So you’ve been playing around with brush pen lettering for a while, but you just can’t 100% nail that thin upstroke? Don’t worry – you are not alone!
Mastering and then maintaining a thin upstroke is one of the hardest parts of brush pen lettering. Some days you might get them looking perfect, other days you’re shaky and they start off good but finish looking blah. This would be the time to go back to practising your drills.
However, if you still can’t seem to get that classic brush pen lettering contrast between your thin and thick strokes, read on for some handy (pun intended) tips!
Brush Pen Lettering = grip + angle + pressure
Where abouts on the barrel are you gripping the pen? Is it super far back, not allowing you enough control of the pen? Or is it far too close to the tip, not enabling you enough motion in your hand and arm to draw thin lines continuously throughout a letter? When practising your upstrokes, see what results you get from altering your grip. Some people are able to maintain AMAZING control over the brush pen by holding it really far back, yet others need to hold it like a ballpoint pen. We are all different, and every brush pen is different – long, short, thin barrel, thick barrel, small tip, large tip, round barrel, triangular barrel. That’s why we need to play around with each one to see which grip gets us the best result.
ACTIVITY: pick a few different brush pens, and draw thin lines next to each other when holding the pen at 3 different angles – close to the tip, mid-way up the barrel, and far back towards the end of the barrel. What are the results? Could you achieve thinner lines by holding the pen at a certain point? Perfect! Hold THAT pen there. What about the others? Try holding them at 3 different points and find out. Keep a copy of these for future reference!
Point to note about the Artline Stix Brush Marker above – see how this marker has a ridge? It’s actually designed to be held closer to the tip, where the pen is smooth and has a triangular shape for comfortable gripping. Keep a look out on the pen you’re using for any obvious signs of where to hold!
The same goes for angles! Try a range of different angles while practising upstrokes, and see which angle gets you the thinner lines. Don’t feel restricted to only ONE angle while lettering. It’s perfectly normal to change up the angle of your pen MID letter! Most letterers don’t even realise they do this, and this is one of the most IMPORTANT things to teach beginners – and it may be super subtle!
When we perform a downstoke we need as much of the brush tip as possible touching the page, so we can get a thick line. The opposite applies to thin strokes – we can adjust the angle to be more upright so we are just touching the tip of the pen on the page. Be careful that you only use a big angle during upstrokes, as you’ll damage the pen tip if you are pressing down from that angle. The thin upstroke should have the pen tip just kissing the page (oooh!), and the downstroke we can basically brush the entire length of the pen tip along the paper.
ACTIVITY: try drawing an oval stroke. Start at about 2 o’clock and draw it anti-clockwise. We know that we need to transition the pressure of the pen so that half the shape looks thin and half the shape looks thick, but try changing your angle mid-stroke too. You can hold the pen quite upright during the thin areas, and then bring the angle down towards the paper at the thick areas as the brush pen tip needs to get closer to the page to create that thick line. See above photos for how angles can differ during thin and thick strokes.
Pressure is key with thin strokes! As just mentioned, we only want the pen tip to ‘kiss’ the page when performing upstrokes. We shouldn’t be grazing a large portion of the pen tip in an upward motion, or we won’t be able to achieve that sexy contrast between thicks and thins – not to mention you can damage the tip that way! You want to apply as LITTLE pressure as possible for this stroke.
ACTIVITY: pick a few pens and draw the thickest possible line with it (downwards), and the thinnest possible line next to it (upwards). When drawing the thick line, make sure you touch as much of the pen tip as possible to the page – try holding the pen differently! Perhaps in a way you wouldn’t normally letter, just to see the results (as per photos under ‘angle’). Do the same with the upstroke, feel free to hold the pen differently than you would with lettering, to achieve the thinnest line. You may need to turn your page to draw from left to right or away from you, but this will be a good reference as to how that pen performs. Keep a copy of these for future reference!
Now put it in to practise
Now that you’ve discovered the best grip, angle and pressure to hold your favourite pens – try combining all three and practising strokes and letters. This MAY take a while to adjust to – after all you’ve probably just changed the way you letter! Give it some time, fill up a couple of pages, practise it for a few days, and see the results.
- Take it SLOW! Lettering fast is a no-no (at least in the beginning) so make sure you are taking your time with your strokes. If you find yourself flicking the upstrokes, they aren’t going to be as consistent as they would if you slowlyyyyy drew the lines.
- Are you using a frayed pen? Perhaps your much loved brush pen has seen better days and the tip has worn out – this could be the reason behind the not-so-thin lines! I’m not saying go out and replace all of your pens, but just be mindful that new pens have crisp tips and haven’t been ‘worn in’ yet – whereas pens that we’ve used a lot can become softer and eventually become very difficult to achieve thin strokes with.
- Have you tried turning your page? Some people are able to letter perfectly horizontal (who are you and where did you get these magic powers?!) but some of us (me included) need to turn the page on an angle, and sometimes even ourselves in our chair, to achieve the best results. Try moving the paper and your chair around in a few different positions, and see if it makes a difference.
- Use your whole arm. If you’ve been reading my blog for some time, you’ll know early on in the piece I harped on a lot about using your arm – and for good reason! Hand lettering is NOT handwriting, and despite that fact it’s called ‘hand’ lettering – we actually need to engage our entire arm in the process. Focus on the motion and the power coming from your shoulder. Make sure you don’t have arm rests or anything else restricting this movement. In order to achieve long and consistent strokes, we need the motion range that only your whole arm can provide!
- Shake it out! Are you finding your thin strokes to be wobbly? Maybe it’s your wobbly hand! Are you cold, nervous, haven’t practised in a while? Sometimes simply standing up and taking a break and shaking it out can help. Drills can also assist with wobbliness as it can mean your muscle memory is having a case of the Dory’s and needs a reminder of how to do strokes!
- Most importantly: don’t give up! Becoming a good letterer takes so much time, practise and patience. No one ever became good at something by quitting.
Should my hand be on or off the paper?
On! But lightly. Let your hand/arm lightly graze the top of the table as you move it. If you hold your hand/arm OFF the table you will find it extremely difficult to maintain control and consistency. If you plant your hand/arm in one spot you will restrict your movement. By letting it lightly slide over the table you’ll keep your lines more consistent but allow yourself the freedom to move and create bigger/longer strokes.
Have more questions, or still can’t get your thin strokes the way you want? Leave a comment below so I can go back to the drawing board and cry over this post being a massive fail and then enlist some help / research until my eyeballs hurt to find you more answers and get those thin strokes as deliciously thin and consistent as possible! I’ll add new questions and answers to the FAQ section above!