I wrote at length on this subject in the book The DC Comics Guide to Coloring and Lettering (Watson-Guptill 2004, co-authored with Mark Chiarello), but that’s been out of print for about ten years now, so here’s a shorter article mostly written in 2020, the last time I picked up my pens and ink to letter.
From the earliest days of creating comics until the advent of all-digital art, the basic tools for artists and letterers remained essentially the same. You need a drawing board with a comfortable chair and an adjustable desk lamp, usually attached to the drawing board with screws or a clamp. You need a T-square to keep things aligned, large and small triangles, masking tape or pins to hold drawing paper, India ink, pens, brushes, pencils, erasers, something to hold clean rinsing water, a rag or paper towels and a wastebasket. There are other useful tools, but those are the basics.
Above is my drawing board and setup, essentially unchanged since I entered the comics business in 1977. (The board dates to the 1950s, the iron legs to the late 1800s, both were gifts.) I think it would look familiar to artists and letterers from any time in the twentieth century, aside from the TV for entertainment! I’m left-handed, so natural light and lamp light is usually wanted from the right side, the opposite is true for right-handed people. Note that I’ve covered the central work area of the drawing board with a large piece of thick cardboard taped at the upper corners. Not necessary, but I like the texture better than the bare wood of my drawing board, and it can be changed periodically. To the right is a small table with drawers, also called a taboret, to store tools and supplies that won’t fit on the drawing board. A paper towel is taped to the lower right corner of the board and used for wiping pens and brushes (the one shown here was used mainly on coloring brushes). Replacements are in a roll on the wall.
A closer look at things I use often and keep on or near the drawing board. In the front are the oval and circle templates I use the most: a Pickett 4-in-1 Ellipse Inking Template #12621 and a Koh-i-noor Large Circle Template. The former is still available, the latter seems not to be, but any circle template would work. The end of my T-square is to the left of those. It has plastic edges so you can see what you’re doing better, and they’re slightly thinner than the central wood part so ink is less likely to bleed under the edge. Above that on the left is my large triangle, and the small triangle is right of it. I’ve added areas of doubled masking tape to create raised edges for the same reason as on the T-square. Just above the small triangle is a small French curve which has a similar masking tape addition. To the right of the small triangle is my favorite pencil, actually a lead holder, and my X-acto knife with number 11 blade. A favorite nib pen for lettering is behind the small triangle. To the right of that are a few markers and a ball-point pen which are not used for lettering in most cases, but there for sketching or writing. Just above the small triangle is my Ames Lettering Guide. On top of the large triangle is a brush for removing eraser crumbs, dust and dirt. Above that are my favorite technical drawing pens. To the right is an 18-inch wooden ruler with a raised metal edge for ruling ink lines and measuring. Above the technical pens, right of the lamp base in a red plastic cover is a compass with technical pen adapter for very large circles. There are several old soup cans full of extra pens, pencils, markers and other tools as well as a scissors. In front of them is a box of extra X-acto blades and a bottle of pen cleaner, then a small stapler. Right of that is a bottle of India ink. Next is a bottle of white correction paint, an eraser, a cup tray, a box of leads for the lead holder and a small calculator. Behind the ink and white paint is a regular tape dispenser, behind that is a lead pointer for sharpening the lead in the lead holder. Right of that is a paper clip holder, and behind that is a masking tape dispenser attached to the side of the drawing board. My large-base water mug is behind that on the taboret. Other small tools on the taboret are an eyedropper, a sharpening stone for pen nibs, and a staple remover. In a vertical bin are larger French curves and other templates and rulers. This is an accumulation of many years, and includes things I seldom use, but I thought it might be helpful as an example. I rarely letter things by hand now, but when I do, all the tools are ready, except that I have to clean the technical pens, often a difficult job.
In ancient times, writing with ink was done with a reed or quill (a flight feather from a large bird like a goose) cut to a point and generally split at the end to make ink flow easier. These pens were dipped into a pot of ink repeatedly, with each dip holding enough ink for a few words. Metal pen nibs have been traced to Roman times, but became common in the 1820s when steel nibs began to be mass produced in Birmingham, England by several companies including Joseph Gillott & Sons, whose nibs are still sold today. The steel nibs were held in a handle or holder made of wood, metal or other materials. Part of the nib design was an open area in the center which served as a small ink reservoir with a split from it descending to the point where ink was applied to paper, encouraging ink flow. Such pens were often called dip pens because of the frequent need to dip them in ink, or simply nib pens, and there was a wide variety of nib types, sizes and styles to suit every kind of writing, drawing, and lettering need. Before the invention of the typewriter, nib pens were used frequently in every home and business to write letters and keep accounts, as well as by artists, though the invention of mass market fountain pens with larger ink reservoirs starting in the 1850s replaced dip pens for writing letters for those who could afford them. Fountain pens did not work well with thicker drawing inks, though, so dip pens continued to be used by artists.
While some artists were creating political cartoons and other drawings for magazines and newspapers, the precision of steel pen nibs gave birth to a new art form: penmanship. Practitioners like Daniel T. Ames created amazingly ornate official presentation documents and drawings, and artistic penmanship was taught in schools. A good penman could find work doing everything from wedding invitations to diplomas to stock certificates. A simpler version of penmanship survives today as calligraphy. Another common use for pen work was creating hand-lettered advertising for magazines, shop windows, store shelves, and businesses of all kinds. This was called “show-card” lettering, and it flourished for decades until it was gradually edged out by inexpensive phototype printing and photocopying starting in the 1950s. Instructional books on show-card lettering with many sample alphabets and how to draw them became available starting in the 1880s. Large show-card lettering and other big signs were painted with brushes, but the skill set was similar.
In 1914, penman Ross F. George and show-card master William Hugh Gordon patented a new type of steel pen nib with a second piece of lighter metal attached to the top of the nib, creating a larger ink reservoir that allowed the user to produce more lettering before redipping the pen. This reservoir could also be filled with an ink bottle dropper for a more precise and less messy fill. Though it was soon imitated by other companies, The Gordon and Ross pens, marketed first under the “Speed-ball” name and produced by the C. Howard Hunt Manufacturing Company of Camden, New Jersey, soon became the leading seller of lettering pens for show-card and calligraphy work. By the early 1920s, Hunt was making Speedball pens in five basic styles: A – square tip, B – round tip, C – wedge tip, D – oval tip and E – larger brush pens with wide wedge tips. All came in a variety of sizes.
To promote their products, Gordon and George began selling a book showing how the pens worked, and offering instruction and alphabets. It was wildly popular and went through many editions and revisions, the most recent one I’ve seen being the 24th edition released in 2015. Gordon died in 1920 after selling his share of the copyrights to his partner Ross F. George, who was listed as the sole author after that, and the book was eventually taken over by the Hunt Pen Company and other authors. It remains a fine way to learn the basic techniques of hand-lettering, with each edition having unique alphabets and samples reflecting the time it was printed. Hunt also made smaller pen nibs (without the reservoir cover) fitting in smaller pen holders on the model of the Joseph Gillott “Crow Quill,” and marketed under the Hunt name. Most comics letterers used either Speedball or Hunt lettering pens to letter comics until the advent of digital lettering.
The other lettering instruments I’ve used even more than nib pens are technical drawing pens. They came into wide use in the 1960s, first for architectural drawings and drafting. They work through capillary action and gravity: ink is pulled from the reservoir through the point and down a narrow tube to the tip, helped by a thin wire with a weight on the end. Shaking the pen up and down gently moves the wire through the tube, helping ink flow. At least, that’s the theory. Comics artists and letterers soon began using them too. They have pros and cons compared to nib pens. On the pro side, a reservoir filled with ink will last through several days of constant use, and it’s a cleaner tool than a dip pen, only the writing tip has any exposed ink. It makes an even, unvaried line the size of the tip, and points in many sizes are available from 0.13 millimeters to 2 millimeters. On the con side, if you don’t use it constantly the pen will get clogged with dried ink and is then difficult to clean. The point must be taken apart, and the thin wire inside is easy to damage, making the pen unusable. Technical pens also cost more than nib pens, and when lettering they have to be held more vertically to the paper, something not everyone likes.
That said, I always preferred them for lettering, and used them often throughout my pen-lettering years. The most common brand in the U.S. is Rapidograph, now made by Rotring. They work pretty well, but I’ve always preferred Faber Castell TG1-S. They used to be easy to find in America, but starting in the 1990s became scarce, so I had to buy them online from Europe. I do see them for sale again here at some U.S. art supply sites.
You’re probably wondering why I didn’t use markers for lettering, as they’re much easier to handle than either nib pens or tech pens. There were good reasons in the past: markers were often not waterproof, tended to bleed into art paper more than ink, and faded much more quickly. They were also harder to make corrections over, the ink usually bled through white correction paint. Marker lettering was banned at DC Comics when I worked there, but advances in markers have made them a more friendly option today. Recently I’ve started using Pigma Micron markers for sketches and convention lettering, and the ink seems nearly as good as India ink on all counts. You can’t quite get the same crisp detail as with technical pens, but otherwise they’re a viable option especially if you’re doing every part of making comics yourself. Other markers for artists are also spoken well of, though I haven’t tried them.
The next most important lettering tool after pens is ink. It must be dense black and waterproof. India ink made from soot or lampblack, water and other liquids is best. It must hold up well to erasing because hand-lettering is often done over penciled comics art or at least penciled guidelines. It must also be able to flow through pens without frequent clogging. In 1977, when I started lettering, the favorite ink was Higgins Black Magic, and most letterers used it exclusively, but around the end of the 1980s Higgins changed the formula, making the ink too gray. Once all the old stock was depleted, letterers needed to find a replacement. I bought lots of ink brands and types and did testing in the early 1990s, and the one I liked best was Daler-Rowney’s Calli #010. I bought a large supply of it and have used it since. More recently I’ve tried another Higgins ink, Super-Black, and liked that nearly as well, and for all I know their Black Magic ink may be improved and working fine again. I haven’t tried it in many years.
For painting over mistakes, I use Daler-Rowney Pro White correction paint. It’s not particularly easy to letter over, but it does cover well and is durable when dry. I like to let the entire jar dry out and then mix a little water in on top when I use it. Other brands no longer available were better, that’s the best one I know of now. Winsor & Newton brushes are my choice for black ink to fill large areas or occasionally to make large letters, and for white paint. They’re expensive, but last a long time if cleaned well with soap and water, and are worth the price in my opinion. You also need an eraser. I like Prismacolor Magic Rub, but others work fine too.
Any pencil can be used for lettering layouts and guidelines, but I prefer a Berol Turquoise lead holder, shown with extra leads. To sharpen it you need their lead pointer. A clamp at the drawing end holds the lead securely and is released by the red button to let more lead out when needed. It sharpens to a finer point than most pencils, and holds that point longer. Leads come in many hardness levels. I like 2H, about mid-range.
The one remaining important tool is the Ames Lettering Guide, which is featured in my how-to art above. I should point out that there are other ways to use it, I’ve illustrated the way I use it. In case it’s not clear, the central disk rotates to give shorter and taller spacing to the guidelines, a brilliant idea.
Oscar Anton Olson, the Ames Guide inventor, was born December 12, 1883 in Tonsburg, Norway and arrived in America soon after. He graduated from Iowa State College in 1908 and earned a Mechanical Engineering degree in 1914. Olson was living in Ames, Iowa with his wife Goldie by 1915, and teaching Engineering Drawing at Iowa State College by 1920. He continued to teach there for many years. He created his device for making lettering guidelines and founded the O. A. Olson Manufacturing Company in 1919 to produce them, which he did in the basement of his home, employing several generations of college students and their wives for assembly, packing and shipping. The Ames Guide sold well around the world. The first version had a U-shaped metal bar holding the rotating plastic wheel, the all-plastic version shown above was a later design. Olson died in 1971, the device continued to be made by his family for decades. New versions are available with several brand names, but the design is unchanged. It’s hard to top perfection. (Thanks to Alex Jay for research help, see his blog article HERE.)
When I was lettering comics for DC and other companies, it was usually over penciled art, so I had no say in the paper used, and paper type is important to letterers and inkers. Paper for printing is generally made from wood fiber with the cheapest kind being newsprint, used for newspapers and once for all comic books. It’s high in acid and turns brown and brittle over time. Better quality papers are now used for most comics, but it still is mainly wood fiber. Drawing paper was once 100% cotton fiber or rag content, which is durable and acid free, but over time the rag content declined as it became scarce and expensive. Today a mix of cotton fiber and cotton linters are used to make the best drawing paper, such as the 500 series from Strathmore. Lesser quality papers may have wood or other less durable fiber in them and are more prone to decay from acid and browning. PH neutral or acid-free paper is always best if you want your work to last a long time. Another factor is sizing, a layer of starch put on the paper surface in manufacturing. This keeps ink from bleeding and spreading randomly into the paper fibers making a mess for letterers and inkers. High quality drawing paper should not have this problem. Drawing paper comes with different surfaces and in different thicknesses. I prefer the smoothest 2-ply or 3-ply Bristol for lettering, called plate finish. Many artists like more texture. For lettering over painted or already inked art, I often used vellum, which is a thick translucent tracing paper. I taped a sheet over the art, or a photocopy of the art and the lettering and art was combined later in various ways. Today the best way would be to scan the art and lettering separately and combine them digitally. If you are making comics yourself, invest in good paper!
The sizes of original art have varied and changed over time since comics began. Some newspaper strips, like Prince Valiant, had huge art. The large panel in the example, only two-thirds of the entire Sunday comic strip page, is 24.6 inches wide. Early comic book art was often drawn at twice the printed size, or “twice up.” The live area or art size in the JIMMY OLSEN page in the example is 13 inches wide. A few years later, artist Murphy Anderson convinced DC to let artists work “one and a half up,” or 150% of printed size, and other companies soon followed. It saved paper, and the pages were easier to photograph for reproduction. The art paper for The Sandman #49 page is 11 inches wide, but the trim area (the size of the printed comic page) on that art is 10 inches wide. The width of a modern printed comic is 6.625 inches, so the art is very close to 150% of printed size. Letterers working on the old, larger size art were lettering bigger than what I was doing for much of my career, though I did occasional jobs with larger art. I’ve heard that some artists and letterers had a hard time adjusting to working smaller. In general comics art is — and should be — reduced from original size for printing. It makes everything look better and cleaner, hiding tiny imperfections in each ink line, whether by the artist or the letterer.
So, do you want to try this? Gather your tools and supplies, tape a fresh page of art paper to your drawing board, draw some guide lines with the Ames Guide, and jump in. Lettering is a craft that can be learned. It takes lots of practice and patience. You have to stick with it, and if you find you don’t enjoy it, pen lettering may not be for you. Give it time, though, and see if you improve with practice. Some people have a natural talent for lettering and love doing it, and some don’t. In my experience, many comics artists don’t like to letter, and that’s one reason why I have a career, but even if you don’t plan to do it regularly, try it out. The experience will help you be a better comics creator, and if you’re working with a letterer, it will help you understand what they need from you, even if they’re lettering digitally.
These samples were done in 2020. My pen lettering was already seldom used, and my skills somewhat rusty, but I think they turned out okay. Note that I’ve done two versions of the letter “I,” one with serifs or “crossbars,” one without. The serif “I” is used only for the personal pronoun and contractions such as I’m and I’ll. The plain or sans-serif “I” is used everywhere else in comics lettering as I do it. I’ve added a few punctuation marks that are common in comics. Those pairs of three lines pointing toward a central spot are used around words that are meant to be mostly air like GASP, OOF and SIGH. They have many amusing names such as “roach legs,” but I call them “breath marks.” I believe they started as parentheses in comic strips, then became dashed or broken parentheses, and finally the form shown here. They’re symbols unique to comics. A double dash is often used to indicate an interruption in speech, and came from typewritten scripts where the double dash is used in place of a long or em-dash. An ellipsis or three dots is used in comics to show a pause or delay in speech or thought. Both these marks often come at the end of one balloon or caption and the beginning of the next one when the same person is talking. Below are more details on how I created these samples.
Tech pens need to be held more vertically than nib pens to get even ink flow, as seen in A. The heel of the hand rests on the drawing board or paper for stability. Since I’m left-handed I used to often begin at the lower right and work to the upper left of a comics page to avoid smearing the ink.
B has samples made with sizes 2 and 2.5 TG1-S tech pens. I probably should have gone to size 3 for more contrast on the bold italic samples, what you would use for emphasized words.
C shows letters made with a Speedball C-6 wedge nib, giving the letters an appealing variety of thick and thin strokes depending on the direction. Nib pens are held at more of an angle for good ink flow. I could have filed the tip a bit on my sharpening stone to get a wider wedge that would give more contrast between thick and thin strokes, but I generally like it as seen here.
D has has samples made with a Speedball FB-5 nib that has been sanded down on a sharpening stone to get the line size I wanted. FB or Flicker nibs were added by Hunt in 1946. It’s kind of a cheat to even show one, as they were discontinued by the early 1980s…
…but I still have some and use them. E shows what made the FB nibs different: the reservoir has two parts, on the top and bottom of the basic nib, and they open with a hinged action for easier cleaning. This was a great idea, but the mechanism was fragile and didn’t hold up as well as regular Speedball nibs.
F shows the C-6 and FB-5 pens used next to a Hunt #107, a much smaller nib in a smaller holder favored by many letterers. It also has a slight wedge tip that could be modified to the user’s liking with a sharpening stone. I tried it at times but didn’t like all that dipping! The Hunt 107 point was the favorite of many Marvel letterers, here’s a description of how Rick Parker prepared them, he began working in the Marvel Bullpen and lettering there in January 1977 (thanks, Rick!):
I used a Hunt 107 point for the thick and thin lettering. I clipped the tip with scissors, just a tiny bit and at a slight angle, and smoothed it down on wet/dry Emory paper by writing the word JOHNSON and SPORTS over and over again (those two words had all the movements of the alphabet) and then on a piece of glass wet with my own spit (gross, huh?). For the bold lettering I used an A-5 Speedball point straight out of the box and later a B-6 and sometimes an FB-6 Flicker point. For extra bold I used a B-5½ and a B-5. For borders I used a Rapidograph tech pen. My Ames Guide was usually set to 3.25 or 3.5 and for the Spider-Man and Hulk newspaper strips which I did for a time, I set it at 4. One’s goal should be to do everything the same every time, including the amount of ink in the ink jar, so that when you are working the only variable is you.
When lettering a word balloon (the generic term for all balloon types including speech balloons), center the words in several lines with the longest lines in the center to roughly fill an oval shape. Note that perfect centering is difficult, and not necessary.
Draw the balloon shape in pencil as a guide. Again, it doesn’t need to be perfect. Plan on about an average letter’s space between the balloon and the lettering on all sides.
Some letterers were able to make handsome oval shapes freehand, but I was never good at it, so a few years into my career I started using oval and circle templates. The trick to making them look right was often to use different ovals for the sides than I did for the top and bottom parts of the balloon. I’m doing the balloon sides here with an oval that’s close to round, and using a tech pen for an even line.
The sides are done, now the rest.
Now a much less round oval is used for the top and bottom. The joins to the sides aren’t perfect, but close enough, and that improves with practice. For very wide or large balloons, a French curve was used on the longer sides.
On the bottom I left a gap for the tail, and drew that in freehand. The older style of word balloons with large scallops were easier to ink freehand with a wedge-tipped nib, and thought balloons were easier still. It’s possible but difficult to ink balloon borders with a nib pen using templates. I rarely did. This border was done with a number 2 tech pen.
These letters are made with dip pens, and the contrast between the regular letters and the bold italic ones for emphasis is greater. Just the way it turned out with the pen nibs I used.
Again, I roughly penciled in the balloon shape.
I might have used my small triangle to ink the straight edges of the burst points, but opted to do it freehand with my no. 2 tech pen. That was faster, and in this case worked fine.
Outline finished. I curved the tail more to make it different from the points of the burst.
To add emphasis and energy, I added more ink outside the borders to thicken them with a rough edge. Note that in any open shape such as balloons, sound effects or titles, the inner white space is the most important to get right. If that looks good, anything added to the outside will too.
The finished burst. I used the tech pen to add sharpness to the points, and straightened a few inside lines that were too curved. You can easily spend too much time on this kind of thing, always remember it will be reduced for printing, and the finest details will disappear anyway.
Other kinds of word balloons you might need include thought, whisper, telepathic, radio, alien, robot, wobbly, and rough as well as different styles of captions. Alternate alphabets and styles may be useful for specific characters or situations, but use them sparingly, always striving for clarity and readability. Study the work of letterers you like to see how they handle things. Quality scans of original comics art is much more available online for study today than it was when I began, though I had plenty of real examples to look at in the DC offices, where I worked for ten years.
Another thing to study is balloon placement. Until the 1960s, most comics artists worked from full scripts with all the balloon and caption dialogue included. Artists were expected to pencil in all those words on their art for the letterer to follow, and everyone could see about how much space it would take. At Marvel Comics, Stan Lee started a new system where artists worked from a simple plot outline or basic story idea, and dialogue was added after the art was penciled. As this style grew in popularity, artists began to lose awareness of where and how much space to leave for lettering, creating a new set of problems for letterers. This continues today. Two or more characters speaking in a single panel is a prime candidate for placement problems. In English, normal reading is from left to right, then down in each panel and on each page. When two or more characters are talking in a panel, the first speaker should always be on the left, and the last speaker on the right. Artists should leave extra space if they need to go against that natural flow., and if possible, try to avoid too much back and forth between characters in a single panel.
Reading order across an entire page will follow the same plan of left to right, then down. This is easiest with rows of rectangular panels, stacks of wide rectangles or rows of very tall ones filling each page. Any other layout may create confusion for the reader. As an artist and letterer, your job is to make a clear reading path through the layout.
If necessary, overlap a balloon across panel borders to force the correct reading order. If space is tight in a particular panel, consider moving some dialogue or captions to the panel before or after to make it work.
Compare these placements to the examples above, and see how the reader might get lost or read things in the wrong order. If all else fails, ask for script or art revisions. There’s only so much a letterer can do!
I hope this brief look at tools and techniques will get you started if you want to try pen lettering, and I recommend it to anyone who wants to be a comics creator. Even if digital lettering is what you want, experimenting with pen lettering can help you understand that process. Remember to be your own toughest critic, and strive to improve your work. If you do, you’ll be rewarded with improved lettering and better comics.