Real Talk Archive

Real Talk: More Than Lettering
More Than Lettering by @mollyjacques


I feel like at MJW I’m constantly getting emails asking “How do I make my lettering stand out?”.

It’s a really good question and I think it’s being asked more often for an even better purpose. It’s been a question rolling around the Illustration world for decades. It’s been the question I’ve asked myself every single day during art school (and even now).

Instead of looking at modern calligraphy and lettering as its own thing (which, don’t get me wrong, it totally is), let’s compare it more to illustration. Lettering is illustrating words, no?


groovy @mollyjacques


More often than not, when we think of ways to make our lettering stand out, we assume we just need to have a distinct take on letterform drawing, that if we can just master that one-of-a-kind lowercase k, we’ll have our ticket to unique city and everyone will recognize our work. But that’s so limiting, isn’t it?


I think when we start looking at lettering more as Illustration, we start picking apart more than just the letters. It’s now about color choices, composition, textures, technique, purpose, and meaning. It’s about context, concept, feeling, stylization, history…


@MollyJacques Chalkboard #Lettering


When you start looking at lettering as more than just words, you start gaining a better understanding of how to make yours stand out, using all the concepts I mentioned before, to your advantage. …You begin to understand how to better give your lettering purpose, more than just the words that are written out.

Moreover, when we start approaching lettering in this way, the industry becomes more sustainable. Respectable. Playful. Mysterious.

Until next time, friends.



*Chalk lettering book featured next to Molly’s chalk lettering: “The Complete Book of Chalk Lettering” by Valerie McKeehan*
Real Talk: Be Distinctively You


Being an artist is really hard. Learning the craft, making it a job, being consistent. It’s a lot to take in, and takes time and some major dedication. Often, creatives will jump into calligraphy and lettering thinking that it’s easy to make it a full time job. Many assume that because he or she can draw pretty letters inspired by beautiful posts on Pinterest and social media, that they’ll make it big as a letterer.

Unfortunately (well, sorta fortunately?), those who think this way most often don’t make it – but more importantly – they usually aren’t true to themselves or what they can uniquely offer to the industry. Those who take the easy way will rarely have a body of work that is distinctive and therefore fade into the sea of Pinterest glitter or will be called out for ripping off the work of another.

So what’s the point of this Real Talk? Well, folks, my point is that it pays to be distinctively you. If you are aspiring to be a calligrapher or letterer, you need to dig down deep and accept that it’s going to be hard to stand out but you can do it. Here are 5 tips that I think will help you on your journey to  becoming more distinctive with your body of work:

Have patience.

I think this is possibly the best tip you’ll get on this topic. If you are the artist that is patient and understands that good, distinctive work comes only from time and diligent practice, you’ll make it out on the other side if you simply put that time and practice in. Those who want to go the easy, quick way won’t make it.

Get really really good at your craft.

I lied, this is just as important as having patience. Before you have high expectations of distinctiveness, you absolutely, positively need to get good at your desired craft. You need to understand all the ins and outs of lettering and calligraphy. You need to know the correct way to hold your pen, to apply pressure, you need to know proper proportions and how to execute them every time without fail. Composition, techniques, color, check, check, check. You need to understand the history of the craft and how it relates to modernity. This step is going to take the longest and you’ll need to be patient with yourself.

Find artists that inspire you and then find out who inspired them.

This was a trick that my CCS professor Don Kilpatrick told me years ago, and I never forgot it. It’s one thing to find artwork that inspires you, but it’s even more valuable to know who they were inspired by and where their inspired stylization began and how they changed it to make it their own. Understand the history of stylization and technique and it will give you a greater impact on manipulating your own distinctiveness based on those techniques.

Copy only to learn.

Some say you should  never copy another artist, but I disagree. Why? Because you can learn from copying. In art school, the professors almost always have you copy a master painting in your foundation classes so that you can learn color, composition, and technique from someone who really did it best. But there’s an important consideration here – copying should only be for learning. You would never post your recreation of Bouguereau’s The Nut Gatherers on your portfolio and say it was yours, right? One should never copy the work of another (whether directly or simply copying a stylization) and post the work on the internet or display it as a representation of their own doing. Remember my tip on being patient? Yup, it applies here. If you’re stoked on your ‘copied” work, keep it to yourself or let a friend, family member, or teacher in on your excitement. It is definitely a milestone to be able to learn from copying, but eventually you’ll be able to create something that isn’t copying – that’s what you can share and be really proud of.

Take risks.

Can you copy the work of the masters as a learning practice and feel confident in your abilities? Are you well read in the history of calligraphy and letter illustration and its modern context? Do you know you who you are truly inspired by and how they found their own personal voice? It’s time to start creating work that is distinctively you; work that is risky and different. Don’t be afraid to take what you’ve learned and change the technique to be different or weird. Your difference is what will make you stand out, and with your sound skills, you are destined to eventually make a mark that is breathtaking and distinctive. Without working hard through those first steps, you’ll never get to this point. The space where you can take well educated risks is a beautiful one.

I could continue on and on about ways to grow into yourself as an artist but I think that these simple tips sum it up pretty well. So what about you? Are you in the copying stages? Are you finding out who inspires you? Perhaps you have found some surprising connections between artists that you never knew of before (hey, did you know that my lettering stylization was highly influenced by Tim Burton when I was just starting out?). Maybe you are at the point where you’re starting to take risks. Share your story in the comments below!

Real Talk: Working for Free Never Pays

tfd_paysHey friends!

Today I want to talk about a topic that has been controversial within the creative community (including the calligraphy/lettering community) for years (and was also inspired by Wil Wheaton’s recent blog post): Working for Free Never Pays.

Let’s clarify what working for free means within the creative community. Working for free means that you’ll take on a job or let a company use your artwork without getting paid. For the most part, there are always exceptions to the rules when you’re a freelancer; YOU have the freedom to say yes, no, or negotiate. YOU have the freedom to cut deals with friends or businesses that are just starting out (although, you don’t have to – it’s YOUR choice alone). There are always situations when working for free is a good thing. For example: working on jobs for charity, negotiating a trade between two creative services (i.g. trading your pal a photoshoot for a hand lettered quote she can hang in her baby’s nursery), creating a piece of artwork as a gift to a friend or family member, willingly submitting your work to be featured within a magazine or a blog… you get the picture.

But, working for free or for exposure for a client that should be paying for your services is never a good idea and never “pays off”. Throughout the years, creatives have continuously been taken advantage of when it comes to getting paid. Often, HUGE companies will come to creatives asking for highly sought after services with the only compensation being “exposure”. But there’s a problem with exposure… it doesn’t pay student loans. Exposure doesn’t pay your rent. Exposure doesn’t uphold pricing integrity within the industry and it doesn’t value your skills. Exposure does, however, perpetuate a world in which companies feel that they can continuously ask for work from artists without compensating them time and time again. Ultimately, when you work for free, you essentially are contributing to the problem.

With that being said,  I want to share a bit of my own experience on this topic. The first few years starting out were really rough for me. Although I was getting some ok jobs, the work wasn’t consistent and for some reason, people never wanted to pay very much. In fact – often I wasn’t paid at all. Often, I was so desperate to get more work that I would reduce my prices to less than minimum wage or work without charge. Funny enough, my first “unpaid” job was commissioned by a company valued at $3 billion. This company was, and is, very well known within the wedding industry and I of course was honored and thrilled to oblige. The company claimed that the exposure alone was enough compensation and that they were happy to work with me on the project.

After the first job for this company, I was continually asked each year to contribute for the next three years. Every year, I would collaborate with their AD on elaborate projects under a tight deadline with my compensation being a name credit as exposure. The work I created for them would almost always be featured prominently as a major selling point for the company. Plainly said, my free work made them a lot of money at zero cost and kept them coming back to me expecting more free work to make them more money.

After the first year, I had a few inquiries about the piece that I created for this company, but never any customers. The first year I was never compensated. The exposure never paid other than making others feel like I was important because I could say that I worked for a huge name. Year two rolled around and it was the same story. Again, no customers, just the prestigious name on my client list. Perhaps some companies trusted my abilities more because I had experience working with a high end client, but I would never know as no one ever mentioned it. Year three rolled around, and I created my last piece for this company. I spent hours working on a truly distinctive, creative piece in collaboration with another designer. My artwork turned out beautifully and I knew the consumers would love it. And I was right. Everyone loved it. But there was a problem…. On year three, I didn’t even get a credit. No name. No payment. No thanks. Nothing.

Needless to say I felt used. When I reached out to ask why I never received a credit, the response was insufficient (misunderstandings within the company).

The really sad part…. This happens all the time and many of us learn the hard way. In fact, it has happened to me multiple times with different companies, mostly within the wedding industry. Moreover, as much as it seems like I’m bitter towards these companies, it’s really my own fault. I have the power to say yes or no. I have the power to uphold the value of my own work.  I’m guessing that a few of you reading this have also had similar situations and can relate.

So here is my professional opinion on this subject that I stand by firmly: working for free never pays. I know a lot of you are struggling getting consistent work. I know many of you are desperate to get that big name client on your client list. I KNOW how you feel. I have been there. But I’m telling you – if you value yourself, please don’t work for free. Please do not price below industry standards. Please have faith in yourself and your abilities and know that you deserve to make a real living off of your artwork. Sometimes getting paid simply means when someone reaches out for free work, you just have to ask for fair compensation (you’d be surprised at how many companies will actually pay you if you just ask…) If you aren’t getting consistent work at a fair price, work a part time job until your freelance work picks up! It never pays to undervalue yourself and it always will bring down industry standards and perpetuate the lack of respect for creatives.

Sending so much love and encouragement to those of you reading this who have been taken advantage of or who have made bad decisions when taking on free work. Remember: this is something we all face and it’s so important for us to stick together and hold each other accountable! You’re not alone, and it’s never too late to start working at healthy freelancing habits.

Are you struggling with a similar situation and don’t know how to handle it? Feel free to comment below to start a meaningful discussion.