Terry Miura • Studio Notes

Friday, December 9, 2016


Alfredo's Too, 24 x 30 inches, oil on linen 

A reader asked me about painting signage; "How do you do your lettering on store signs and awnings? Mine never looks right. If I try to do it free-hand, it's wonky, and if I try to get it perfectly with a thin sable brush, it just looks pasted on. Do you have any advice?"

Lettering is tricky and has to be done carefully, to say the least. I typically paint the scene without any lettering first, working out all the color and value issues.  Except for the lettering, the painting would be 90% resolved. 

Pizza Pasta Pesce, 12 x 12 inches, oil on linen sold

And then I lay a straight edge on the surface, and draw two thin guidelines with a sharp pencil. One line across the bottom, one across the top. You can actually see the lines in the painting above.

The spacing between the letters is eyeballed. I use a small round brush (a synthetic) to carefully draw
each letter. If I have the time I let the background dry at least a little bit, but if I'm working on a wet surface, it doesn't come out too precisely. So I clean and reload my brush often, and after I have all the letters in place, I go back with the background color and refine the shapes a bit. Sometimes it takes going back and forth a few times.

In order to place the words so that they fit in the space I intended, first I draw them on paper at the size I want - the width between the two guidelines on paper must match that on the canvas exactly - so that I have a very good idea where the first letter starts and the last letter ends.

Using this "rough", I can place the letters reasonably. Often, I like to start at the center and work outwards. In the case of  Pizza Pasta Pesce, I started with the letter S in PASTA and worked outwards. This way, even if my spacing is a little off from the sketch on paper, the margin of error is halved.

Del Rio, 36 x 18 inches, oil on linen 

When the letters go vertically, the guidelines obviously go vertically, too. With this painting, the letters T, E, and L are the same height, so I just divided the space equally (eyeballed), blocking out a rectangle for each letter, and using a small brush, draw each letter on the red surface. I went back with the red to refine each letter afterwards.

I let the lettering dry at least partially before going back and integrating it some more by adding more surface texture. Using a brush or another tool (knife, scraper, paper towel, etc) I bring in the surrounding colors into the letters, sometimes completely obscuring them.  I can then wipe or scrape away some of the new paint and reveal the letters once again. (if the letters are dry, the new paint won't mess them up)  I repeat this a couple of times until the letters no longer look "pasted on". 

One of the first classes I had to take in art school was Lettering, in which we had to learn to hand letter Caslon, Bodoni, and Helvetica fonts. I was never very good at it, but it did make me appreciate the subtle, teeny differences in the shapes of the letters. The letters in my paintings are way too generalized and heavy handed to be considered "lettering" by the old-school designers, but I do try to apply what little I remember from school. And in this context, they work OK I think.


  1. This is very useful, Terry, many thanks.

    1. You're welcome and thanks for reading!

  2. Replies
    1. Thanks Colleen ~ Glad you found it informative :-D

  3. The clarity of those directions was outstanding. I will never cringe again when I know I have to paint a sign on a building. Thanks so much. I would love some more lessons like this!