What’s the most beautiful often is what you can fail at the most. Character designers struggle with hands, singers struggle with variations, and lettering artists struggle with flourishes. Those ornaments that grow from the lines of letters and breathes life into a composition also are fascinating because they are difficult to master. It makes them a great challenge to take up for any letterer who wishes to get better at their craft.
What makes beautiful flourishes?
Flourishes require you to go crazy and be in control at the same time. They demand incredible creativity, but if you don’t know what you’re doing, you’re likely to fail even with a good idea. What I like to do every time I want to start practicing is studying the masters.
Careful though: studying is different from copying. When I talk about studying, I imply doing research, identifying what works and why, and trying to replicate those principles in your own work. Displaying a beautiful piece on your screen while you’re drawing isn’t studying, it’s direct referencing, aka copying. Don’t make this mistake or you might (rightly) be called out for plagiarism. And if you learn by copying, please keep the drawings to yourself.
Now, there are great examples out there of successful flourishes, and they’re very helpful to understand what works.
In this piece, Ryan Hamrick uses flourishes to draw the structure of the letter itself. This very smart is because there’s only one letter: while flourishes usually need to be used sparingly, the fact they are the main component of the whole piece make it work perfectly.
The structure of the flourishes is very interesting: they perfectly follow and fit each other, forming an interlacing pattern that goes above and below each other and create a subtle three-dimensional effect. This is reinforced by the more discreet and flat brown flourishes around the letter.
Contrary (but at the same time similarly) to Ryan Hamrick, Drew Melton used flourished not to shape its letters, but to compliment them.
The reason why it works well is that the old English (or blackletter) style he used is heavy and angular. Therefore, the use of subtle and curvy flourishes creates a beautiful contrast. By making them fill all the whitespace, it not only creates an incredible background, but it allows the complex lettering to have a foundation. It doesn’t « float » in empty space, and the whole composition consequently is more powerful.
What’s impressive with the work of Christopher Craig is that his work is beautiful to look at from up close and form afar. It’s particularly true with this piece: the flourishes not only ornate the lettering, but they create a harmonious shape all around it. This makes the whole composition look like a sophisticated badge.
The flourishes are more random than with the two pieces above, but they are very cleverly distributed: mostly loops, they grow from the letters themselves, which creates a very consistent feeling that is extremely pleasing, even soothing, to look at.
Identifying flourishing opportunities
Let’s take the third example by Christopher Craig, and try to do something similar. We first need to take a lettering piece (it usually works well with script lettering) and find flourishing opportunities.
To spot flourishing opportunities, you need to look where the lines could keep on going. It usually is easier with the beginning and the end of a letter, or with capital letters.
You can also start a flourish when a letter has a discontinuous path, such as a « t » that goes up, then breaks and goes back down. There’s nothing to stop you from making the line that goes up to continue its way to a flourish.
An independent line or part of a letter also is a very interesting flourishing opportunity. Example, the horizontal bar of a « t », or the dot of an « i ». Because they aren’t connected to the rest of the letter, you can use a flourish that comes from elsewhere to make it happen.
I drew this quick concept, which is a typical script lettering piece with a traditional capital letter. From this base, I spotted different flourishing opportunities. It’s important to notice that every flourishing opportunity doesn’t have to be used: your job as the designer is to choose which one will work better and find the right balance.
Here’s the result of the flourishing process. I rushed it a bit, but this gives you a before/after and an idea of the possibilities you can find in a generic piece.
Too much or too little?
This is a trick question. It’s tempting to say there’s such a thing as « too much » flourishing, and that you should use them sparingly. I’d say it depends on your level of mastery.
This piece by Christopher Craig is one of his old ones, but you can feel the high level of craftsmanship he has. This lettering is full of flourishes, and it would be too much if it wasn’t well-executed. In the case of Christopher Craig, his mastery allows him to take the liberty of « over-flourishing », because he knows how to do it right.
Flourishes are delicious, no matter where or how much, if you can do them right. The secret to this is practice, countless hours of it.