Digital Hand Lettering: Switching from Paper to Screen

Banner art by Teela Cunningham.

Hand lettering isn’t easy, even when you’re using specialized tools that calligraphers have used for thousands of years. 

Modern lettering artists spend thousands of hours perfecting forms and techniques only to find themselves faced with a new set of challenges when switching to digital hand lettering.

Learning to draw on a glass screen or how to mix colors in a digital interface can feel like starting over again, but digitizing your hand lettering skills has some major benefits.

Today, we’re going to show you what you need to do in order to make the switch to digital hand lettering.

Let’s go!

1. Review Your Current Hand Lettering Process

As an artist, you know your process better than anyone. From brush pens to sketchpads, you know exactly what you need to create the different styles of art that you enjoy.

Art generously provided by Nathaniel Ong.

That’s important because it means that you’re a qualified expert when it comes to figuring out what you need in order to make the leap from pen and paper to digital art.

Before you switch to digital lettering, take a step back and review the essential techniques, tools, and resources you use during your creation process.

Some basic considerations might be:

  • What lettering styles can I create in a digital medium?
  • Do my pens, brushes, and inks exist in a digital format?
  • How will digital lettering change my creative process?
  • Will this make me a better hand-letterer?
  • Can I do this on my own or do I need help?

Why does this matter?

Examining your workflow closely will help you understand what you need for the digitization process and whether it’s worth the effort. While many lettering enthusiasts opt to go digital because digital files are more forgiving if you make a mistake, that doesn’t mean that digital hand-lettering is for everyone.

Before you invest hundreds or thousands of dollars in the equipment you’ll need to go digital, take the time to figure out your current creative process. Think about what needs to change in order to work with the variety of digital platforms that are available to you.

Lastly, before you move forward, make a decision on whether going digital is right for you. By making that choice now, you’ll save yourself from a costly investment in time and money that wouldn’t have worked out in the long run.

2. Match Digital Resources with Your Current Tools

Every letter has a favorite brand of pens, pencils, markers, brushes, and other lettering essentials. Depending on your art style, you might use dozens of tools in order to create your unique style.

Art generously provided by Nathaniel Ong.

Once you’ve decided to make the switch to digital hand lettering, you’ll need to find the digital equivalent of your current tools. That means finding a digital replacement for your favorite lettering brush and your preferred paper.

But you won’t be looking for these replacements at the art store, because you’re not shopping for brushes. You’re shopping for electronics and apps!

If tech isn’t your forte, don’t worry. Here’s a quick overview of what you’ll need in order to go digital:

  • A stylus and tablet (hardware)
  • Digital drawing apps (software)
  • Learning resources from digital lettering artists

We’ll cover hardware and software in depth below, but it’s worth pointing out that your entire digital solution needs to work together. 

The hardware that you choose needs to support the software that you want to use. Ideally, you can also find a lettering artist using the same app so that you can learn more about your workspace and about digital hand lettering at the same time.

As you’re picking out the tools and digital resources that you’ll need in order to make the transition, do your best to find inspiration along the way. Looking around, you’ll find dozens of great resources to help you improve your digital hand-lettering skills.

You don’t even need a workshop instructor to guide you through this process. You could also explore the feeds from popular Instagram lettering artists like Karin Newport and Stefan Kunz. You’ll also find many artists, like Shelly Kim, who work in both physical and digital mediums while offering books and step-by-step tutorials for viewers.

It’s important to keep in mind that even though you’re transferring your skills to a digital format, what you learn in the digital space may carry back to a physical medium, as well.

Let’s take a closer look at hardware and software solutions that can help you switch to digital.

3. Choose Your Hardware

Technologies like pressure sensitivity and palm rejection make it easier than ever to draw using natural motion. 

This means that you’ll be able to practice modern calligraphy and lettering styles using techniques that you learned on paper while also adjusting the typography to perfection even if mistakes are made along the way.

To do this, you’ll need two things to get started: A tablet and a stylus. Let’s take a closer look at each one.

Drawing tablets

There are two main types of drawing tablets that you’ll need to be aware of before making a decision: Graphics tablets and digital tablets.

Depending on your drawing style and any technology that you currently use, you may be better suited for one than the other.

Graphics tablets

If you’ve looked at switching to digital hand-lettering in the past, you’ve probably seen a graphics tablet before. Traditional graphics tablets are designed to be hooked up to a laptop or desktop computer and leverage its resources to sketch and draw.

Wacom is a big player in this market and offers a huge variety of graphics tablets at all price points. Some of their tablets have digital screens while others require you to look at your computer screen while using the tablet to draw.

Graphics tablets like this are still a viable option when it comes to digital lettering. This dedicated piece of hardware typically contains some kind of pressure sensitivity and palm rejection technology to stop hand pressure from interfering with the input from a specialized stylus.

This is a great option if you already have a powerful desktop or laptop and you’d like to use your hand lettering skills without spending hundreds or thousands of dollars on an iPad or an Android-based tablet and their respective tablet accessories.

One of the key differentiators between dedicated graphics tablets and other mainstream tablets is the tablet sensitivity level, which dictates how much control you’ll have over the pressure of your pen strokes. Digital tablets support around 2,000 sensitivity levels. Many graphic tablets offer between 5,000 and 8,000 levels of sensitivity.

Depending on your artistic style, this may not matter. Additional customization within mainstream drawing software can affect brush sensitivity and opacity, so 2,000 points of sensitivity may be more than enough. 

No one can tell you exactly many levels of sensitivity you need in order to draw effectively, but this is a key point of consideration if you have a powerful computer at home and you want maximum control over the pen-to-screen process.

Digital tablets

As they have become more widespread, digital tablets like the iPad and the Surface Pro have become viable as creative tools for all types of artists. 

Though they weren’t originally intended as artistic devices, many of these tablets now have the processing power, battery life, and accessories for artists to give them strong consideration.

Digital tablets are typically more expensive than graphics tablets because they’re a small computer in their own right. You could use them to play games, take notes, check email, and browse the web — in addition to sharpening your lettering skills.

While a digital tablet can require a substantial investment, it can definitely be worth the cost, especially if you don’t have a high-powered computer at home already or you’re looking for a standalone device that you can take with you anywhere. Plus, with an app like Astropad, you can turn a digital tablet into a graphics tablet anyway.

Our Recommendation

Right now, a combination of the iPad Pro, the Apple Pencil, and the Paperlike screen protector can help you create a drawing environment that feels similar to your pencil and sketchbook. 

On top of that, you can find a ton of iPad lettering walkthroughs and resources around the web to help you perfect your skills while drawing on the screen.

Just remember: While a digital tablet can be an investment, moving to digital means that you’re also saving some money on brushes, pens, paper, and ink.

4. Choose Your Software

Once you’ve picked your hardware, you’re only halfway there. Now you’ll need to find the right app to help you get the job done. 

Procreate brush studio showcase.

There are several great options out there, but the wide selection of apps for the iPad — including Procreate, Autodesk Sketchbook, and Adobe Sketch — is one thing that makes it really shine.

We aren’t going to spend a ton of time recommending which apps you should try or avoid. There are too many apps to list for one operating system, let alone two or three! Besides, we know that the only way you’ll really know whether an app works for you is to try it out.

While testing an app, here are a few things to consider:

  • How does the app perform? Does it skip or stutter when you try to use it?
  • Can you add anything to the app, like custom brushes or templates?
  • Is the app free, paid, or does it require a recurring monthly subscription?
  • Can you import your physically-drawn work into the app?
  • Can you export your digital art to a digital file?
    • If so, does the app export files in a vector format?

All of these elements play a critical role in your decision-making process. Many digital artists sketch and outline on paper before transferring to digital in order to finish out their process. 

You may find this kind of flexibility and control especially useful if you’re doing brush lettering or watercolor lettering, both of which can have varying results that can be easily undone when imported to a digital workflow.

Our Recommendation

Overall, the app you choose will define your creative process. From what lettering artists tell us, the Procreate app is where you’ll want to start if you’re using an iPad to digitize your hand lettering journey.

Even if Procreate is just a starting point, you should explore the universe of artistic apps on the market today. You may find that some apps outperform others in certain areas or that you prefer the user interface for one app over another.

There are no wrong answers when searching for your perfect workflow. Focus on finding the best app for you.