Dan Lee: 7 Questions, 7 Sketches

Today's post is a special treat. I mentioned a few weeks ago about a new interview series, and even though there's still one more week til Summer of Sketching officially launches, I wanted to give you a little taste of what's to come. 

I'm calling the series "Sketchy Questions". I'll interview a different artist every couple weeks in an effort to share the people who inspire me and their process. I'll also try to include a weird thing or two you wouldn't pick up from following their work.

This week I asked my good buddy from Philadelphia, Dan Lee (@dandrawnwords) to talk about his journey, process and what he's been working on lately. I met Dan last year shortly after he won the #SummerofSketching giveaway, and it's been so cool to see him progress so fast.


1. First off, What led you to start creating and sharing lettering on a consistent basis?

I’ve had a strong love of drawing words since I can remember having memories. No joke, I think I always thought of handwriting as drawing, so I’ve jumped at any chance I’d get to write words since I was, like, five years old. I loved copying fonts, cool signs, and calligraphy book pages, so the concept and practice has kind of always been there for me.

I started a consistent practice of it on a whim, really. It was summer 2014, and I’d just graduated from Drexel University with a degree that I wasn’t happy with, in the midst of a half-hearted job search in my field. I’d get about 50% through applications and feel a sinking combination of inadequacy and lack of desire — not a winning combo. I remember taking a walk through Rittenhouse Square in Philly just to relax and stopping at a coffee shop, then pulling out a notebook and flipping it open with no real plans, except that I knew I wanted to start something new. It occurred to me that drawing a poster, but in a notebook, would be a pretty fun way to pass the time - and as soon as I got started, I was hooked. I decided right then to fill that notebook as a personal project, with a bunch of random sayings, phrases, and words, trying different styles just for kicks. 

I posted the first few pages to instagram with the hashtag “#dandrawnwords”…and the rest, I guess, is history. The overwhelming number of possible phrases in combination with different lettering styles and shapes totally blew my mind, and the prevailing idea that I could keep exploring and challenging myself has, I think, kept the fire burning. 

I didn’t even realize there was a community of people who did the same thing for the longest time. When I started meeting people with the same passion for this wonderful and particular craft, I knew I’d found another huge reason to keep at it.


2. Seems like you have found a good balance between consistently pumping out semi-refined work, and making each piece communicate it's message. Was this tough to get to? And Is there a method to your madness?

Well that’s good to know! Thanks! I’m never 100% sure if I am getting that done, so I appreciate the boost of confidence.

I’m not sure how to rate the difficulty of this, but ensuring that the message or feeling of each piece comes across accurately has been a consideration for me since day one. I’ve accomplished this to varying degrees of success — sometimes much better than others — over the past few years, to be sure.

The communicative aspect of making word-driven art is very much on my mind when I pick a phrase or word. The composition and style that unfold while I work are constantly being weighed against how well they’re capturing the right feeling. If halfway through a sketch I feel like I’ve lost the connection between the spirit of the words and the style of the piece, I usually abort and restart. (I’ve got plenty of sketch pages that got way further than they should have to prove this.) 

I once heard a great concept artist answer the question “How do I know when the piece is done?” with the question “Isn’t that what art is all about?” — which has stuck with me ever since.

I’d like to think I also have a pretty good sense of when a piece is done — or at least ‘done enough’ — hence the ‘semi-refined’ aspect. If it has a particular structural balance, is legible, and looks unique enough that it couldn’t be done (at least very easily) with a preexisting font, I’m satisfied enough to put it out there for the world. 

I guess that also explains the method to my madness: always be communicating, and keep in the front of your mind from the first second the pencil touches the page. The moment you swerve off that path, the piece gets convoluted, and no amount of refinement short of a reboot will satisfy you or your purpose.

This is going really long but I’ll also shoe in a tidbit about the “consistent” part of your question. I have a fairly prolific output because I firmly believe in filling what I like to call “dead time” with creative work. For me, that’s usually things like when I have an hour to catch a show, or I’m stuck on a train to work, or I have an hour to eat lunch by myself. I’m a huge proponent of making time instead of wishing I had more empty chunks on my calendar.


3. One of the reasons I asked to interview you was the fact that you share so many of your raw sketches. Do you have plans to polish any of those designs and turn them into products? 

Oh, boy, do I have plans!! I am actually considering taking a break from posting on such a regular schedule to convert some of those sketches into prints, tees, and whatever else might look good splashed with them. I’ve nursed the dream of having an online store for a little too long. It’s time to kick it out of the nest and let it fly. Thank you for the reminder.

I think the problem is that my work is so analog and I tend to prefer creating new things than sitting down and converting the analog bits into other products. One is exciting, and the other is also exciting but takes more work. Anyway, I’m gonna buckle down right now and get to work on this….


4. What's one of the biggest lessons or realizations you have learned through lettering, perhaps unexpectedly?

  • Always challenge yourself. Maybe it’s because I didn’t want to get bored with doing the same old stuff, but I decided from the start that to limit myself to one or two styles would be severely detrimental to my own creative exercise. I’m constantly trying out new styles and connections. If I’m not scaring myself with an idea every few weeks, I suspect I’m growing complacent — and the more terrified I am at the start, the more satisfied I am when the piece actually turns out okay. 
  • I feel like this applies to so much in life. Expanding your comfort zone is one of the best things you can do as a human being. You never know what you’re capable of accomplishing, until you purposefully aim to exceed the limitations you’ve assumed for yourself. Lettering gives me an enjoyable outlet to put this principle into practice, and I honestly believe it’s overflowed to other areas of my life as a result.

5. You're a pretty honest dude. Can you talk a little about how you have developed your own taste through emulation and combination?

Oh, gee, thanks! I think? I have that classic introvert fear of swinging between clamming up and oversharing — hopefully we’re doing okay so far (but stop me if I go overboard).

That’s a great way to put it, “emulation and combination.” I tend to be really open about my influences, mainly because I think they’re super freaking great and I can’t help taking any chance I can to expose people to things and people that inspire me. Like, why not share the love? 

I like to think of all of us creative people as remixes of each other. Creativity doesn’t flourish in a vacuum; it can exist, but it doesn’t blossom the way it does when it’s affected by other sources of beauty and meaning and passion. We can’t help soaking in different aesthetic or methodological elements from the artists we look up to, and if we’re blending them right, we end up with our own distinct voice.

In that vein, I’m never afraid to share who’s influencing me, whose work I’m taking strong cues from, whose portfolios occupy most of my casual browsing time — I’ll never do things the same way that they do, but more importantly, what I do with the inspiration I’ve taken will be 100% my own. 


6. What's one of your favorite pieces you have drawn to date? What does it mean to you?

“Sometimes the journey is its own reward.” The phrase is a personal take on the classic “the journey not the destination”/“it’s the cliiiiiiimb” trope, and one that I came up with really early on in my own lettering journey (honestly, it feels so strange to think of it that way). 

If I look back, I was mostly trying to match a phrase to a photo I’d taken of my buddy Harrison on his bachelor-party getaway weekend. We were up in the mountains, and I’d snapped a handful of shots that felt like they deserved some of the inspirational-lettering treatment, and that one was my favorite. The piece ended up being so meaningful to me because not only is there solid nostalgia value (one of the best weekends of my life), but the phrase has proven itself so true over the past two years. The journey has been such a reward. Features and opportunities aside, the growth and challenges and heroes met and friends made and the excitement of just making have all added so much joy in a really otherwise confusing chapter of my life. 


7. Lastly, can you describe your typical sketching process?

I think of a phrase, usually including four or more words, then scribble the words out approximately to scale (but not in a particular style yet) to play with compositional ideas. I am horrible at thumbnailing — I trust my eraser to deal with iterations. Usually, I’ll already have an idea for the style: that I want to do a script, or try a serif face, or keep the lettering simple but use a slew of really complicated swashes, etc. I’ll plunge into it with my pencil, always remaining mindful of the negative space and the overall shape of the piece, so I can reposition things on the go and figure out how big or small the next word should be. A period of intense drawing and erasing and evaluating ensues. Things are usually exciting all the way through; if I get bored or frustrated, it usually implies that I’ve veered from the spirit of the piece, and I start over.

I have a similar process for digital work, if you insert “lasso-tooling and resizing the various elements a lot” into the process.


Thanks so much for sharing, Mr. Lee. Do yourself a favor and go follow him on Instagram at @dandrawnwords for more beautiful experiments. Dan is also a pretty fantastic writer so if you'd like to read more written by him, check out his website here.