How to Center Hand-Lettering Without a Ruler

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How to Center Hand-Lettering Without a Ruler

I know what you're probably thinking: why in the hell would you need to find a way to manually center lettering when you can do it all in Photoshop afterwards? And it's true. You can 100% go down the route of first drawing words separately, then scanning and editing it them on the computer. It's okay, it's actually smart, it's not cheating and I do it too.

Now, there's also a lot of benefits in trying to make everything work on paper first. You get to actually understand dimension, proportion and space management. You get better at doing beautiful lettering compositions. You can actually share your pencil work without having to edit it back and forth. Ultimately, you become a better artist because you understand the building blocks of your craft.

So, without further ado, let's center this thing out with the sole power of our mind!

Counting and grouping characters

There are two things I do when I want to draw a word or a sentence at the center of the page is:

  1. I count how many characters (spaces and punctuation included) there are in one line
  2. I group them in two distinctive categories

It's not enough to count letters, because they don't take up the same amount of space. There are many width variations in the alphabet, and it also depends on the kind of lettering you're doing. Now, our goal is to do things quickly and efficiently, and I hate overcomplicating things, so I only have two categories defined: the thin and the fat.

In the thin box, I put almost all the punctuation (except larger characters such as the "?"), and all the characters that are skinnier than other letters: capital "i", a lowercase "l", etc.

In the fat box, I put all the others. It often also includes spaces, when I specifically don't keep them extremely skinny.

So, let's take the sentence "Good morning!", and let's say we want to do a lettering of it in sans-serif capitals. We can count 13 characters, and two of them go into the thin box. All others go in the fat box.

Breakdown of "Good morning!"
Breakdown of "Good morning!"

We're going to say that thin characters count for one unit, and fat count for two. Now we can easily define that our whole sentence will take up a total of 24 units of space.

Placement in page

What we're going to do now is trace a vertical line across our entire page, at the center of it. Don't overthink it, trust your eyes, define where the middle approximately is, and trace a line as straight as possible. When it's done, trace a horizontal line, across and perpendicular to the first one, at the height you want to draw your sentence at. This will be the baseline.

We've defined that our total word occupies 24 units of space. It means that we want as many units on each side of the vertical line (12, in our case). Beware though: a unit isn't necessarily a slot for one letter, but a slot for a thin letter. This means a fat letter will take up two slots. Still following me?

So, now is the time to define the width of a slot. That's for you to decide. I strongly suggest that you be generous with the the width for each slot: it will be useful when you need to add spaces between letters. Start from the vertical line, follow the horizontal one and draw 12 even slots from left to right. Then, go back to the vertical line and do the same from right to left. That's it.

The vertical line is exactly at the center of the page, the horizontal one is wherever we want.
We draw half of our slots from the vertical line to the right, then the other half from the vertical line to the right.

You now have a blueprint to draw your lettering into. For each thin, you'll take up one slot, and for each fat you'll use two. Obviously, you'll want to be more subtle than that. A capital "o" might not actually be twice as large as a capital "i", and the kerning will greatly differ depending on the letters in your words, but you now have a pretty nifty guide that will allow you to do a lettering that's perfectly centered, without lacking space.

If you have a light table, I suggest you keep your blueprint below a second sheet of paper, and draw on that one. This way, you want have to draw it all over again if you need to erase.

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