I love experimenting with lettering for two reasons: first, lettering is functional and practical. You combine letters in order to make words, which you can then use to catch someone’s eye on a sign, mail art, or whatever else you want to make. Second, lettering comes with rules. No matter what, an “A” has to look like an “A”, a “B” has to look like a “B”, and so on and so forth. It’s much easier to be innovative when you’ve got some parameters!
Recently, I sat down to make my aunt a mail art envelope, and the “lettering bug” bit. After some experimentation, I ended up with a fun set of characters that I call “circus lettering”. The letters remind me of slightly over-the-top vintage circus posters! In today’s tutorial, I’d like to show you how to create your own circus lettering.
1. Write Out Your Word in Pencil
Almost all good hand-lettering begins with a pencil draft. Start by drawing two horizontal guidelines 1″ (25 mm) apart. Then, make Sans Serif letters that extend from the top guideline to the bottom guideline. You’ll want to draw your letters 1/4″ (6 mm) apart.
2. Add an Outline
In this tutorial, I’m just going to focus on the “M” of “Monica” to show you how to create circus lettering. First, draw an outline around the letter. The outline should be about 1/8″ (3 mm) total thickness (1/16″ on either side from the original letter outline). Make sure that you make all the pointed edges of the letter blunt.
3. Add “Mermaid Tails”
Now, focus on the blunt edges that you just made. Add a “mermaid tail” (that is: two curved triangles) to each blunt edge.
4. Add Ink
Now, go over your letter outline with ink. I prefer to use a straight dip pen fitted with a Nikko G nib and sumi ink because I know for sure that the ink won’t smudge once I erase my pencil lines! That said, you’re welcome to use a regular pen — preferably a fine-tipped permanent one — for this step.
5. Add Embellishments
Each letter that you draw is going to be different as far as embellishments go, so you just have to use your creative judgment. Draw up to three diamonds inside the letter, and fill in the rest of the letter with tiny circles. No matter how many diamonds or circles you draw, make sure that you draw them along the path of the original letter outline!
6. Draw Diagonal Lines Off the Edges of the Letter
Circus letters almost always feature shadows, which help the letters to stand out and pack a visual punch. This step is a little bit tricky to explain, but basically you’ll want to use a ruler to draw short parallel diagonal lines coming off of the edges of the letter. For the top “mermaid tails”, you’ll only draw those lines coming off of the point of the right tail. For bottom “mermaid tails”, however, the lines should extend from every point.
7. Make Shadow Lines
Now, use the diagonal lines that you just drew to help you make “shadow lines” that run parallel to each stroke of the letter. The shadow lines should appear on each right edge of the letter. Make sure you “cap” the mermaid tails at the bottom as shown below:
8. Fill in the Shadows
Now, use your pen of choice to fill in the shadow outlines that you just drew.
9. Make the Rest of Your Letters
Now, one at a time, focus on the subsequent letters in your word.
10. Add Some Color (Optional)
Once you’ve drawn all your letters, erase your pencil lines. Then, you can add some color if you want to! I put a dab of Bleed Proof White ink in each diamond, but you could really get creative and fill in the whole letter with watercolor or colored pencil!
Of course, you can use circus lettering for whatever project you want to. In this case, I used it to make mail art. I love the way that these bold letters look when paired with some calligraphy and delicate, embellished text!
Circus Lettering Exemplar
After I made the envelope art above (yesterday), I decided to make an exemplar to go with this post. My hope is that the exemplar will save you a ton of time by showing you exactly how to make each letter! I think that detailed instructions are important for this style of writing because the shadows can be a bit tough to figure out, especially if you don’t quite understand perspective drawing.
You can find the 16-page exemplar for a nominal fee by clicking here. I hope it comes in handy for you!
If you have any questions, please feel free to ask! Happy writing, and have a wonderful weekend!