Hey guys! It’s Karen of @letteringbykaren, and I’m thrilled that Stacey has invited me here to go over the basics of lettering with watercolors. I remember being scared to try out watercolor lettering as a beginner, but I mostly remember all the dust that my brush pens collected as soon as my paint brush hit the paper that first time! Watercolors are definitely one of my favorite mediums to use. I have been lettering for 2.5 years, and along with watercolor, I also love using chalk and chalk markers, brush pens, gel pens, and pretty much anything that can be used to draw letters. No, really! I’m obsessed with trying out all of the art supplies.
I currently offer various styles of lettering worksheets through Etsy and through my website, www.letteringbykaren.com. I also take commissions and occasionally work alongside companies for product promotions. I live right outside of Atlanta, Georgia with my husband, two daughters, cute dog Maggie, and a pantry full of chocolate. But enough about me! Let’s work our way through some of the basics of watercolor lettering.
If you are used to brush pen lettering, lettering with watercolors may seem daunting. There are so many articles out there oozing with information, and it is overwhelming! Let’s break it down a little and just keep things simple. Here are a few things to consider when making the jump from pen to paint brush.
ACTIVATE YOUR WATERCOLORS
There’s a reason why I’m putting this step first. I think it’s extremely important and often overlooked by beginners. Every time you use watercolors, you have to activate them by putting a few drops of water on them. Let the watercolors sit while you gather your supplies, and the water will work its magic. (It reminds me of preheating the oven before you’re going to cook. Always do it first!)
I recommend using a water dropper over a spray bottle to wet your watercolors. Lettering with wetter watercolors is smoother and easier than if the watercolors were just slightly moistened.
WHAT KIND OF BRUSH SHOULD I USE? If you’re used to using a brush pen, a paint brush is going to feel much different. Many brush pens have a felt tip, which tend to require less control than a brush with bristles. You may need to change the angle at which you hold your brush. Hand letterers tend to hold brush pens around a 45 degree angle from the paper to prevent the tip fraying; with a brush, you may find it easier to hold it more upright (closer to how you’d hold a pencil).
Water brushes. If you are all about some brush pen lettering, a water brush will be your best friend when you take the plunge into watercolor lettering. Water brushes are more similar to brush pens than paint brushes are. I recommend using a small tip water brush, like the Kuretake or Pentel aquash.
Paint brushes. A small round brush or liner are commonly used for watercolor lettering. Liner brushes have very long bristles; while they make beautifully thin upstrokes, they take a lot of practice and patience to learn how to use for lettering. I suggest round brushes for beginners. The size of the brush is quantified by a number: a 2 is similar to a medium/large brush pen, whereas a 0 or 1 would create smaller brush lettering. My go-to brush for watercolor lettering is the studio round 2 brush by The Pigeon Letters.
WHAT KIND OF PAPER SHOULD I USE?
There are a few choices that work well with watercolor lettering.
Watercolor paper. Watercolor paper allows the watercolor to sit on top of the paper until it dries. You’re going to get more saturated colors than you would with other paper, because it holds the pigment in place. Watercolor paper is also thicker and built to hold water, whereas other papers may buckle or tear. It comes in different weights and textures, which can make it hard to choose the right kind. I recommend using 140 lb watercolor paper, as it is easy to find, usually affordable, and will hold up well for watercolor lettering.
Cold press vs. hot press.Cold press is commonly seen in the lettering world.It has more texture than hot press watercolor paper, and paints will dry slower on it.A slow drying time will help if you’re looking to blend different colors together.Hot press is a smoother paper with a much faster dry time.If you are struggling with your brush catching on the tooth of the paper, I recommend trying hot press; it will be more similar to lettering on regular paper.If you are planning on using brush pens along with your watercolor lettering, hot press paper will be less damaging to felt tips than cold press.
Student grade vs. artist grade. You definitely get what you pay for when it comes to watercolor paper. If you are just starting out and looking to practice your watercolor lettering, student grade paper is much more affordable and great if you’re worried about wasting paper and/or supplies. (In my opinion, there’s no such thing as wasting supplies! It’s all about learning, practicing, and enjoying the process.) Artist grade paper is more durable and won’t buckle like student grade papers, but it is definitely pricier. Everyone has a different opinion about what works best for them. Here is a list of my favorite watercolor paper for lettering:
Canson XL cold press: very affordable, will buckle slightly under heavy washes
Strathmore 400 Series cold press: very affordable, minimal buckling
Strathmore 500 Series hot press: affordable, almost no texture, only comes in 5x7
Legion Stonehenge Aqua 140 lb: comes in hot press, cold press, and cold press black; affordable artist grade paper
Mixed Media. Mixed media paper is not as durable watercolor paper, but it can still handle some wetness. If you’re looking to do a mixture of ink and watercolor, this paper would be fine for practice. Some buckling will occur with watercolor. Canson XL and Strathmore both offer affordable student grade mixed media paper.
Cardstock. Cardstock is thick enough to handle the wetness of watercolor lettering without too much buckling, and it’s extremely affordable. I will always choose watercolor paper over cardstock. However, it does work well for some projects. Examples: if you want to letter on a different colored background, print out worksheets to practice watercolor lettering, make a cute card and don’t want frayed edges (artist grade watercolor paper does not cut smoothly in a paper cutter!), etc.
You’ve got your supplies picked out. Your watercolor should be ready to use. As you letter, make sure that the watercolor stays wet. If you’re using a water brush, this will be less of a problem. For paint brushes especially, don’t be afraid to add more water as you go! You’ll find that wet watercolors glide more easily across the paper when lettering. Here are a few ways to get started:
Color it in. If you’re terrified of putting brush to paper, this is probably the best place to start. Using a light-colored brush pen, letter your word first. I recommend using a gray, water soluble brush pen, although other light colors can be fun to use as well! Then, fill in your lettering with your watercolor.
Light pencil lines. If you want to plan where your letters are going to go, you can use a pencil to draw them out first. Lightly go over your plan with an eraser, leaving behind faint pencil marks. A lot of watercolor will hide pencil marks, and you can erase any stray marks once your paint has completely dried. Plan accordingly for those yellows and translucent paints, though! Pencil pairs very well with opaque matte and shimmer paints.
Light box. An easier but more expensive option than pencil is to plan out your letters on a sheet of paper and then use a light box. Place the planned out lettering onto the light box, and then place your watercolor paper on top. You will be able to see through the watercolor paper and trace over the design with your brush and paint. Oh, and there’s no erasing involved! I recommend taping down a small corner or two to prevent the papers from moving while you letter.
Wing it. This is my favorite way to letter, but it wasn’t how I started as a beginner. Sometimes, I get hung up on trying to trace over planned-out letters. You may find that your letters vary from brush pen to paint brush, and it can be frustrating to make your paint brush do things it doesn’t want to do. If I just go for it without a plan, I think more about changing my pressure and how I’m holding the brush for each letter. Give it a try. You might surprise yourself!
Let’s go through a few techniques that are commonly seen with watercolor lettering.
One color gradation. Choose one color, and paint each stroke with a different amount of water. I like to start the first stroke or two with a highly pigmented brush (really mix that watercolor with your brush!), and then I’ll dip my brush into the water to let some pigment come off for the next few strokes. You’ll end up with a beautiful gradation.
Blending by stroke. It’s so fun to watch watercolors blend and bleed together. Pick out several colors for this technique, and switch colors between strokes or letters. (Make sure to clean your brush between colors!) To get watercolor bleeds, make sure there is enough paint at the end of each stroke. When it connects with the next stroke, the excess watercolor will bleed in and create a gorgeous effect. The best bleeds will usually result after just one stroke, with each subsequent stroke lessening the effect. However, we all know that getting it perfect the first time can seem impossible; watercolor lettering is fun because you can keep messing with your letters until you’re happy with them. (Yep, you totally can. I’m giving you permission.) Let’s say it takes four or five strokes to make your letter look how you want it to, and the cool bleed has vanished. Simply dip your brush into the first color (the bleeding one!) and put a small amount where the bleed would start. This technique works best with wet watercolors. If you aren’t getting bleeds, check your paints! They may be too dry.
Watercolor frosting. Or really, adding a second color on top. I just wanted to see if you were paying attention to these titles, and if we’re being honest, it really is like adding frosting to the top of your letters. For this technique, you will want your paints to be nice and wet (are you sensing a theme?). Letter your word with one or more colors. Then, choose a color that you’d like to add to the tops of them. Touch the tops of each letter or stroke with your “frosting color;” refill the brush every one or two letters to guarantee a similar effect on each letter. If you’re working with a long word, I suggest “adding your frosting” every few letters. That way, the watercolor won’t dry before you get to it! I love doing this technique with glitter paints.
A FEW FINAL NOTES
Remember to keep those paints wet. Start with a few drops of water to activate, and add more water later if they seem too dry to glide across the page.
There is no wrong way to use watercolor for lettering. Try the techniques mentioned above. Try other things. Experiment a little. Think of it like faux calligraphy if you struggle with thick downstrokes and thin upstrokes; watercolor is very forgiving and will happily accept more downstrokes until you get things the way you’d like them to be.
If the paper is too rough for you, switch to hot press. If your upstrokes are too thick, try a smaller brush. And when it’s all said and done, leave your watercolors out to dry. I like to leave mine open overnight before closing them to ensure that they do not mold.
Good luck, and happy watercolor lettering!
Please note: All colors featured in this article are Stakiwi Colours handmade watercolors.