December 22, 2008

This week: Printed Lettering Guides

Many folks can get away with unruled, freehand lettering in their comics, and have it looks fine, or even good. My all-time-favorite-cartoonist Lewis Trondheim doesn't rule out his lettering, and I have great affection for it. But I am not one of these people, and most people who think they are really aren't. Unruly lettering looks cheap and lazy, and it's rediculous how drastic the improvement would be in many people's work would be if they just used some straight lines to help tidy things up.

The tried-and true tool for ruling out lettering is the Ames lettering guide. The Ames guide is fantastic- it rules 3 lines of text without you having to move your ruler. It's adjustable, so you can letter as large or small as you care to. It rules upper and lower case letters. The spacing the Ames guide uses will garauntee that if you follow it at all, your writing will be at least somewhat typographically tasteful. And it rules letters with 4 distinct kinds of line spacing. Plus, it makes a great right angle for small corners. It's a fantastic little tool, but I'm not going to teach you how to use it for two reasons: first, Jessica Abel and Matt Madden wrote a textbook called "Drawing Words and Writing Pictures," and they have a detailed, fully-illustrated four page section covering nothing but it's proper use:
Their book is fantastic, a resource every cartoonist should have around, along with Scott McCloud's "Making Comics" and David Chelsea's "Perspective for Comic Book Artists." Secondly, the Ames has a few drawbacks that have made me move away from it as I've become more finnicky.

First off, you can only rule 3 lines at a time with it. More than 3 lines of text? You have to match the thing up with your bottom line to draw more. Pain in the neck. You have to pencil the text lines onto the page, which I hate, because I like being able to move text around up until I ink it, sometimes very minutely. Redrawing lettering is bad enough, but having to re-pencil guidelines? Somebody shoot me. And the Ames guide can only rule lettering with the proportions of it's letter spacings. Let's say my lettering doesn't quite match the Ames proportions. Let's say I have a lettering style that looks good, is well balanced, but doesn't fit. I'm out of luck, then.

So a couple years back I heard this tip from...someone. I wish I could remember who, so I could give them credit. They said that they did a bunch of freehand lettering, picked out some they liked, and printed out a page of lines that were ruled to match that lettering. They stick the lines behind the page on a light box, letter away, and boom! they're done, no lines to erase. If they don't like where the lettering is, or they want to change the text, they don't have to re-draw any lines.

I tried it and I've been doing it this way ever since. Here's how I do it now:

First, I take some lettering I think looks pretty good, like this, which I just drew freehand with a marker.
I scan it and pop it into Photoshop. I pull down a couple guides and then rotate the text to match up straight with those guides.
Now that everything is straight, I pull down one more guide, which shows how far down the next line is.

Then I make those guides actual lines.

Then I just multiply those lines, like this:
I remove the text layer and print the lines out, like so:
Here's how it looks on the light box:
And here it is finished:
As you can see, it has the same spacing and character of the lettering I did freehand, and now I can guarantee it will be consistent.

By the way, I did all this lettering with this marker:
It's a Copic Multiliner. I LOVE Copic markers. I just bought one recently, and it writes better on my rough vellum bristol than any other marker period. In fact I'd say that it's the only marker that gives me acceptable results on vellum. Even my pricey Deleters don't to as well. It's a sexy, well built marker, too. It's made of VERY solid metal. The thing feels like a Japanese beer can. (If you've ever handles a Japanese beer can you know a good way to kill a frat boy would be to dare him to crush one against his head. It would go right in.) The cap seals tighter than any marker I've ever used, and it also holds into the back nice and securely. And the tips are REPLACABLE! The ink is waterproof and marker proof, though I don't see anything that says it's archival. But it is pigment-based, so it won't separate chemically into different-colored bleeds over time like the evil Sharpie will.


Ambassador MAGMA said...

That's such a great idea!

Unfortunately, I'm married to my Ames guide. For the longest time I thought they were esoteric, expensive masonic gadgets that you had to know a secret drafter's handshake to get until I saw one for 2.49. I've been hooked since.

However, here are three huge drawbacks to it that your method solves:

A) The Ames is adjustable, but not infinitely. If you need to do super large letters, you can't.

B) My guide slides like a greased ferret. Granted, I am drawing on my bed on a piece of cardboard, but still I have to redraw maybe every 5th line.

C) You HAVE to use a mechanical pencil! Even with a super-sharp tip, it will fit for one line and then break off, or dull and not reach the paper.

If I ever get a light-box I will probably start using this method. Until then, though, my tempestuous relationship with my Ames will continue... despite its defects, I love it for the ugly child it is!

Unknown said...

grr.. makes it look so easy, i gave up using words altogether, but that great, thanks.

Anonymous said...

GREAT tutorial, Matt! I linked it on my Twitter, hopefully other people will find it useful :)

Comic Tools said...

Thanks Erika!

Anonymous said...

Haha Magma, I am in the same boat with you. I really love using the Ames guide. An old draftsman showed me how it worked and I fell in love with it.

However, I totally agree the lightbox system is superior for the reasons you stated AND for this fourth and terrible reason: If you have to erase a misspelled word or make any corrections, you're going to erase parts of your guide lines too. Those are not convenient to fix.

So that pretty much buries the poor, well meaning ol' Ames.