Once you have an understanding of the basic lettering styles, you’ll naturally want to imitate those styles to create great work. You want to create freely, but you’re not quite there yet. You need to bridge the gap between your ability and your inspiration.
It’s a natural tendency to feel the need to copy, because we feel stuck. However, we’re almost always left with this question: “Is copying considered cheating?”
This question is one that many beginners keep to themselves, and many artists don’t talk about. It isn’t acknowledged enough that copying is how we all learn. Copying is how we learn how to speak, behave, and do so many other things in life—The same goes for lettering.
The important part of copying is learning how to copy the right way. You want to copy in a way that will help you learn for yourself, avoid carbon copies, and help you create original work.
How to Copy the Right Way
You should copy for personal practice, but you don’t want to copy lettering for your published work. When I first started, I had a random typography book that I used to study letterforms. I studied and copied them in my practice sessions. However, in my published work, I decided to put the book away, and I only used it when I got lost on a specific letter. By doing this, I was making the font my own, rather than a copy. You might be tempted to have your reference to the side and glance over it every so often. But even when you do this, the piece will lack your personal touch and creativity, which is a huge part of lettering.
The way to copy that will have the biggest impact will be by first, studying a font or lettering piece thoroughly. You would then sleep on it, and create from memory next time you letter. This way, you’ll be able to internalize the anatomy of the letters and it’ll flow organically in your next lettering piece. This is how a lettering style becomes yours, rather than a clear imitation.
When you create from memory, you will of course get things wrong. However, getting things wrong is actually one of the best ways to learn. Once you finish your piece, you can bring back up the referenced font and give a post-mortem analysis. By reflecting on your mistakes, you’ll quickly learn what to avoid and what to do next time.
The Benefit of Creating from Memory
I realized the benefit of this method personally after trying it when I first started out. After each mistake, I quickly referred to what I did wrong, and after figuring it out, the lesson stuck with me much stronger than if I was copying. I was forced to recall letterforms in my head, and when I got them wrong, I internalize those lessons on my own.
Copying is similar to the training wheels on a bike. You need them in the beginning, but your goal is to break free from them as soon as possible. They help you in the short term, but they actually limit your growth in the long term. As soon as you take them off, that’s where the real fun of riding a bike starts. You are free from the constraints of the support, and you’re able to travel fast, freely, and enjoyably.
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