For a lot of calligraphers and lettering artists using a lightbox is part of their daily routine. It’s a huge help when you want to transfer exact letterforms to the next stage of your drawing or text.
How to make the best use of a lightbox
I don’t recommend using a lightbox for practice, but for finished pieces. For practice you can just use slightly transparent paper like layout paper or smooth thin laser printer paper. But for finished pieces or client work that has to be spot on, I like creating several drafts and refine those until they’re perfect. I use the lightbox for the drafts, because I can quickly trace the good parts and adjust the parts that need more work directly. You can also use transparent paper for this stage – it’s a matter of preference. I usually work with a pencil in that stage.
When I’m completely content with my draft, I trace the words and letters with ink. This allows for maximum precision while I still have the opportunity to adapt to the paper in case I need to.
It also takes a lot of pressure out of the situation (like having to make the perfect stroke without guidance) and makes finishing a great-looking piece much easier. Plus you won’t have to erase any pencil marks from your original later.
If you’re confident enough to write or draw all your pieces without pencil drafts, then of course you don’t need all this, but it’s what has worked for me and I appreciate it for making my daily work easier.
Most lightboxes can handle thicker paper, mine does a good job with paper up to 450 gsm (lb?). It can be difficult to see what you’ve written underneath after that, or if you’ve added a lot of paint pigments before you start writing. In that case, a pencil draft directly on the paper may be the better solution.
Downsides of the lightbox
One thing I notice every time when I turn my lightbox on, is how rigid it feels to write on it. It has a very hard surface (which is good, because otherwise it would scratch really easily), but that makes writing or drawing, especially with steel nibs, a bit uncomfortable. Even with a normal pen it feels a bit stiff. I’m used to having a few sheets of paper under my writing surface, because I find that makes flexible nibs even more smooth and easier to control, and you can really achieve a nice flow in your writing. Try it some time! Similarly, when I work with ink pens or liners, I feel the hard lightbox makes me push the pen even deeper into the paper, and I lose my light grip and get tense (and hold the pen like a three-year-old, not with a 3-finger-grip), and that shows in the lines – they lose grace and movement.
So as much as I like being able to use a lightbox, I try to be very mindful about these shortcoming, and sometimes will switch to transparent paper to keep my writing and my lines airy and loose.
My model – a thin leightweight LED lightbox
There are different types of lightboxes out there. Older models have neon tubes and can be quite large. The first lightbox I ever had was almost 10 cm high (approx. 3 inch) and made a hissing sound when I turned it on. This was before the age of LED lights, so thankfully that technology has brought us slim panels that don’t make any sound and are quite light (and don’t use up a lot of electricity either). Apart from failing entirely one day – then they’re essentially electronic garbage – these LED lightboxes are great. I’ve had mine for several years now. It’s not even 1cm high and you can even adjust the brightness in steps.
Situations where you can’t use a lightbox
There are a few situations in which you will not able to use a lightbox. Namely when you use black or other colored paper, then lightboxes will be totally useless – they won’t get through the coloured fibers. You will have to revert to drawing a pencil draft directly on the paper and carefully erase that after your calligraphy or lettering piece has dried (do not attempt to erase too early!).
And like I mentioned above, when the paper gets too thick and light won’t get through so you can see your draft, you have no other choice than to think of an alternative too. If you can still see a little bit of the pencil draft underneath, but can’t make out details, one solution can be tracing your draft with a black pen, not too thick so that you don’t loose details, but thick enough to be visible on the surface.
I hope this post has be helpful and has brought some light to the lightbox topic (sorry, I tried to resist this joke for the entire post…). Do you have a lightbox? What do you use it for?