In-Focus: Emily Basley

Emily Basley grew up in Northern Wisconsin, graduating from UW-Madison with a BFA in 2001.

Emily Basley‘s approach to illustration is organic, focusing mainly on people, animals and the natural world. She worked as a designer in the bike industry for 10+ years before slowly transitioning to becoming a freelance illustrator. Emily loves all things vintage, especially mid-century design and thrifted fabric.

Explain your background and journey into design – where did you study?

Like many illustrators, I have been drawing from a young age. My mother is an artist and was actually getting her degree in Photography when I was in middle/high school. I remember being fascinated with her typography books for class – pages and pages of alphabets – and trying to create my own alphabets with pencil and paper. When I went to college at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, it was no surprise that I focused on art. Though it wasn’t until I started taking graphic design courses when I started noticing type once again. My two favorite typefaces were Univers (SO many options!) and Bodoni Poster (look at those serifs!). I graduated from UW-Madison in 2001 with a Fine Arts degree, my emphasis in Graphic Design.

When did you first discover lettering and hand painted type design?

My first job upon graduation was at a bicycle company, designing bike graphics. I didn’t have a lot of opportunity to work with type from a traditional sense, since the only words we ever designed was the name of the bike, the brand name and a few technical call-outs. But I made the most of what I was given. Kids’ bikes were especially fun, because I had to make the bike name as exciting as possible within a very narrow space (bike tube). This meant experimenting with lots of colors, layers, effects and little icons that complemented the name. Though everything was digital, I learned a lot about utilizing type as design itself. It wasn’t until I stopped designing bikes in 2011 that I started getting back into illustration. Combining the hand-drawn qualities of my illustration style with digital fonts proved very tricky for me, so I decided if I wanted type, I’d draw it myself! This led to a much more cohesive style of lettering + illustration.

Combining the hand-drawn qualities of my illustration style with digital fonts proved very tricky for me, so I decided if I wanted type, I’d draw it myself!

Have you always enjoyed working with hand drawn type? What is it about letter forms that particularly appeals to you as an illustrator?

As I mentioned above, it hasn’t been until about 2 or 3 years ago that I really started focusing on hand-drawn type. My favorite part of lettering is being able to do whatever I want! Trying to find a digital font that blends seamlessly with my illustration style is tough – when I hand letter it, I have complete control.

Briefly talk us through one or two of your techniques for creating hand drawn lettering.

For projects that are type-based, I start by composing the words as thumbnails. I want to flesh out the general layout, format, sizing and proportion early, otherwise I get too distracted by all the little details. Once I’ve settled on a composition, I start working through the letter forms. The idea behind the words will help dictate the style of the lettering, so I really try to get to the root of the meaning. What are the key words? What is the nature of the words? How do I want the reader to feel? Can the words stand alone, or do they need some additional imagery to supplement them?

After I have a pretty tight thumbnail, I start on the letterforms. I may reference the internet or type books at this time. I don’t worry too much about keeping the composition in tact, because I can always piece together individual words after they’re scanned into Photoshop. Once I’m on the computer, I arrange the sketched words utilizing transparent layers. When I’m happy with the composition, I start adding color – this is when the magic happens! I use a LOT of layers so I can easily make changes at a later time. Once my color flats are complete I finish off the piece with detailed line work and textures using my tablet to ensure an analog feel.

I try to balance the analog nature of drawing with digital technology so you can always see my ‘hand’ in the finished work.

What are your main inspirations and influences?

I am inspired by life! Is that too broad? If I have to narrow it down I would have to say my biggest influence is vintage typography – from an amazing sign on the 1950s printing company building, to old coffee and lard tins, to mid-century picture books, I love the letterforms, the colors and how the words relate to each other. And, of course, the internet makes type research extremely easy: there are some fantastic vintage ephemera flickr sets out there and Pinterest puts the world at your fingertips.

Do you keep sketchbooks, collect reference materials like books, magazines; take photographs or use mood boards?

My sketchbook collection is forever growing. I take it with me everywhere, drawing random inspiration or jotting down ideas. I take a lot of care in making my sketchbook drawings look beautiful, and I love to peruse my old sketchbooks to rustle up new ideas. I also have a few books that I reference when I am looking for specific type influences. My favorites are Custom Lettering of the 40s and 50s edited by Rian Hughes, Scripts by Steven Heller and Louise Fili and 1888 Specimens of the WM. H. Page Wood Type Co.

Can you offer any advice for designers, students, graduates looking to create their own hand drawn lettering but unsure of how to get started?

Practice, practice, practice! You can study typefaces, lettering and other artists’ work until you’re blue in the face, but until you actually start putting pen to paper, how are you going to learn? When I first started hand lettering, I had maybe two “fonts” that I felt comfortable using. But the more I practiced and familiarized myself with different letterforms the more I continued to build my library of ideas!

*Emily’s lettering tips first appeared in The pro’s guide to hand-drawn typography published by Creative Bloq. Read the feature here.


Posted on Sep 16th, 15 by | Twitter: @lisahassell

Founder & director of Inkygoodness, Lisa is a published writer and arts journalist, focusing on creative business, graphic art and illustration and design education. Her words regularly appear in Computer Arts, Creative Bloq, Digital Arts and IdN.

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