the delay.  Please take a look at the new pages, in which Gary makes a connection…

Gary, Ch4, Part 2

A special Thanks to Beth Hetland this week.  Thanks for your patience.  Next week I’ll show you my lettering process!

– Tyrell