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Hand-Lettering vs Calligraphy: What’s the Difference?

You may be wondering, if calligraphy simply refers to the art of beautiful writing, then why aren’t all words, when they’re beautifully represented, considered calligraphy? Hand-lettering and calligraphy are both expressions of artistic lettering. However, there is a very distinguishable difference between these different lettering methods.

This distinction boils down to differing methods. Calligraphy relies on the rote practice of a certain hand or script style. Hand-lettering, on the other hand, is illustrating with letters.

Not sure what we mean yet? Allow us to explain!


Calligraphy is an ancient art form. Historically, it has long been used for decorating or writing religious texts, poetry, and other important documents from many cultures all across the globe. This includes, but isn't limited to, Arabic, Chinese, Indian, and Western styles of calligraphy.

Traditional Western calligraphy typically uses the Latin alphabet. The styles that we still use today are based on different historical scripts and scribal hands, including Roman, Uncial, Italic, and Gothic. Over time, these base hands have been tweaked and restyled into numerous styles and modern calligraphic scripts. Today, when we talk about calligraphy, it can refer to any of these historical hands as well as modern calligraphic styles.

Calligraphy is traditionally practiced with oblique or straight dip pens, and suitable nib attachments, ink for dip pens, such as India ink, brushes and brush pens, or parallel pens. The right tool for the job will depend on which script you want to practice. For example, a copperplate nib will make it very difficult for you to practice a Gothic style, but it will work well for Spencerian.

Most calligraphy is learned by the rote practice of different styles and hands. It relies on disciplined practice and muscle memory. Rather than allowing you to sketch the letters beforehand, calligraphy generally requires simple, smooth lines practiced in learned fluid strokes. Additionally, unless you’re practicing modern calligraphy, it’s also very uncommon to switch up styles or hands in one composition.

While calligraphers do need to consider the overall composition of a finished piece, the composition isn't the main focus of most calligraphic practice. When calligraphers do consider composition, it's mostly to shape the piece, plan how it fits together, consider spacing, and plan the appropriate flourishes.

The Most Popular Calligraphy Styles

  • Traditional Scribal Hands - The traditional styles, including Roman, Gothic, Uncial, and Italic, as well as the later copperplate calligraphy typically emphasize thick or broad downstrokes thin, sometimes wispy, upstrokes. Traditional Western calligraphy, particularly the elegantly scrolling copperplate calligraphy, is almost always practiced using a dip pen.
  • Modern Calligraphy - Modern calligraphy has become a blanket term for any kind of calligraphy that isn't considered one of the traditional calligraphic hand. Modern calligraphy allows for experimentation, allowing calligraphers to diverge from traditional calligraphy rules, by mixing and matchings letter and flourish styles.
  • Brush Lettering - Brush pens have been on the rise for their accessibility. Brush pens can help to train new calligraphers to control their hand while practicing angles and pressures. Brush calligraphy is a form of modern calligraphy, except that, rather than using a flexible nib, brush pens use flexible brush or marker tips. While recent trends have adapted brush pens to western calligraphy styles, these brush pens have been more traditionally used for Chinese and Japanese calligraphy styles.


Hand-lettering has many things in common with calligraphy, but ultimately it distinguishes itself as a form of illustration. Rather than illustrating a character or a scene, though, artists who practice hand-lettering illustrate words and letters.

The practice of hand-lettering is a few hundreds of years old. These styles emerged with modern marketing, appearing on billboard text, and painted advertising on the sides of walls. Designs and graphics, such as logos and signs, often contain or begin as hand-lettering artwork.

Hand-lettering has fewer rules than calligraphy for how artists use particular scripts or styles. Instead, hand-lettering artists have the freedom to write the shapes however they want. When hand-lettering, it's more important to consider stylization and overall composition. Nonetheless, most hand-lettering artists prefer to keep their designs readable and balanced.

Unlike with calligraphy, which relies on rote practice, hand-lettering inspires a different composition each time the artist writes a letter or word. This means that a pencil and a good eraser can be the most invaluable tools of hand-lettering, as you plan and sketch your design.

Hand-lettering artists also commonly use rulers to keep their lines straight, or to create accurate grids, mirroring, and perspectives. Many hand-lettering artists prefer to use markers for their designs, giving them as much control as possible for outlining and filling in shapes. Nonetheless, hand-lettering can be a mixed media project, using all sorts of different tools, including watercolors and gouaches, acrylics, colored pencils, and basically anything you would use for any other illustration style.

The Most Popular Hand-Lettering Styles

  • Faux Calligraphy - Faux calligraphy refers to creating a calligraphy-like style with a normal pen or art tool. To begin with faux calligraphy, first, write the word, the go back over the letters to thicken the downstrokes. Faux calligraphy is very flexible, as it allows artists to correct the shape of the letters and flourishes. Practicing faux calligraphy also makes it easier to vary styles between different words in your composition.
  • Graphic Design - While graphic design reaches its peak shareability digitally, with vector graphics applications, many designs and designers begin lettering on paper before they take it to the digital screen. Hand-lettered graphic design is heavily focused on composition and balance, weighing words and phrases in the presentation, using the words to catch the eye, and even using psychological color theory to tell a story with the presentation of the words.
  • Chalk Lettering - Chalk Lettering is a fun and popular trend among hand-letterers. It uses a chalkboard for experimentation with composition and different lettering styles. Chalk lettering generally combines many different styles into one phrase, using banners, block letters, script, and retro styles all at once. Additionally, the use of chalk allows artists to get really nice contrasts and shading that other media have a difficult time accomplishing.

While hand-lettering and calligraphy use different methods, there's no reason why one artist can excel and enjoy practicing both. The skill involved in either style can significantly enhance the mastery of the other, allowing artists to cultivate elegant letters, along with a unique style and eye-catching composition. Whichever form of lettering you prefer shouldn’t be a limitation, but instead, space from which to dive off and be creative.

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