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How-To: Lettering Love

By Terri Stone

Lettering artist Martina Flor has been honing her creative process and techniques for years. Follow along as she begins with a hand-drawn sketch, refines the concept in Adobe Illustrator CC, and adds texture and depth in Adobe Photoshop CC.

PART ONE: THE SKETCH

Adobe asked Martina to demonstrate her lettering skills in a live video stream broadcast a few hours each day over three days. (It’s kind of like reality TV for design geeks.)

Because her time was limited, she chose to draw one short word: Love.  Then she considered how she wanted to communicate the concept. “I normally come up with a few keywords,” she says, “something straightforward to work with. About love, I wanted to say that it’s sweet, and sometimes rough.” She deliberately limits herself to a few simple, obvious keywords so that the final piece is more effective. “When working with typography, you can’t tell too many stories,” she explains. “The word has to communicate the idea but also be something people can read.”

Martina starts with thumbnail sketches on paper. “I decide on the style I’ll be using and I try out compositions. What works better with the story I want to tell? I don’t show thumbnails to clients; they’re just for me to decide what I like,” she says.

“I choose one thumbnail and scale it up on a photocopier so I can better work on the details,” she continues. “This becomes the base for my more refined sketches.” Martina doesn’t re-create the entire sketch; instead, she layers tracing paper on top of the photocopy. “Each new layer lets you improve the preceding one,” she says. “It frees you to explore because you’re not afraid that you’ll destroy the drawing. If you want to go back to an element, it’s on an earlier tracing layer.” To make this analog un-do easier, Martina names her paper layers as she names layers in Illustrator or Photoshop.

Martina doesn’t use fancy tools, just normal copy paper for thumbnail sketches, 40-gram tracing paper, and an automatic pencil. She works fast, concentrating first on the overall shapes and then on improving small details and perfecting curves. While she sketched “Love,” the shapes evolved from completely round and soft to a little bit thorny, but they were still essentially smooth.

PART TWO: FROM ANALOG TO DIGITAL

Once Martina is satisfied with her pencil sketch, she scans the drawing and drag-and-drops the file into a new Illustrator document, where it acts as a guide while she recreates the shapes using the Pen tool. 

Click to watch how Martina keeps her points to a minimum while using Illustrator’s Pen tool. “In the beginning it seems like hell,” she acknowledges, “but after a while you get used to it and it goes smoothly.”

Much as she did with tracing paper, she duplicates the Illustrator layers and changes individual elements as she refines the drawing. “I print out the letters often to get an idea of the scale,” Martina says. “I keep making corrections on paper and go back to my Illustrator file to continue shifting the points.”

To facilitate this back-and-forth between analog and digital, she selects the European standard A4 document size when creating the new Illustrator file. Since it’s vector, she can easily scale the dimensions up or down if needed.

Click to see Martina demonstrate a few shortcuts for drawing with the Pen tool.

To make it easier to fine-tune the overall composition, Martina draws each letter separately. For Love, she also created each decorative element as a separate object.

After finalizing the composition and choosing colors, Martina could wrap up this project — and in fact, she did produce an art print from this stage of the work. 

The Love print would make a fine Valentine’s Day gift.

PART THREE: ADDING GRIT AND DEPTH

Digital drawings can look flat. To counteract this, Martina brings the Illustrator file into Photoshop and rasterizes the lettering layer.

She then adds texture with one or more techniques. She might paste a photo of old paper into a new layer above the letters and set that layer’s Blend mode to Multiply, or she’ll go to Filter > Noise > Add Noise and play with the settings. The aim is not to give the art a handmade look, just to give it some real-world grit.

Finally, Martina uses Photoshop’s Brush tool to create the illusion of the letters casting shadows. Subtlety is key to an effective result, so the brush is soft and the opacity low. These added shadows below and within the lettershapes bring some volume to the piece. 

Watch this clip for Martina’s shadow technique.

For more tips and tricks, watch Martina’s entire three-day process:

  • Day 1: Sketch with a pencil
  • Day 2: Recreate the sketch in Adobe Illustrator CC
  • Day 3: Add texture and depth in Adobe Photoshop CC

For future livestreams featuring exciting creatives, check out Adobe Creative Cloud Live.