TUTORIAL: A Decorated Letter ~ in the style of Adolf Bernd

Hello Everyone! My name is Ruth Korch, and I’m an artist & calligrapher, who not only passionately loves watercolor, but who also has an on-going “love affair” with all things LETTERS. Can you blame me? I love that letterforms come in all shapes, proportions and styles – becoming the perfect candidates for playing creating and designing. 

Recently I’ve been studying the fascinating letterforms of Adolf Bernd, a German calligrapher and typographer (1909-1994) who developed a distinctive style of letter design. It’s as if he took the illuminated versals (capital letters) of ancient manuscripts and gave them a modern facelift. The results are crisp letterforms, characterized by white interlinear lines and soft, subtle color combinations. Additionally, Adolf places unique patterns around the letterforms, somehow always enhancing not overpowering them. Today, I’ve chosen the letter “D” for Doodlewash (of course!) to give you a “walk-through” exercise of his style. 

First, choose an actual letter form/font. One of my favorite letter styles for this project is called Neuland. I like it because it’s clean, blocky, and fun to contrast with surrounding, more detailed patterns.

The next step is planning the actual design. Start by drawing a simple “frame” around the letter and then divide up that space as desired into interesting shapes. From this point on, it’s not so much a matter of filling in the spaces around the letter (as you might do with Zentangles), but it’s taking each space that is created and using it to frame some kind of contrasting design that will enhance the letter itself. Often Bernd filled the design spaces only with a beautiful color that contrasted well with an adjoining space. And he always kept a thin white line delineating the spaces from the letter.


The third step is to choose a color scheme. I often choose to keep my letter white because it lets me play with a full range of endless color schemes around the letter: monochromatic, analogous, complimentary, etc. Obviously, you can choose to have your letter be in a color instead of white. Some who work in Bernd’s style, suggest going outside and picking up a stone or branch from nature and using the soft colors found in nature for inspiration.


For my design I decided to go with a warm/cool color scheme: bright pink vs cool subdued grays, with gold highlights. Finally, paint in your colors, carefully honoring the white “lines” which define all the shapes (and no, Bernd did not use Frisket!). I admit though, I keep a fine brush and bottle of Ph Martins Bleed Proof White Ink for little touch-ups. If you hang in there, the end results are crisp, unique, and so much fun. Use a reduced color copy for a personalized greeting card or use a wide mat and create a statement piece for your wall.


I’ve also used Adolf Bernd’s style to create amazing title pages in my travel journals.

Above all, just have fun exploring the wonderful world of Adolf Bernd designs! Play with the supplies you already have – going as subtle or bold with colors as your heart desires! But for those who want to know exactly what I used, a list of my supplies are below.

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11 thoughts on “TUTORIAL: A Decorated Letter ~ in the style of Adolf Bernd

  1. Thank you so much for posting this and detailing the process!! I missed your class on this and now can at least practice on my own. I always love learning the history and techniques you so generously share.

  2. Thank you so much for this exellent tutorial. And though it is not the goal to fill all the space with patterns, i am sure this technic would work well with some tanglepatterns. Such as stand alone patterns and bigger florals. I am certainly going to explore this subject .

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