I was approached by the fine people at SNAP Printshop & Gallery in Edmonton to write a little article on sign painting for their upcoming issue of SNAPLine. I decided to approach it as a brief history (as I know it) as it pertains to my own personal practice. And please check out SNAP's website. They are a FANTASTIC printmaking resource in Alberta and offer many classes and studio rental in their beautiful facility!
A BRIEF HISTORY OF SIGNPAINTING – and the resurgence of craft
“So You Want to Paint Letters, Do You?” were the opening lines in the little zine-like manuals handed out at the beginning of New Bohemia Signs’ Introduction to Brush Lettering” Workshop. As I took a look around the little California sign shop, with its walls plastered with hand-painted eye-candy, sitting in front of the paint stained easel boards setup with enticingly fresh paper – yes, I thought to myself. Yes I do!
I had been dabbling in sign painting for awhile prior to this workshop, working for an old-timer in Calgary who generously took me on as his part-time apprentice, so I had heard a lot about what a traditional sign painter had to say about his trade – and it used to be thought of as just that – a trade – no different from a mechanic or a carpenter and with about just as much glamour. Sign painting was a lucrative, practical trade and extremely common. You’d be surprised by the number of people who can say they’ve been a sign painter at some point in their lives. My previous landlord was a sign painter. He was also a man, which was the norm for the field in those days. Why would women be interested in getting paint under their nails? And the logistics of getting up a ladder in a dress would mean she had to wear pants, and so you see the problems unravel… And nevermind higher education. Any man could pick up a brush and a mahlstick and with practice and proper techniques, apprenticing alongside experienced painters, make a good living at being a sign painter.
This sign painting shop in San Francisco shop was not the norm – not today, not 30, not 50 years ago. It wasn’t pumping out orders of eighty identical real-estate signs that would be thrown away within a week or two. And they weren’t hell-bent on the “rules” of lettering. We were encouraged to have fun. It wasn’t grudgingly practical, it was artistic. It felt like a painting or printmaking studio from art school where people talked about the local indie music scene and organic gardening over their shoulders with each other as they painted. Yet to see a sign painting shop flourishing on a scale larger than a one-person operation (as most today are) is rare. To be able to paint letters well enough and fast enough to be able to convince a business to pay for their signage to be done that way at a time when printers and vinyl can produce a cleaner, faster job every time is a tough sell. But it’s being done. How? Because it now serves a niche market. There are a few people who are willing to pay more for a process that is long, inefficient, inconsistent and riddled with problems related newer, unreliable materials – because it’s not printed, it’s not plastic, it’s handmade. The beauty happens when a competent painter has the skills to execute a clean, sharp, smooth signdespite these factors. I don’t want people looking at what I’ve just done and think, “Oh – that looks handmade”. Or “I could do that”. Handmade or hand-painted shouldn’t translate into an excuse for poor quality or shoddy painting. I’m always working to bring a higher level of skill and craftsmanship to the work that makes people feel proud to own it and to show it off. If they feel they could have just done it themselves, I don’t think they’re going to value that object nearly as much. I think our generation is tired of cheap, crappy products distributed from big box retailers. Hand-painting signs and objects is a way to restore some of that value and personal touch back into things.
Sign painting isn’t the trade it used to be. You can’t just learn some brush skills and be able to feed yourself off it anymore, travelling from town to town sleeping in your car and painting signs all across the country. It’s become something that (what I think) is much better. It has morphed into a strange and glorious intersection between art, design, and craft. In glasswork, it’s also equal parts painting and printmaking – which is something that for the longest time I had no idea about. It’s equal parts function, luxury item, piece of art and commercial practicality. The rising interest in craft and handmade, locally produced items is only adding to its rise in popularity. Sign painting now belongs to a new generation of artists, graphic designers and letterers who maintain respect for tradition, but are adapting it to its new environment and breaking rules along the way. All forms of hand lettering – both drawn and painted – are becoming increasingly popular in graphic design applications including logos, packaging, advertising and editorial work in addition to signage. It has come full circle – offering us the organic-ness and adaptability that took a back seat for years as the printing press and then the computer wowed us and then dulled us with it’s linear grids. Just as analog photography teetered near the brink of death when digital became all the rage, so too has hand lettering and sign painting come back to life. You’d think that this cycle has happened enough times that we’d not go ahead and throw out the “old” technology as soon as something new arrives, but we are a strange and silly species... I’m just happy to be here at this moment and have the pleasure of riding this wave out as long as I can. Viva La Sign Painting!