When I need a cool little gift for someone, I make an illuminated letter. Today’s project is a gorgeous, totally frame-worthy gift that doubles as a greeting card or a “just because” paper good. Believe it or not, this (modern) illuminated letter is pretty easy to make because I used one vital shortcut: a free printable alphabet PDF. I’ll share that PDF, plus my process, with you in this tutorial
Easy Illuminated Letter Tutorial Video
If you prefer to follow along in video format, watch this ~15 minute tutorial video:
Do you prefer written instructions? Keep reading!
Easy Illuminated Letter Tutorial (Written Instructions)
1. Gather Supplies
You’ll need a few key supplies to create this tutorial. They include everything shown below, which I’ll explain under the photo.
- 5″ x 7″ piece of watercolor paper (or handmade paper; I’m using Indian Cotton Paper Co. paper today)
- Printed letter of your choice from the Illuminated Letters Printable Alphabet (you can learn more about this PDF at the end of this tutorial)
- Sumi ink (I keep mine in this glass jar)
- Finetec Arabic Gold watercolor
- Violet India ink (or any color of watercolor; I used purple watercolor in the video tutorial)
- Straight pen fitted with a Nikko G nib
- Size 0 or 1 paintbrush
First, print out a letter from the Illuminated Letters Printable Alphabet. Then, place the watercolor (or handmade) paper over the printed letter page. Try your best to line up the edges of the paper with the black guidelines around the letter! Then, put both pieces of paper on a light box (or against a bright window). Once you can see the outline of the letter, lightly trace over it with a pencil.
Once you’re finished, your letter will look something like the “S” below.
3. Add Violet Ink
Now, use your paintbrush to apply violet ink (or watercolor) to the outside letter outline and any blank spaces inside the letter. If the ink looks too dark, then add some water to your ink-saturated paintbrush to lighten it up a bit.
4. Add Gold to Your Illuminated Letter
Before you begin this step, add a few drops (1/4 tsp or so) of water to your gold watercolor. Let the water sit for about a minute, then use your paintbrush to mix the water and the paint together. You will be rewarded with brilliant liquid gold, which you can then use to fill in the rest of the letter and its flourishes!
Continue to paint until the letter and the decorations around it are filled with brilliant gold.
5. Trace Over the Remaining Lines
At this point, you’re almost done! All you need to do is trace over any remaining pencil guidelines with sumi ink and your Nikko G nib. I chose to use this particular ink/nib combination for a reason: Yasutomo’s KY series sumi ink doesn’t have shellac in it, which means it dries a brilliant matte black. The Nikko G nib is a medium-flex nib, which means you’ll be able to achieve a consistent line width.
Drawing on handmade or watercolor paper with a dip pen and ink is something you should do carefully and cautiously. Watch your nib for stray fibers; handmade paper tends to part with its fibers quite easily! You’ll probably find yourself re-dipping your nib in ink often because handmade paper is more absorbent than most other papers.
Once you’ve drawn over all the guidelines, you’re finished! If you want, you can add a few black circles along lines here and there to give the piece additional contrast.
About the Tracing Shortcut
To make the Illuminated Letters Printable Alphabet, I enlarged an alphabet from Decorative Alphabets and Initials. It’s a book full of copyright-free alphabets that has continued to inspire me over the years!
The alphabet I used for the PDF/this tutorial is from page 93, and it features an arabesque design.
Of course, you could freehand draw something inspired by the Arabesque letters pictured above. However, as the mother to two young children, I have to embrace project shortcuts when I can. Please use the technique that fits your preferences and your schedule best!
My only regret about this tutorial? I wish you could see the piece that I made today in person! Gold watercolor is so beautiful in real life because of the way it interacts with light. It does look pretty in photos, but you’ll be blown away by how all of this comes together when you make it. The vibrant violet ink, the soft cotton paper, the brilliant gold, and the jet black sumi combine to make a piece that’s elegant and eye-catching — perfect for a gift!
If you have any questions about today’s tutorial, please feel free to ask in the comments. If you loved this tutorial, I suspect you’ll enjoy TPK’s other illuminated letter tutorials. Be sure to check them out! Enjoy the rest of your day, and happy creating. 🙂
This article was first posted in December of 2019. It has been updated to include a tutorial video.