Finding good reference for your hand lettering can be just as important as using reference within your projects at all. If the reference you’ve collected isn’t great then this will likely reflect in the work you create. Reference usually consists of images and information that is relevant to your project. Including examples of textures, layouts, lettering styles and more. You then use the reference you have collected to build a more informed creation of your own.
Last week I wrote about the importance of using good reference. This covered why we should use reference when creating lettering work, and what can happen if you don’t have enough reference to refer to. However, I didn’t go in to detail about where to find great reference as there is so much to write on the topic, it made sense to write a separate article focusing on this area.
Hand lettering reference can be found absolutely everywhere. Especially if you are looking to collect textures, often if you walk for just a minute or two you will see at least a couple of different textures without even really trying to find them. I was riding in a car recently, and I challenged myself to count all the different types of lettering I saw on the journey within a minute. I reached about fifteen, I saw realtor / estate agent signs, building work signs, lettering on other cars, road signs and business signs. Admittedly I chose to do this riding through a built up area, so I was pretty much guaranteed to see some form of lettering. Also a lot of what I saw wouldn’t have been relevant to many lettering projects. It just highlights that reference is all around us if we take the time to look.
I was walking my dog and passed this old sign recently, it was uncovered by builders and has already been covered up again. It’s just another example that sometimes without even going out of your way you can come across interesting things.
So what do you do if there isn’t much in the way of reference that you can collect from your immediate environment?
Depending on what type of lettering project you are working on, depends on what type of hand lettering reference you will need to collect. Sometimes you will need to go out of your way to collect some reference. You might be lettering something about the sea, in which case a trip to the seaside may help you gather some reference. You could collect pictures of the sea, of boats, sand and pebbles for textures, and whatever else you think you might need to incorporate into your lettering. It may be a vintage piece of lettering you are working on, in which case you might visit some old buildings within the area and take photos of key features, or maybe you’ve noticed some old weathered wood out and about previously which you can take pictures of.
Reference also doesn’t have to come from an external location either, sometimes you can find really interesting things inside of thrift stores / charity shops. It might be something vintage with some classic lettering on it that you love, or it could be something with a retro colour scheme on that you want to refer to again later. In most cases if you politely ask the store assistant if it’s okay to take a couple of pictures and explain why, they’re usually happy for you to do so. If you like whatever item it is that’s caught your eye enough, you can always buy it too! Sometimes it’s better to own the physical reference than just a picture of it as you can easily refer to it, and often see and feel that bit more than you can from a photo.
What do you do if there is nowhere suitable within a travelling distance to collect relevant reference from, or you don’t have time to do it?
It isn’t always possible to take a trip to the beach if you’re lettering something about the sea, and need to collect reference within this area. Maybe the nearest beach is hours away, or maybe you just don’t have time to go and spend an hour or two looking for relevant things to photograph and collect. That’s okay though, and where the wonderful world of the internet comes in handy. Sites like Pinterest, Flickr and Instagram, can help you to fill the gaps in your lettering reference, and even just a simple Google image search can often prove quite helpful. There’s a good chance if you can’t get out to take photos of something specific, somebody else has already done it and shared it somewhere. So there are fantastic resources always just a few clicks or taps away.
The only thing to keep in mind when collecting reference that has been uploaded by other people is that you should only refer to it. Say you found a really great texture of some wood, you shouldn’t import it into your final piece and use it as a texture over your lettering as you don’t own the rights to the image. You can always ask the image owner if it’s ok to use it in that way, and see what they say. Flickr has special sections for different types of licenses on images that are uploaded on their site, so it’s worth checking out those if you are looking to use an image you’ve found in your final project not just refer to it behind the scenes.
I’ve started a Pinterest board, to help you with finding lettering reference. There isn’t a huge amount of images on there at the moment, but it is something that I’m hoping to grow over time. If you find you have gaps in your lettering reference my board is something that you can refer to first, and see if there’s anything pinned that might help you.
The Old Top Drawer is an antique business that I travelled to, the owner kindly let me photograph a lot of the lettering that you’ll find in the lettering reference board I created.
What can you do to improve your observational skills?
One of the most important things you can do is to start training yourself to look for reference. The better you get at noticing and looking, the more quality reference you’re likely to collect.
You can set yourself little challenges to improve your looking skills, similarly to what I mentioned above. Next time you’re out for a walk, riding the bus to work or even walking around a shopping mall, pick something to look out for. It might be to spot all serif fonts you walk past, or all bumpy textures you see, or all lettering on a slant that you see. If you carry this exercise out a few times you’ll soon get better at noticing things.
Not everything interesting you see has to be collected then and there, as it might not always be relevant to a project you’re working on. If you make a mental note that something interesting is there though, you can always go back at a later date and take some pictures. If you think it’s something that’s only going to be there temporarily, then take a picture, label it clearly on your computer and file it away. That way you won’t miss out on collecting it and can refer to it in the future if you ever need to.