After I finished a recent large commission in Spencerian script, a few people who viewed it were struck at how straight and evenly spaced the lines of text were. One person commented that if he didn’t know better, he would think he was looking at a computer printout.
This is not by magic or talent! It took hours to rule up the page! I thought I’d share some basics of guidelines. We’ve all seen the videos of magical lettering with seemingly no point of reference. Keep in mind that the artists that can work like that have thousands of hours of practice. And that practice was with guidelines.
There are lots of printable guidesheets available online and from reputable sources too, but you should be able to draw your own lines. This is especially important because one day you might have a challenging project and need to draw the lines to maintain the quality of your work. It also lets you get more familiar with the script and enables you to understand why the letters do what they do.
Depending on what kind of letters you’re working with, there will be different sets of lines to work with. Each script — not font — was specifically designed to have proportion, spacing between letters, and movement. And a lot of exemplars, or examples of alphabets, will tell you the ideal height for letters, what tool to use to write them, and what angle to write them at. The guidelines and exemplars go hand in hand to support your success in learning. All you need to do is trust them and study them. Guidelines are important because they train the eye to see the relationship between letters. They also train the hand and arm to move in a way consistent with the script. Typically, two sets of lines are necessary. The first set shows the sizes of the letters, both uppercase and lowercase. It also shows the space needed between the lines of text to keep the character of the script intact. The second set, called the main slant, is used to maintain a consistent angle at which the letters are written. This set of guidelines can range from being completely vertical to being slanted forward by 55 degrees or more. This keeps the integrity of your work consistent.
- Use a t-square ruler or a square ruler to ensure the lines are perpendicular to the edge of the page. This makes a difference because, as I said, practice also trains the eye as to how the letters should look both in relation to each other and in relation to the page. Using consistent lines will make the learning process easier on you and it will be easier to study your script against the exemplar and figure out how to improve it.
- Make the vertical or slant lines even and consistent. These lines serve as a point of reference for the eye and hand as you work at first, so be sure these lines are accurate in angle and in spacing.
- Use gentle pressure when drawing the lines. Heavy pressure with a pencil leaves grooves in the paper, so that even when the graphite is erased, the lines will still be visible. This is only a problem when it isn’t a part of your design.
- Make sure you’re hitting the guidelines!! After all that work you’ve put in! This is probably the most crucial point. Decide where on the guideline you want your letters to rest and stick with it. Do you want to write at the top of the baseline? The middle of it? How about the top of the lowercase letters? The middle of the guideline? The bottom of it? This small detail is something that will set your script apart. It eliminates another distraction for the viewer. Same thing with slant lines. Those are there to guide the angle of your script and they’re also there to use to measure spacing.
Lastly, take your time while practicing and be patient with yourself. You didn’t learn to drive in a day or tie your shoes on the very first try. It takes a combined effort and learning to let the guidelines support your progress takes a lot of pressure off of the need to make the strokes perfect every time.