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In today's post, we are going to dig deep into the meanings and differences between Calligraphy, Lettering, and Typography, so we can understand where they come from and why it is important to tell them apart.

Lettering calligraphy and typography differences

Hand Lettering vs. Calligraphy and typography,
what each one of them is and what are the differences.

I warn you; this one is going to be a long one! But bear with me, because I think this is the most BASIC thing we have to understand as beginners.

And since I want to be as accurate as possible, we will examine each one and dig in books that will explain each term better.

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One of the biggest misconceptions for people that are unfamiliar with design work is that Calligraphy, Lettering, and Typography are interchangeable words, all in the same category and with the same meaning.

But the world of letter-making is broken down into a few different categories of artist that are foundationally different: calligraphers, letterers and type designers.

While letterers and calligraphers both create custom work involving letters, type designers construct systems of letters (knows as typefaces) that work in endless combinations and output as ‘fonts' (read about the difference between typeface and font below).

Throughout this process we will focus on the most significant difference between the 3, but first on Calligraphy vs. lettering.

Calligraphy vs lettering

Calligraphy vs. Lettering

In a nutshell, calligraphers WRITE letters and letterers DRAW them, that is the essential difference between these art forms, but to really see the difference when we look at someone making letters, we need to dig to the bottom and address a few crucial points.

Most lettering artists start with calligraphy, because understanding how letters are constructed and behave, along with where the thick and thins are located, is an essential part of ANY work involving letters.

And while it is okay to only specialize in one of them, it can be harder to start making letters when the construction of each one doesn't make sense.

Most people only think of ‘script style' when referring to Calligraphy, but there’s a huge number of styles that can be written.

TIP: If you are interested in a good book with examples of different styles, I recommend The Art of Calligraphy: A Practical Guide to the Skills and Techniques by David Harris, you can see additional pictures of all the recommended books in this post.


In Calligraphy, the way we use a writing tool, with pressure differences in the motions as we ‘write' each of their parts, is what gives us the different thickness, no matter the style we are writing  (sans serif, serif, copperplate, etc.)

On her book ‘Modern Calligraphy: Everything You Need to Know to Get Started in Script Calligraphy,' artist Molly Suber Thorpe explains:

“Historically, calligraphy was relatively inflexible, with classical styles taught as complete alphabets with established letterforms. The aim was uniformity, and practice was about striving towards the ‘correct”, predetermined shape.” but “Twenty-first-century artist frequently creates their own alphabets to reflect their personal aesthetics and personality.” – Molly Suber Thorpe author of Modern Calligraphy


 

Now, what better way to dig deep than to read what other experts have to say about the differences between Calligraphy and lettering.

The first reference can be found in the book ‘The ABC of custom lettering‘ by Spanish artist Ivan Castro. Castro separates his book in a calligraphy and a lettering chapter.

He begins with calligraphy because that is the best way to understand letter construction like we mentioned above, in the ‘Drawing letters' chapter (aka Lettering) he states:

“In making the transition from writing letters to drawing them, we need to understand the differences between this forms. When we do calligraphy, our manual skill is very important, because we can’t correct what we have done, but when we draw letters, we do have the chance to correct, erase, ink over, criticize, erase and draw again. It’s a completely different method of working, even though the objective — making letters by hand — is the same.” – Ivan Castro author of The ABC of custom lettering


 

The big takeaway from his words is that in lettering, we can correct, and re-work individual letters and composition. While in Calligraphy, you can also ‘plan' the artwork, when making it. You cannot correct, because most of the time, you are using ink with either a pointed/flat pen, brush pen, or any other specialty tool.

Another reference extracted from her book ‘The golden secrets of lettering,' Argentinian artist Martina Flor defines:

“ Lettering refers to a unique personalized typographic expression, made for a certain application by combining shapes and graphic elements, in order to convey a certain attribute, message or idea.” – Martina Flor author of the golden secrets of lettering

 


differences calligraphy lettering typography

So now that we have a better understanding let's put them into our own words:

CALLIGRAPHY:

Writing letters; no matter the tools we use; dip pen, flat pen, brush marker, regular brush, etc., we make a stroke for every essential part of the letter, sometimes a whole letter or word.

No matter the style; formal, classical, experimental, modern, there is no erasing, nor correction of the letters. Calligraphy embraces the spontaneity of executing letterforms according to a model or freehand. Using muscle memory and repetition, to execute set ‘styles' of letters.

calligraphy envelope sample

 

“Kalli- is a Greek root meaning “beautiful,” and “beautiful” in the case of calligraphy means artistic, stylized, and elegant.” – Merriam Webster

 

Flat pen example

[Flat pen example for Jackson Alves workshop poster ]

LETTERING:

Drawing letters; in this case, we build the letters using as many strokes as necessary. We sketch, erase, correct, add, repeatedly until we are happy with the letterform and the connections between them.

In lettering, the relations of the letters are unique; we create one-of-a-kind letters and letter-connections that are made (drawn, painted, carved) for a single artwork piece.

Lettering tools

 

TYPOGRAPHY:

Using pre-designed letters; is the art and technique of arranging type to make written language legible, readable, and appealing when displayed.

Generally, when we talk about typography, we are referring to the use of letters created by type designers, and the arrangements of those letters that have been established by them. Type designers create systems of characters and make letters that work in endless combinations.

Joyful letters font example by Joy Kelley @howjoyful

[My Joyful letters font, tested on the Glyphs for Mac program]

“In lettering, the letters are usually drawn, and for a specific context. In type, repeating letters typically have the same shapes. Fonts are capable of emulating the variation of lettering through alternates and ligatures, but they are still type: a system of pre-made letters that can be reproduced again and again.” – TypeNetwork

What is Type? Prefabricated letters that are made to be reused many times and in any order.

 

What's the difference between Font and typeface?

Typeface: A family of fonts, usually with different weights and styles (bold, italic, thin, etc.)

Font: Is a specific weight or style of a typeface ( Helvetica Bold, Helvetica italic, etc.)

 

Common mistakes

A huge misconception in the beginner community is that the tool used to create the letters is what determines the name or family. (ex. Letters made with brush pens are ‘brush lettering', scripts created with pencils are ‘faux calligraphy')

Calligraphy and lettering are NOT defined by the tools we use, but by the method we use to construct the letters

Most people don't understand that Lettering and Calligraphy are NOT defined by the tools we are using to create the letters, BUT by the method, we are using to construct them. To reiterate the points we made above:

LETTERING: Drawing letters, using the necessary number of revisions, modifications and usually born out of several thumb sketch ideas.

CALLIGRAPHY: Writing letters, whether, in one stroke or the deconstruction of several strokes, there is no erasing or re-adjusting.

I think the misconception comes because some people have only the pointed and flat pen associated with calligraphy, so when they see someone using a different tool, they automatically think that it has to be called differently (in this case, most times they use ‘lettering').

Example of why Brush lettering is a term used incorrectly

[The idea for this comparison picture comes from my friend Leo Calderon's IG picture]

Now, it’s entirely possible to grab a soft carbon pencil and apply low and hard pressure to create thin and thick lines (the basic concept of calligraphy), but we are not going to call that ‘pencil lettering' because it was created with a pencil, right?

Another big misconception I would like to address before we keep moving is that to be a lettering artist; you HAVE to be a calligrapher and vise versa. Granted, while this is not true, it does help tremendously to understand and get better at both in order to be a well-rounded artist.

Examples of the difference between lettering and brush calligraphy

What is brush lettering?

Brush lettering, as it is popularly shared in social media, is not actually lettering (Like in the right side of my comparison picture above). That would be considered Brush Calligraphy.

The actual origin of the term ‘Brush lettering' comes from the 50’s, and 60’s when sign painting started as a profession in the USA.

The term was properly used then, because as the name implies, they were doing ‘lettering' using real brushes and paint, to paint signs. With careful strokes, they would recreate their hand-drawn sketches on walls, windows, signs or just any surface where their artwork was needed.

mike meyer poster

[Signpainters Gothic poster by Mike Meyers exclusively sold on Better Letters]

Sign painting is an art and trade that I admire so much, and even though the basics of lettering and letter constructions are the same. The final execution is mesmerizing to me. A good short read is this post “Brief history on sign painting‘.

And if you have an hour to spare, I highly recommend the ‘Sign painters‘ documentary; there’s something so awesome about seeing an artist emerged on a piece of work and sharing their passion for letters. We definitely don't have enough of this kind of documentaries for creatives.

“Featuring interviews with more than two dozen artists from across the United States, “Sign Painters” is the first film to explore the history of the time-honored craft of sign painting. Documenting these dedicated practitioners, their methods, and their appreciation for quality and craftsmanship, the film profiles sign painters young and old, revealing the growing renaissance in the trade.” – Sign painters documentary

 

The authors of the Sign Painters documentary Faythe Levine and Sam Macon also put together the Sign Painters book, that is full of greatness (it is not an instructional book though).


 

 

Why is it used incorrectly?

Now that we understand the difference between Lettering and Calligraphy, it is easier to recognize that the term ‘Brush Calligraphy' is used incorrectly on many occasions and this is very confusing for beginners!

I see so many people that think that they are learning ‘lettering,' but they are actually doing ‘Calligraphy' to be exact ‘Brush Calligraphy.'

Brush calligraphy example made with Faber-Castell brush pen

[Practice makes better written with Faber Castle Violet brush pen]

What is brush calligraphy?

Calligraphy done with a brush is originally a traditional Chinese style (this is why many of the big brands of brush pens come from Japan and China).

The downside for Western calligraphers was that the use of those brushes would translate to bigger letters, and this made it hard to use on little details (envelopes, invitations, etc.) so instead, western calligraphy started to focus more writing using pointed & flat pens (or dip nibs).

With the introduction of brush pens, especially fude pens with a small brush, it became super popular and easy to use them instead of pointed pens while learning calligraphy. There are less prep work and limited nibs to clean and worry about storing.

Practice makes better - Brush calligraphy example

Now we see people making calligraphy with a brush pen everywhere in social media, and many call it “brush lettering.”  But like we already covered, that is NOT the right term if what they are doing is continual writing with no erasing, it would be BRUSH CALLIGRAPHY.

Jackson Alves Workshop

[Jackson Alves Promotional Workshop Poster with an example of Calligraphy done with brushes]

I know that I might sound a little passionate, and many people are going to roll their eyes because it’s just a word…right?

BRUSH CALLIGRAPHY instead of BRUSH LETTERING.

Well, in this case, that little word changes the whole meaning and the profession of the artist using it, so it is a BIG DEAL :D remember that we already talked about how not every letterer is a calligrapher and vice versa.

Just like photography and videography, they both use the same tools, but the results are entirely different. They both have to master completely different factors to create their end product. Sure one of them will have an easier time transitioning from one to the other, but they use an entirely different setting in their tools and process.

In this case, it is the same.

 

What is faux calligraphy?

Now, with this term, I had a hard time, not only trying to pinpoint where it originated from but also understanding why people would even use it?

Now bear with me, I am talking from the perspective of learning lettering first. To me, it was so evident that what most people were showing, and calling ‘faux-calligraphy' was simply ‘lettering.'

So maybe calling it faux calligraphy made sense to a calligrapher? Not sure.

Anyhow, no matter if it makes sense or not, there is no such thing as faux calligraphy.

When you make script letters by drawing a skeleton, adding weight with a pencil, and then filling in what looks like calligraphy you are basically doing lettering. That is the exact process lettering artist use to create their pieces.

hand lettering example

If you recall the definition of both Calligraphy and Lettering, you can clearly see that what we described is just lettering. We also covered the specific way we construct letters is what determines the difference.

Now, we could get super technical and have a passionate discussion over the way that some Calligraphy pieces are created. Because some Calligraphy artist plan, trace, and correct before going to ink, maybe it would become something else, but the bottom line is that if the letter has been ‘drawn' corrected, erased, drawn again, it’s lettering.

So let’s ditch the ‘faux calligraphy' term ok?

And since we are going over all terms, let's revise Chalk lettering too.

 

What is Chalk lettering?

As the name implies, Chalk-lettering is when we create lettering pieces with Chalk.

Finally, this one is actually used correctly! And it’s easy to identify; when you are drawing with chalk, you pretty much follow the same techniques as you would lettering with conventional tools.

The only difference is that you might use shading and techniques that can only be obtained with chalk.

chalk lettering example

Granted, there are brush paints in different colors, or we could paint with regular paint on a chalkboard, and again we would migrate to a completely different family because that would be more of a sign painting technique.

 

My letter story and mistakes

In my case, I started my journey with lettering while attending design school in Chile (I am an Industrial Designer by trade), I slowly ‘dipped' my toes into calligraphy (puns, anyone? No, ok).

calligraphy tools

Because I didn't have a ‘proper' Calligraphy background, I looked up to other artist practicing and sharing their Calligraphy and lettering work.

I saw a lot of artists creating letters with brush pens. They called it ‘Brush lettering' and since I figured it must be an English translation issue, I didn't question it! But it made no sense because I knew the definition of lettering — I was so confused!

That is why I wanted to write about it, so hopefully, I will spare YOU the confusion, and we can learn the difference between Calligraphy, lettering, and typography, so we can call what we are doing by their real name =]

 

Why writing this post?

While we visited Chile this year, I was able to interview my Chilean lettering pal Leo Calderon, and during that time we were able to talk letters (video interview coming soon), and one of the things we talked about was how we both felt about the misused terms in the creative world.

That is why I want to start my lettering series from the ground up. It’s doesn't make sense if I start sharing lettering and calligraphy tips and tutorials, without first covering the very foundation of terminology and letter construction.

And if I get one of you to start using the correct word, my mission would be accomplished =]

If you are still reading, thank you!

I know this was a long one!

 

Resources I love at the moment

Below you can check my favorite resources to learn and make money with your creativity!

  • SKILLSHARE: Is an awesome platform to learn lettering, photography, marketing and just about anything you need. I have a yearly subscription because I think that's an unbeatable value. If you want to give them a try, use my link to get 2 FREE MONTHS!
  • SHOPIFY: I switched to Shopify about 3 years ago and I love how easy it is now to have orders and my shop no longer goes offline and I never have customers unable to checkout, if you are thinking about opening a shop give them a try! FREE for 14-days.
  • ZAZZLE: Thinking about selling products with your art? give Zazzle a try. They have an incredible amount of products that you can customize and tools to create a branded storefront that you can promote. Open a store here.

 

Ps. If you guys have any specific topic or question, you would like me to cover for the upcoming post; please post them in the comments.

Happy creating!

Joy


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MEET JOY

Joy Kelley is a Chilean Designer & lettering Artist. Mom to 3 little boys. Crafter. Pattern lover. Color obsessed. Lemon pie dependent. And the hand behind the HowJoyful Studio & HowJoyful Shop. Read more about her & the blog here →

2 replies
  1. Rosita
    Rosita says:

    Thanks for the explanation, i was doing some research on the differences between Calligraphy and lettering. Your explanation really helps.

    Reply

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