Blackletter also known as Old English or Gothic was used in some of the first books in Europe in the 1900s. This form of type was originally created with calligraphy using a flat brush or nib to create various thick shapes and thin decorative lines that made up a letter.
Typically black lettering can be hard to read when only capitals are used, so I want to teach you how to draw both lowercase and uppercase letters to ensure that your hand-lettered pieces remain legible.
To get your familiar with this lettering style, I’m going to walk you through step by step how to create three lowercase and three uppercase letters in Blackletter.
All of the graphics and tips from this article are originally from my lettering practice book series on Patreon where I teach one new style of lettering every month. If you would like to purchase this past issue you can get the digital version on Gumroad.
Creating guides for Blackletter
Unlike many lettering styles, Blackletter is unique in the way each letter is formed. Instead of creating a skeleton and then adding weight like you do with most styles, you need to build up each letter shape by shape. To do this properly, you need to set up guides to keep letters stay aligned and even.
Typically you have a cap height that refers to the top of your capital letters, a baseline that goes along the bottom of your letters, and an x-height that measures the top of your lowercase letters. For this style, since it’s condensed the x -height is pretty high and should be placed 1/3 between the baseline and cap height.
Since we are working with lowercase letters, you also want to include a descender line that goes below the baseline. This indicates where the tails of letters like j, g, and p should end. You can also use the descender line to mark decorative swashes and curls that come off capital letters.
I personally like to add additional guides that mark where my serifs and chiseled strokes go in my letters. Since this style has so many shapes, the more guides you include, the easier it will be to keep your letters looking consistent.
Drawing Lowercase Blackletter
When working with lowercase letters, you want to draw the easiest and largest shape of the letter first. This will help you place your shapes in the right place, so it doesn’t look titled or jumbled once everything comes together.
Take this lowercase “f” for example. Notice that I drew the main stem first rather than the top serif. Also see how I use my grid to help place in each of my shapes, step by step.
For the letter “g” check out the placement of the tail and how it aligns with the descender line. It’s because of this guide both the top and bottom serifs appear to be the same shape and size.
For the letter “s” I drew the top shape first since the curved line in the serif is key to aligning the spine. See how the spine is placed snug inside the bottom corner of the top serif. Connections like this are what gives Blackletter that unique chiseled look.
Drawing Uppercase Blackletter
Now that you have some experience with lowercase let’s move on to the challenge of uppercase letters. Capital letters in this style can vary quite a bit depending on the level of detail you’re looking for.
So the more lines, swirls, and curls you add the harder it will be for people to read the letter. So if your lettering is meant to be small, then use fewer shapes to keep it simple. But if it’s meant to be the primary focus of your piece, such as for a monogram or drop cap, then you have more room to add details for a more stylish look.
Some uppercase letters in this Blackletter style can often be confused with another letter and therefore be harder to read in a sentence. So with letters like “E” that can easily be mistaken for an “C” or “O”, I go against the traditional style to make the letter more recognizable while keeping the same look. Just look at the difference between the first two E’s and the last sample. Way easier to read right?
Since I made this “E” from scratch, I decided to start with the bottom shape first to anchor the design. Then I created a straight line that turns into a serif that goes in the center of my first shape. From there I went on to add a left swirl to add a sense of elegance to the letter.
Since this “R” can be complicated to draw, I started from the top aligning the hook and the top bowl of my letter to my guides. Then I drew in the leg making sure that it creates a point along my serif guide to better match the rest of my letters.
As a finishing touch, I decided to add a large hook along the vertical center of my left stem. This style can be on its own, or you can add embellishments like spurs and hooks to give it more of a hard look.
Drawing an “O” or “Q” in this style can be difficult since this typeface doesn’t have many rounded shapes. To create your basic “O” shape you want to make sure that both sides have the same width and that they taper and get thinner along the bottom.
From there you can add additional lines and shapes to help fill the counter (negative space inside the “O”). The only real difference between an “O” and a “Q” is the tail that extends past the bowl.
For the letter “M” it can be confusing at first on how to build it, but if you see a repeating shape then that would be the right place to start. For example, the M and 2 repeating shapes, the 2 stems and the 2 serifs. Since the stems get cut off along the top we would use the top serifs as a starting point since they can be drawn own their own. From there you easily connect each shape making sure to keep an even amount of negative space between each.