Adding Depth to Your Letters

Before I began focusing exclusively writing calligraphy, I spent many hours practicing hand-lettering. One of my favorite aspects of hand-lettering are the countless techniques you can use to embellish your composition. Sure, it’s about the words themselves, but I loved adding features like flourishes, ornaments, and illustrative elements.

One of my favorite things to work with was light and shadows. Giving a piece depth really seemed to make the work pop and feel more polished.
It appears to be less common in calligraphy, but with a little effort, it is possible to achieve the same stylistics effects in your own work. And hey — why not try giving your letters something more once you’re done writing them?

Let’s take a look at 4 simple ways to give your letterforms some depth.

Hairline Shadows

Hairline “shadows” are an easy feature to add. You can do this with the edge of your flat pen, or even a separate pen or marker (thin-tipped Microns work great and they dry fast).
Before you go drawing lines around the edges of your letterforms, take a second to consider the “light source”. Even though there isn’t a true light source in this scenario, where the shadows are (and where they are not) is what give the true illusion of depth.

hairline shadow example

Once you determine the position of your light source, you place your shadows in the opposite position. For example, if your light source is coming from the top right of your composition, you’ll want the shadows to appear off the left sides and bottom sides of your letterform’s strokes.
If this understanding doesn’t come natural, you can use a tool like Photoshop to help visualize:

  1. Create a text layer.
  2. Right click on the layer, and select blending options.
  3. Select the “Drop Shadow” effect.
  4. Match the settings in the image below (or modify similarly).
light sourcing in photoshop

You’ll notice the drop shadow coming off of the left and bottom sides of the letterforms. This is where you’ll want to place your hairlines.

Highlights

When highlights are introduced to a letterform, it makes the letterform appear extruded or embossed. Use a white pen, marker, or chalk/charcoal pencil when working on top of a darker ink.

highlight example

Like hairline shadows, the placement of your highlights are going to depend on your pre-determined “light source”.

Once again, let’s use the example of a light source that emits from the top right of your composition. In this scenario, your highlights are going to appear on the top sides and right sides of your letterforms.

Once again, you can use a tool like Photoshop to better understand the light source:

  1. Create a text layer.
  2. Right click on the layer, and select blending options.
  3. Select the “Bevel & embossed” effect.
  4. Match the settings in the image below (or modify similarly).
light sourcing in photoshop

You should now see the highlights within your letterforms that reflect the source of light.

Deep Shadows

Taking your techniques a step beyond just a simple hairline, try introducing depth with more pronounced and gradated shadows. Here, I would recommend using a soft and dark graphite pencil (like a 4B or 6B).
Going back to Photoshop, you can mimic the effect for reference:

  1. Create a text layer.
  2. Right click on the layer, and select blending options.
  3. Select the “Drop Shadow” effect.
  4. Match the settings in the image below (or modify similarly).
drop shadows in photoshop

Sometimes, those dark shadows can muddy up your composition. To avoid this, simply leave some white space around the letters.

shadow example

Chrome

You know that nice chrome effect you see on metallic letters on billboards or web advertisements?

Example of chrome effect

Image taken from freecreatives.com

Believe it or not, you can match this effect rather easily using a white chalk/charcoal pencil.

To utilize this technique, it helps to study an example first (like the image above). If you look closely, you’ll see that the color gradates from the top (medium grey) to the middle (white). It then then quickly to fades darker in the middle and finally, gradates to a medium grey again at the bottom.

chrome example

This might take a bit of practice, but give it a try and you’ll quickly realize how simple of a technique it is, despite how complex it might appear in a real-world example.

Putting It All Together

The beauty of all of these techniques is that you don’t need to stick to one — you can mix and match!

Try utilizing 2 or more of these techniques. For example, you could give you your letterforms highlights and hairline shadows:

highlight and hairline example

Or a deep shadow effect that also has chrome:

chrome and shadow example

What Depth Techniques Are You Using?

I’ve seen some really cool experiments online. For example, @paindesignart (be sure to follow on Instagram!) is incredibly skilled when it comes to giving his letters depth:

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