Recently I was working on a piece and I was pretty happy with it. Everything was polished, but when it finished it, it felt like something was off. I couldn't put my finger on it. All I could think was "it just feels... flat".
So I decided to take it at its word and add a drop shadow effect, just to see how it would look. And the result was simply unparalleled.
Drop shadows create a powerful feeling of dimension to your lettering. It makes it look 3-dimensional, like it's popping out of the page. If done right, this visual trick can revive pieces that look promising but somewhat feel dull.
A strong composition
If you want the drop shadow effect, your piece must be impeccable. Adding effects isn't going to magically turn bad lettering into a stunning piece of art, it's going to enhance an already promising composition. Make sure your work is already solid, the proportions are good, the kerning is flawless, the line work is precise, etc.
One important thing to check is line weight and spacing. The drop shadow effect is going to make everything look more massive, so you need to make sure it's not too thick. Same with spacing, especially if you plan on making the drop shadow in a different color than your lettering (which is probably what you'll want to do): all the space between letter is going to be revealed either in positive or negative space, which means every single mistake is going to show. Take some extra time to take care of the details before you go.
I always try to draw at large scale, because the bigger you go, the more details you can add. When you throw effects like a drop shadow, you absolutely want to have room for detail. If you work on a lettering piece that's too small, you'll have very little to no space space to draw all the things that's going to make it really pop. Keep in mind that it's always better having to downsize something than the other way around. If your lettering is too small, scan it, enlarge it, print it and redraw it with tracing paper or a light table.
Stroke or no stroke?
This step isn't mandatory, but adding a stroke around your piece complements the drop shadow effect really well. Not only it creates a bold and sturdy structure, but it also preserves your original lettering piece by rendering the shadow on the outer stroke, instead of directly on the letters.
Adding a stroke isn't rocket science, but it requires focus and a steady hand. Basically, you want to trace a line all around your lettering that's perfectly parallel to it. If you're willing to do it manually (like the real O.G. do), there are no shortcuts: you're going to have to go slow and steady. Don't rush this process, because a jacked outline shows immediately.
The closer you are to the original outline, the more intricate the shape will be; the farther, the simpler, but be careful of remaining consistent! If you have a hard time with that, don't hesitate to use a ruler to make sure your stroke is at the same distance from the outline as possible.
Outline & Shift
Your lettering is ready, it's finally time for you to create a magnificent drop shadow effect that's gonna make your piece pop out of the page! How? Let's break it down.
The best way to achieve this effect with precision and accuracy is to use tracing paper or a light table. Set a piece of tracing paper, or a blank sheet of paper, on top of your drawing and draw the outline of your entire piece. When I say the outline, I mean only the edge. You must not trace anything that's inside; all you need to draw is the outer shape.
If you're using tracing paper, you're going to need to trace back your entire lettering piece because next we're going to need to set in back on top! This is not something you need to do when you have a light table. If you don't have one yet, make yourself a favor and invest in one! It's really not that expensive, and it will become your best friend for lettering.
Once you're done, put this page below your original drawing (or the traced one if you're using tracing paper). Both should align perfectly. Now, tape the outer shape tracing to make sure it doesn't move. Next, shift the above page. What? How? Where? Well it depends. For example, if you want a drop shadow to the bottom left, you'll need to shift it in the opposite direction, to the top right. I suggest you try to make the shift even: if you move it 1cm to the right, make it also 1cm to the top. Obviously, as you grow and master this effect, you can totally experiment and play with that exactly as you want, but this is a good way to start and get pretty good results.
By shifting it the same distance in both directions, you'll get a perfectly isometric, 45° shadow. The more you shift it, the longer the shadow. Short shadows create a shallow, more subtle and delicate effect, like it's a medal . Long shadows create a deep, heavier effect. This part is up to you and to the desired look you want for your design.
Once you've shifted your drawing, tape it so it doesn't move. You're now ready to tackle the final part of the drawing.
You're going to trace the outer shape that you previously traced, but only when it's outside of the lettering. Every time your line meets the lettering, you'll need to stop and start again when it ends. Obviously, if you're inside a closed shape of one of your letters (e.g.: the counter of an "O", the shoulder of a "P", the bowl on an "A", etc.), you're allowed to draw. The outer shape should simply not mess up the existing lettering, only touch its limits.
When it's finished, you can remove the page that's below. You won't need it anymore. If everything went well, you have your lettering and a shifted tracing of its outer shape. That's perfect.
Do you remember when you were a kid and you learnt how to draw a 3-dimensional cube? I'm sure you remember this mind-blowing little trick:
See what's happening when we're done tracing the two shifted shapes? We're linking angles together. Well, that's exactly what we're going to do next.
You'll need to scan you drawing and check for opportunities to "close" the piece by linking angles. It's going to be trickier than with a cube though. Take a look at the image below:
As you can see, we're applying the same rule than when we traced the outline: when we meet the lettering, we stop.
Drop shadows have a much more powerful effect when they're in a different color than the lettering. With my Fight Club piece, I've made the stroke and the shadow black, and kept the lettering white. It creates a strong, sticker-looking effect on a white background that really pops out of the page.