Large Scale Lettering: How to Do it Right

Large Scale Lettering: How to Do it Right

Tired of scribbling on your notebook? Feeling caged by the limitations of the A4 format? Sounds like it's time for you to go big.

Sure, it's nice to draw on paper and showcase your work over the Internet, but hey, let's face it: which artist didn't fantasized about transferring their work onto a much larger medium, like a wall, for everyone to see?

Going large scale is no small feat, especially when you come from the world of lead holders and A5 Moleskine books. Yet, with a little information and a lot of guts, you'll be unstoppable.

Choose your weapons

Obviously, you're not going to use your lead holders and your Microns to draw a lettering mural! You need much more robust tools that can cover larger areas.

If you're feeling like honoring traditions and you have the soul of a sign painter, go for regular brushes and paint. The colors will be brighter with incredible coverage. However, you need to stay aware that handling a paintbrush, and more specifically painting characters, is a skill in and of itself.

You can also go more urban and use spray cans just like Tyrsa does, but beware: these are not so easy to use. There's definitely a learning curve so it might not be the best choice if you're just starting out, yet if you're already a seasoned graffiti artist, you'll feel just like home.

Tyrsa & Franck Pellegrino using spray cans for a lettering mural
Tyrsa & Franck Pellegrino using spray cans for a lettering mural

My tools of choice for murals are Posca pens. Posca is a brand of paint markers that come in all shapes and colors. They're extremely popular in the graffiti and wall art world, and I believe they're the best tool for letterers who want to take on mural gigs.

Posca pens
Posca pens

The reason why I enjoy using Posca pens is because they're very close to the tools that I use every day. Using a Posca pen is just like using a Micron: the process is very similar, you have the same level of precision and it dries as fast. Because it's paint inside and not ink, you can start with a pencil sketch and directly cover it, and the pencil lines won't show, even under bright colors.

Another great thing about Posca pens is that they come in an infinity of nib shapes and widths. I have three different black Posca markers in my pencil case: a fine one for details, a medium one for line work, and a broad one for filling large areas. Just like with your usual pens, you can keep precise control over your lines by using different markers with different nib sizes.

Starting your concept at small scale

I start all my lettering pieces the exact same way, whether it will end up on an A4 page or a big wall. The idea is to roughly sketch your ideas, just to see how they look on paper and see if there's potential. This doesn't need to be done with an extreme level of precision; just enough to get a good grasp at what works and what doesn't.

Now that being said, there's still major differences between a "small" lettering (smaller than A4) and a mural.

Here's what's new when you're drawing at large scale:

  • You have the opportunity to add much more detail.
  • Poorly drawn shapes and proportion issues will show a lot more.
  • More surface means more space to fill, and it's exhausting.
  • People will look at your work from many different angles. That's something to take into account, and you can (and should) definitely turn it to your advantage.
Tyrsa (again!) totally used perspective to his advantage with this anamorphic lettering mural at Hotel Gaston.
Tyrsa (again!) totally used perspective to his advantage with this anamorphic lettering mural at Hotel Gaston.

Scaling things up

Once you're done with your concept, you've done the clean version, it's time to see how it looks like at bigger scale.

Back in 2015, when I was booked to create a small mural at the Paris Dribbble Meetup, I prepared my drawing the following way:

  1. I scanned my drawing at the highest possible resolution.
  2. I upscaled it to the real final mural size in Photoshop.
  3. I sliced the file into A4 portions and printed them all.
  4. I taped them altogether on a wall of my apartment like a puzzle.
  5. I started redrawing the lettering all over them.

As mentioned above, the bigger you get, the more detail you can add. This is a great advantage, but it can also be dangerous: don't forget that a mural is first and foremost supposed to loog good from afar. It's important that you don't focus too much on the details at the expense of how the overall thing looks.

Gemma O'Brien adding detail to a mural lettering while maintaining laser clean shapes
Gemma O'Brien adding detail to a mural lettering while maintaining laser clean shapes

A large scale lettering doesn't have to be a carbon copy of your smaller concept. In fact it rarely will be. You'll have to rework parts, add and remove things, and make sure it works great from up close and from afar by constantly stepping back and forth. Who said it would be easy? :)

The real deal

When it's time for you to create the actual mural, there are multiple options to help you transfer your lettering to the wall.

Optimist by Eric Friedensohn
Optimist by Eric Friedensohn

Go freehand

This is the toughest one. Going freehand means that you must redraw your concept by hand on a blank wall with only a side reference to help you. This is very difficult and requires a lot of practice to get truly good and efficient at it.

If you want to go freehand, I strongly suggest you start with a pencil (or anything that you can fully erase). Don't be afraid of the wall and do not hesitate to use the space at your disposal. If you're not satisfied, start over, until you're 100% happy with your layout because once you start painting, there's no going back.

Use a projector

You can use either an overhead projector or a video projector (recommended) to directly project your lettering onto the wall and trace it. If you go with an overhead projector, you'll either need to print out your design on a transparent film, or do a cutout, which is definitely not ideal.

Instead, I strongly suggest that you go with a video projector. It's much less expensive than it used to be and you can load any design you want without having to print anything. Simply project your digital lettering onto the wall and start tracing. I still urge you to start pencil, then shut down the projector (the bulb don't last forever) and start painting.

Going further

Listen by Eric Friedensohn & Olga Vasik
Listen by Eric Friedensohn & Olga Vasik

My friend Eric Friedensohn is an amazing artist and a wizard at lettering murals. He's done countless breath-taking pieces, from huge outdoor murals to smaller chalk surfaces. He actually wrote a whole guide about transferring your lettering to the wall. If you're serious about doing it, this is a must-read.

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