Lettering artist Martina Flor loves starting her concepts with simple paper and pencil, before moving on to add colour and texture in Illustrator. The Argentine-born and now Berlin-based creative combines the talents of designing and illustrating to create beautiful letters.
You only need to look at her work (which we showcase in this feature) to see how talented Martina is, and she’s always on the lookout for a new project that will expand her creative limits, as well as continuing to produce lettering for a range of commercial clients including The Washington Post, Harrods, Walker Books and Levi’s.
Martina shares tips and ideas at creative events and conferences, carries out her own letter design workshops as well as lectures at several universities. We’ve added her to our list of best Skillshare tutorials videos, which are definitely worth checking out.
Taking the opportunity to rack Martina’s mind and extensive knowledge, we spoke to her about the lettering design process from sketching to artwork following her talk at Adobe MAX this year in Las Vegas.
If you’re a graphic designer or illustrator wanting to experiment with lettering for the first time, or you’re a lettering artist already – and wanting to improve and expand your style and skills – these basic tips will help to get you started.
Martina studied a Type & Media Masters in the Netherlands, after completing a Communication Design degree in Barcelona. She now works from her studio in Berlin, where she works in three different languages for private clients, agencies, magazines and publishing houses.
She chose lettering over calligraphy and typography because she likes to control the shapes of the letters.
“I like that I can actually design the shape. It’s not about spontaneous trace of a tool but it’s just me deciding how that letter will look and I like that process,” she says.
“It’s not that I didn’t choose lettering over type design, but the lettering side of my studio was so successful that the type design part of my practise stayed on the side.”
Type design versus lettering
Type design and lettering have very different processes and timings.
“A lettering project can have a quick turn-around of a week or two, a type design project can take a year; it’s hard to combine both at the same time,” says Martina.
A combination of the shape of the letters, as well as the colour and composition, play a role in storytelling, she says. For example, designing a cover of a book should tell the reader in just one image what to expect from the book.
“This should be the focus when designing,” she says. “The letters should be beautiful.”
“The power of lettering is to transport and transmit much more than the literal medium of words.”
It’s important to keep these factors in mind if you’re still deciding whether type design or lettering is for you.
Trying hand lettering for the first time
When approaching hand lettering for the first time, what helped Martina the most was understanding how letter design works; to find out why the letter A is the way it is – those “little Eureka! moments”.
“What is very frustrating is to try and do something and not understand why it is the way it is," she explains. "Trying to do something by copying is also frustrating – you wouldn’t be able to do it alone.”
Instead of starting off by tracing someone else’s lettering work, Martina suggests taking a sketching class, buy a book, or take a workshop by someone you admire.
Gathering inspiration for self-initiated projects
“We use the same basic tool; our vision,” says Martina. She calls it 'The Typographic Eye'. It’s important to know where to look, and to take images of type when you’re out and about for inspiration.
Every artist knows the beauty in gathering inspiration from the world around them – the streets, the people, and for Martina – the typography. Everywhere from a patisserie sign to a tin can.
Martina collects and finds what others might consider useless things – old book covers and tin cans – from a flea market.
As well as tangible objects, there’s always the internet. But rather than a quick Google search (which can quickly become overwhelming), Martina suggests “very old” online library books made available as scans, books that you wouldn’t otherwise access. Typography fans even go to the extent to collect old calligraphy manuals that they scan and upload into a flickr gallery.
“I try and find inspiration in things that happened decades or centuries ago because I like the idea of being able to make it contemporary. I can look at it and do something that's made for today, with a certain flavour, and having that distance is also necessary,” she says.
“I also go to conferences and exchange things with my colleagues for sure, but I don’t look consciously for inspiration in contemporary artists.”
Finding time for self-initiated projects
Martina has many memorable self-initiated projects. From Lettering vs Calligraphy with her friend Giuseppe Salerno – to sending 100 bespoke postcards to strangers, friends and celebrities (including Ringo Starr and Lionel Messi) – it’s a wonder where she finds the time.
Yet we all know how important personal projects are for stimulating creativity.
“I just have to come up with something that awakens my enthusiasm, and I have to have an idea that I feel motivated enough for, and to fit it into my schedule,” she says.
“The idea has to be as exciting for me to consider it part of my work. If it’s not challenging enough, I lose interest and it becomes a stone in my shoe.”
Don't think of a self-initiated project as a separate or side project, but to include it amongst all your work, so you’ll make time for it.
Best tools to use
Tools vary from artist to artist, and it’s up to you how picky you want to be about brands, styles and the make of your tools. We’ve created a roundup of the best pens for artists which may help.
Martina simply uses pencil and paper for her sketches. Working on an iPad or other tablet is also fine – whatever is comfortable for you.
"Your tools should be a support for yourself, and that’s all. I have the analogue part and also digital tools,” she says.
“The digital tools, I use in a rustic way. It’s just a digital tool to plot the shapes I draw by hand and so I use Adobe Illustrator to incorporate colour and texture into my design.”
Copy what you draw by hand with vectors in Illustrator. Picking up letter shapes with vectors, use the ‘extreme points technique’. This techniques allows you to draw letters with the fewer amount of points so you can control your shapes better.
Here is a final sketch of Martina's cover lettering for Alice in Wonderland for Spanish publishing house Austral. Her inspiration comes from Alice falling into the rabbit hole and "starting a nonsense trip through Wonderland". Her letter shapes are a mix from different universes "living together in the same image". See her creative process in the next slide.
Martina’s creative process usually starts by creating tiny sketches using handwriting, as seen here for Spanish publishing house Austral.
“The more sketching you do, the more the universe of letters expands,” says Martina.
“I like to compare drawing lettering with having a relationship. There are a lot of men and women in the world, but you choose one and try to make it work.”
Once Martina settles on the best thumbnail sketch, she moves onto creating the same design in a bigger size.
In this step, try to solve the basic composition and decide on shape on serifs – be more precise with shape of letters. Improve this drawing later with layers of tracing paper.
“This allows me to change the things I don’t like and copy the things that I like, I study the drawing over and over again and benefit from solutions I found before,” Martina says.
Colour & texture are important
If you’re hand lettering, it’s not designing a typeface. This means you can have fun with colours, textures and bespoke designs for each project. These factors help to communicate an idea or message much stronger than a black and white image.
Texture, colour, structure and composition are also part of the storytelling with letters. See here how adding colour and texture to Martina's book cover adds depth and meaning.
“Although I like to work with digital lettering, because it allows me to create very neat, clean shapes, at the same time I try to counteract this effect, the perfection of this,” says Martina. “I try and make the drawing look not so digital so I work with shadows and texture.”
Create short-term goals
As artists and designers, it’s easy to constantly be hyper-critical of your work – nothing is ever enough. This can be healthy for your workflow if channeled in the right way.
It’s best to constantly be hungry to improve your skills, so don’t be afraid to “be nasty with your work”, says Martina.
“If you see a mistake, try to change it. It doesn’t cost too much to change that A or that N, and it can improve work greatly. Don’t make compromises.”
Martina says with experience you tend not to see progression, or the improvement curve, move as rapidly as it did when you first began learning a skill.
“The challenge now is to keep myself motivated and to say I’m moving forward with my art. In those terms I try everyday to make new things and improve my process,” says Martina.
Having a brief and deadline is very important. You need to know when you’re going to be done with it even if it’s not done, Martina says.
Space within the letter should be similar to the space between the letters as a general rule.
This refers to the thinnest and thickest part of letter – do you want high contrast or low contrast?
Do you want ‘tall legs’ or ‘short legs’ on your letterforms?
The first sketch needs to be rough, you need to solve the composition and towards the end you decide on details. Don’t fall in love with single letters.
“Don’t spend so long drawing that A, at some point a better A will come along,” says Martina.
Making something means it has an impact to you and an impact to the world, says Martina.
“Creating a sketch that says 'I Love You' doesn’t change anyone’s life, but turning it into a poster and sending it to someone makes a difference.”
“My work became more interesting and expressive because I wanted to look better for those people watching out there,” Martina says, referring to her online Lettering vs Calligraphy joint project.