How To: Famous Artists Course on Lettering

Images © Famous Artists Cartoon Course, Inc. except as noted.

Someone on the Digital Webbing lettering forum recently posted a link to a PDF of interest to anyone who is a student of comics lettering, as I am. The Famous Artists School was begun in the 1940s by commercial illustrator Albert Dorne. If you’re a long-time comics reader you probably remember their ads in the comics, like this one:

Now, I have to admit that, while I did like to draw, when I was young it never occurred to me to send in for information about this mail-order art course. I can’t say why, maybe I just felt I was better off doing my own thing, but if I had subscribed to their Cartooning course, I’m sure I would have learned a lot from it, and maybe even become a comics artist. Possibly.

If I had persevered through the course to lesson 18, it would have taught me a lot about lettering for comics, too, and information about that was hard to come by when I was trying to get into comics in the mid 1970s. I did find and buy a small mini-comic how-to that included lettering published by Charlton Comics:

Image © Charlton Comics or the respective copyright holder.

It was written by Nicola Cuti, and had lettering tips and demos by Frank Bravo, and was quite helpful. Wish I knew where my copy went, I haven’t seen it in years. That was about all the information available in print at that point, as far as I knew, and I had to wait until I got on staff at DC Comics in their Production Department to learn more.

Back to the FACC lesson, it doesn’t say who wrote this Lettering how-to, but a number of popular comic strip artists were on the staff list—Rube Goldberg, Milton Caniff and Al Capp are still well-known names—and examples of their work and others are included. The perspective is very much geared toward newspaper strip artists, as you might expect.

Page two of the lesson shows pictures of a number of different dip pen points and lettering that could be made with them, a great idea! Now, when I started I was using Speedball dip pens, but mostly for larger lettering. For balloon lettering I followed the example of my first lettering teacher John Workman and used technical drawing pens. I don’t know if they were on the market when this lesson was written in the mid 1950s, but if so, they weren’t yet considered a lettering tool by the writer.

The course begins with a fine introduction outlining the importance of lettering as part of telling a story in cartooning. It also divides lettering into two main categories: balloon lettering and display lettering, with the latter being anything other than regular dialogue balloons and captions. I concur! But here’s something else in the text that I find interesting:

“It’s true that most successful comic strip men have an assistant to do their lettering. But, it is also true that each and every one of the men at the top is perfectly able to do his own lettering. The assistant merely saves him valuable time. If you are lucky enough to get a crack at being an established cartoonist’s assistant, you must be able to letter as well as the boss, preferably better.”

Now, there’s a window into an inviting world! And probably one that’s mostly passed us by now, but in the 1970s, if I’d read that, I’d have been itching to try to get into it! Ah, the days when comic strips paid really well, and each strip had it’s own staff of assistants…the few strip artists I know do it all themselves, and either letter it on a computer or have someone do that part for them.

As the course gets down to the practicalities of balloon lettering, they again show some dip pen points. I’ve used Speedball B-series points for larger balloon and display lettering, the others I don’t think I’ve used. Some I haven’t seen. For drawing guidelines they show a simple method of using a marked-out paper guide, as well as the plastic Ames Lettering Guide at lower right, though used incorrectly! I did a one-sheet lettering guide myself many years ago that has the correct position, you can find it HERE. I’m guessing the artist had never used it himself.

This practice stroke and letter shape guide is on firm ground, though the letterforms are not really what most cartoonists followed, rather they’re idealized type-like forms. Still, it’s not a bad starting point. And the examples below that of Bad Lettering are entertaining!

Here’s another amusing group of bad lettering samples. In general, the how-to’s in this lesson are fine, though.

Finally we get to putting lettering into balloon shapes. Whoever did these samples has a style with some nice bounce that would look fine on a humorous comic strip. Interesting that he chose a spelling of the word practice (practise) that is much more common in England than here. Also, he did not follow the advice for the letter I with crossbars from the previous diagram of Good and Bad Lettering, where it says, “Generally, most cartoonists put serifs on the letter “I” when it is a personal pronoun and omit them when it is a part of a word.” Something I’ve been saying for many years, and nice to see it reinforced here.

In all, this course is well done, and could have gotten anyone on the right track with hand-lettering. The Cartoon course was discontinued in the 1980s, perhaps due to the shrinking market for comics and comic strip artists, but not before serving some artists like Bernie Wrightson well — he cites it as a major learning tool. Just as well, they didn’t have to even consider computer lettering…! I believe the Famous Artists School still offers courses on drawing and painting, though. You can visit their WEBSITE for more information.

3 thoughts on “How To: Famous Artists Course on Lettering

  1. Pingback: How To: Famous Artists Course on Lettering « Pulse: Comic Book News, Opinion and Insight

  2. MackDK

    “For drawing guidelines they show a simple method of using a marked-out paper guide, as well as the plastic Ames Lettering Guide at lower right, though used incorrectly! ”

    Man… I try it this way. Not funny I can guarantee….

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