Basic information

Every time you start with a lettering piece, there’s some basic information you need to know: how large does it need to be, where will it go (on the wall, in a book,…) what’s the text and the application/general mood for the piece.

In my case, I had a 40×50 cm frame I wanted to fill with a new artwork, and I knew I wanted to letter a quote. I decided I wanted to fill this rather large space with a long quote, essentially filling up the entire space up to the frame.

So, the first steps were research of what I wanted to write. Most of the times, it will be the other way round – you may already have a text and wonder how you can present it in a pleasant way. The steps are essentially the same after that. I chose a quote by the Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh (more information about how I chose it at the end of this post).

Creating thumbnails & a life-sized draft

After deciding on the text, I wrote it out in it’s entirety to see how it would fit in my format. Usually, if I’m not decided on how I want to arrange the words, I draw smaller thumbnails where I write out the text in different ways and layouts to decide on the version I like best. This works particularly well if you only have one or two sentences that you want to arrange on the page.

After that I proceed to a larger version, each iteration will be more detailed. In this case, after the first draft, I knew how many lines of text I needed, so I lined the entire piece of paper. After that, I lettered a few versions to see what kind of lettering style would fit. This might seem like a lot of work, particularly for a long quote, but I find it very helpful to decide on the right feel for a piece. Sometimes it’s enough to letter single sentences to decide on a style and overall feel.

Deciding on the tools – ink and brush pen

I chose to do my lettering with a rather large brush pen, because I wanted to try a new kind of ink I recently got – it’s a Chinese black ink with gold pigments (it’s called Yasutomo Traditional Chinese Ink Golden Black) that give a golden sheen when the ink has dried. This ink looks awesome with broader brush strokes, but doesn’t show much of its effect with more delicate thin (pointed pen) strokes. Incidentally, the quote by van Gogh that I chose to letter is very fitting for the kind of loose brush writing that I had in mind.

I made a few tests with different kinds of papers – first I tried out transparent paper, which I imagined to have a very interesting effect with the ink, but the gold effect didn’t show. I then tried out really thin paper (similar to rice paper which is often used for Chinese calligraphy) and that did the trick. The ink dried with a very beautiful golden sheen. I also find the crinkly nature of the thin paper very fitting to the whole piece.

The gold-black ink needs to be shaken and then stirred from time to time to distribute the gold pigments evenly.

Lettering the piece & refining

As I show in the video linked below, I first lettered the entire piece with a simple brush pen to have a draft to work with. By putting a piece of the thinner paper above that draft, I have a version I can always come back to and make adjustments based on that draft. I kept my style really loose, so for this piece I was able to make changes on the go without putting to much thought behind it. If you’re just starting out or have chosen a very detailed intricate lettering style, you might want to be more precise.

I initially lettered the text with a softer brush pen (Pentel Color Brush) and then decided to letter it again with an empty Tombow pen that I dipped into the ink. The second version came out lovely, I felt it had a bit more controlled strokes – plus I had more arm space because I lettered off-camera – always have enough room around you for this kind of work! I also fixed a few minor mistakes I made in the first version.

In the finished piece, you can see the lovely golden sheen when you move around. It’s less visible behind glass, but I expect the piece to glow slightly when the sun hits it.

Here’s the finished piece:

Here’s the video showing the lettering process for the piece:

The original quote and working with internet archives

Just a few words about how I chose the quote. As you can see it’s in French, it’s from a letter the painter van Gogh wrote to his brother. I wanted to letter the original quote, but researched what I would write in German and English beforehand, to get an exact grasp on the meaning (my French is a bit rusty). I used the Van Gogh Letter Archive for this task. I don’t always go to these lengths when I do a lettering piece (most of the times it’s just lyrics or poems that I like if it’s not for clients), but sometimes it’s nice to dig a bit deeper.

Here’s what the quote means in English:

„But on the road that I’m on I must continue; if I do nothing, if I don’t study, if I don’t keep on trying, then I’m lost, then woe betide me. That’s how I see this, to keep on, keep on, that’s what’s needed.

But what’s your ultimate goal, you’ll say. That goal will become clearer, will take shape slowly and surely, as the croquis becomes a sketch and the sketch a painting, as one works more seriously, as one digs deeper into the originally vague idea, the first fugitive, passing thought, unless it becomes firm.“

(Letter to Theo van Gogh. Cuesmes, between about Tuesday, 22 and Thursday, 24 June 1880)

So, you could say this is his version of a motivational quote. I’m a big van Gogh fan (well, who isn’t?) and have read a lot about his life, and this really speaks to me, so I liked the idea of lettering it.

You can find van Gogh’s original letter here in the online archive of van Gogh’s letters – a wonderful place for art biography nerds like me. The archive literally has all of his letters archived, with facsimiles and translations, also complete with annotations and sometimes corresponding artworks. This archive has taken 15 years to build, it’s a really astounding place for reading and research. I’m really glad we live in an age where we can access all of that knowledge through just a few clicks.

If you want to study an artist’s life, one of the ways is through his letters – and this is certainly true for van Gogh. The archive is also where I’ve taken the text for this translation from.

I hope you enjoyed this look over my shoulder. Do you have additional questions or remarks? Leave them in the comments.

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