How To Make 3D Hand-Lettering 2/3 - Creating the 3D Effect

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How To Make 3D Hand-Lettering 2/3 - Creating the 3D Effect

Now that we're done with our base lettering, it's time to add some dimension to it! Now, since we're not doing actual 3D, it means we'll need to mimic the actual render of a 3-dimensional object in space. This may sound easy, but if we want our piece to be accurate and look real we'll have to actually make deliberate choices instead of just doing what "feels right".

Different looks, different techniques

There are many ways we can achieve a 3D look, and they all depend on two main parameters:

  • the structure of your 3D letter
  • the perspective

In this tutorial, we'll cover three techniques: the block, the tube and the gold bar.

The block effect is the most well-known 3D look. It consists of creating depth with what's commonly called a "drop shadow effect", only it's not a shadow but actual parts of the lettering.

"Ampersand" by Studio Waburton, an example of 3D lettering with a block effect.
"Ampersand" by Studio Waburton, an example of 3D lettering with a block effect.

The block effect is highly versatile. Not only can you show it from a multitude of angles, you can also show it from an isometric perspective (geometrical, where parallel lines are accurately featured) or a linear one (more conform to how the human eye interprets perspective). While it may look simple, it's actually powerful if done correctly.

"Lovely" by Henric Sjösten, an example of 3D lettering with a tube effect.
"Lovely" by Henric Sjösten, an example of 3D lettering with a tube effect.

The tube effect is similar to the block effect, but with cylindric objects. Imagine we're drawing lettering in space in a zero-gravity room by pressing on a toothpaste tube, this is pretty much what the effect would look like.

"Hong Kong" by DUSK, an example of 3D lettering with a gold bar effect.
"Hong Kong" by DUSK, an example of 3D lettering with a gold bar effect.

The gold bar effect mostly uses an overhead perspective. Instead of creating a block out of the shapes of the letters, it brings up the spine of each glyph and turns the whole piece into a triangular prism, like a gold bar.

The block

Parallel projection

Turning a 2D shape into 3D is the oldest trick in the book. The quickest, simplest way to do it is to trace your lettering on a new piece of paper, following an existing model below (either using tracing paper or a light table). Then, you simply shift the page in the direction you want and redraw the exact same thing, resulting in two overlapping shapes. Finally, you link all the vertices (the angles) together and erase the necessary lines.

This is what I actually suggest you do first if you never did it before. Trace it, shift it south west at equal distance, and start tracing again. Then, link all the vertices and remove the construction lines. What you just did is an oblique projection. Just like any other parallel projection, it's geometrically accurate, which should give any geometry nerd an oddly satisfying feeling when they look at your artwork.

An oblique projection of a 3D lettering piece
An oblique projection of a 3D lettering piece

Linear perspective

Now, if you're looking for a more realistic effect, you might be more interested in linear perspective. The human eyes interprets 3-dimensional objects differently than parallel projection. Depending on the angle you're looking at objects from, their parallel line are going to look warped to you: either they will come closer or more apart, and it will make you feel like the farther the object, the smaller it gets. This is called foreshortening, a drawing process many artists know. Master it, and you can turn any dull piece of type into killer looking illustrations.

Comic book artists are master in the art of foreshortening.
Comic book artists are master in the art of foreshortening.

The type of linear perspective we'll be covering here is the one-point perspective. "One point" refers to the imaginary point on the horizon where the projections of an object's parallel lines would intersect (and disappear from your field of vision). This is why this point is called a vanishing point.

Railroads are a great example to understand one-point perspective.
Railroads are a great example to understand one-point perspective.

Now I could show you how the one-point perspective is usually taught, but there's actually a neat little technique I use when I want to create this kind of effect, and which saves me a ton of time. Take your drawing, scan it, and open it into Photoshop. Then duplicate the layer, and scale it down a little bit. The smaller it will be compared to the original one, the more dramatic the effect. Then, set the Blend mode to Multiply to reveal your original lettering piece below. The smaller version represents the back of your lettering, the part we don't see, and it will be used to connect vertices together, exactly like we did with the oblique projection. Move it up or down a little, but keep both drawings overlapped, and print it.

Now, you need to connect every vertex with its twin. Use a ruler if you need, don't hesitate to make lines longer than necessary, you'll clean it up later. When you're done, you should be left with a good idea of what your final lettering piece will look like.

It's starting to look really good, don't you think?
It's starting to look really good, don't you think?

When you're done, take a piece of tracing paper (or regular paper with a light table) and start drawing the clean version of your piece. Start with the front side of the lettering (the biggest one) and draw only the outline. Then, follow all the outer construction lines and trace them without stepping within the front lettering's shape. Finally, trace every line of the back lettering (the smallest) that isn't stepping within the front lettering nor the parallel lines.

The tube

When it comes to make a lettering look 3D with a tube effect, the biggest part of the work relies on the shading. A tube is smooth, it doesn't have angles, so there's no reason why we should add straight lines to it.

However, depending on how you want the end of your strokes to look, there might be a little something you can do at this point. There are two main ways we could finish the strokes of our lettering here:

  • make it convex
  • truncate them

A convex end is more natural. It's like a trail of paint (or toothpaste... or... mayonnaise...) and it doesn't require work at this stage.

A truncated end looks more precise, like it was done by hand or with a machine. It's the look of the end of a baguette when you make a clear cut. Now this type of finish will definitely show an angle line, now we need to define where.

Depending on the angle from which you're looking, some will show, others won't. Ask yourself: where am I standing compared to my lettering? Top right? Bottom left? Top center? That's an important choice. Basically, if you pick the bottom left, most ends which are directed to where you are will show cuts. All those going in the opposite direction won't.

I'm standing on the center left, so every end directed towards me are showing cuts.
I'm standing on the center left, so every end directed towards me are showing cuts.

That's all we can do right now! The heavy lifting will happen in the last part, when we shade our lettering.

The gold bar

This effect actually is the easiest one to reproduce, and if you've used the technique of drawing the spine of the letters first and then adding the weight, you've actually done half the work.

The gold bar effect works well with blocky letters with merged intersections. Basically, it consists of showing the spine of the letters, and drawing every strokes' ends like it was cut at a slightly slanted angle. The result is triangle-shaped ends and intersections.

The gold bar effect
The gold bar effect

When you look at it as a whole, this may feel intricate, but try to break it down: in the end, this only is a bunch of triangular prisms, or Toblerone sticks, put together.

Every part of the lettering is a triangular prism tucked into another.
Every part of the lettering is a triangular prism tucked into another.

What may confuse you is how to handle intersections. If you look at the way I handle the letter "K", you'll actually realize it's not that complicated if you keep in mind that every part of the letter is a separate stick with a triangular end. If this doesn't help you, try this simple trick: for every intersection of the spine line, try to find the nearest corner and link them together.

Next week, we'll apply some shading to finish our lettering. We’ll see how to do it right by following a handful of simple rules, and explore multiple techniques to make your work unique!

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