Every artist must at some time or another come to grips with the problem of lettering, however little inclination he may feel for it. Lettering has little to do directly with artistic drawing, although, as we know, they were originally connected, since all writing derived from simplified pictures.
These pictures first signified whole words; they were then simplified and gradually came to represent abstract syllables, until in the final stage of development each individual letter represented only a sound. Apart from the Chinese, the writing of all civilizations has evolved in this way.
Roman capitals have been the basis for all writing in the Western world since about 500 A.D., at which time they were already over 1000 years old. They were used primarily for monument inscriptions which were incised into the
stone after first being drawn on with a flat brush.
Alongside the Roman capital developed the faster and more flowing commercial hand. The small letters with their up and down projections (called "ascenders" and "descenders") evolved gradually from the habit of running the capitals together. The letters were sloped forwards to did fluency, and the cursive script resulted.
The proportions of the Roman capital the letter, "capitalis quadrata," are on a square. By turning the into an upright quadrilateral the "capitalis rustica," a narrow, cursive capital hand, was evolved. Numerous mixed alphabets grew out of these, which took on characteristic forms in different regions and countries. Among them was the special German or "black letter" alphabet which, following the usual Gothic stylization, broke up many of the curves into angles, resulting in the Fraktur or "pointed" text. With the invention of printing, three basic ways of writing are differentiated: the printed alphabet composed of isolated metal letters, the drawn alphabet, and the written alphabet. The drawn is, of course, that which most concerns the artist and the one to which the other two owe their origin.
Every drawn alphabet derives from a group of geometric figures: a rectangle, which was originally always a square, a
triangle, and a circle. The rectangle can vary a great deal in proportion, and the circle can become correspondingly elliptical, while the triangle also can vary in shape. In all good lettering these geometric figures remain in a definite relation to each other and can be combined into a basic skeleton shape, which we may call the prototype figure. Each style or alphabet has its characteristic prototype figure (from which the key letters 0, H, and V are immediately derived and to which the remaining letters relate) .
The prototype figure, however, does no more than determine the shapes of the individual letters and does not affect the word or line formation. The arrangement of letters in words, and of words in lines, has to obey a certain rhythm. It must be as monotonous as possible in order to emphasize the evenness of the lettering and at the same time give a compact unity to the text. Monotony in word and line rhythm also prevents the reader from being distracted from his subject matter and makes reading easy and fluent. Above all, the forms of the individual letters must be clear and simple.