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Professional Development

Letterheads 40th Anniversary Meet in Cincinnati, OH

The Event

Photo Credit - Joanna Dawson

40 years ago a group of sign painters in the United States formed a little group to share some their tricks-of-the-trade, paint together, and of course have a little fun. Since then, the meets have grown from a handful of painters to hundreds. The marked difference at this year's event was the prevalence of a younger generation in their 20's & 30's making up the biggest chunk of attendees to date - and boy were we in our glory! What could be better than a bunch of eager artists just starting out, getting to work shoulder-to-shoulder with old pros who were happy and willing to share their knowledge and love of the trade? A short-lived slice of heaven is the best way I could describe it.

The Museum

I had the pleasure of meeting so many painters - some like me who are rather new to the trade and others who have been painting for 40 or 50 years. This year's event couldn't have been hosted at a more appropriate venue - The American Sign Museum. The museum alone would have been worth the trip. Jam packed with signs from all eras - neons, to mechanical moving signs, to gilded glass. The eye candy was overwhelming!

The People

There was a particular uncanny feeling of walking through this "hall-of-fame" sporting the work of American sign painting legends while walking among many of the painters themselves. I did manage to have a few embarrassing encounters with lettering legends I've looked up to since I started and whose work I've studied. I was happy to later find out that I wasn't the only one who became tongue tied and a little stupid when getting to meet my heroes face-to-face. The best part about meeting these people is you find out how genuine and down to earth they all are. And they sure know how to have a good time!

Joanna was nice enough to lend me a number of her photos she took over the weekend so I'd like to thank her. She does commission glass work and is based in the Los Angeles area:

The Classes

Although I wanted to take every class offered at this year's event, I chose to take the 2 day workshop with Bill Hueg and Anna Weber on pictorial painting. Bill was a billboard painter for the most part and painted many large-scale pictorial pieces and murals. It was great going back to where I started myself- realistic painting - which I hadn't touched since art school. Listening to Bill and watching him paint reminded me of all the good things I liked about pictorial painting and renewed my interest in getting back into it once I got back home. We painted a monochromatic and colour version of the same still life, working off his paintings which he did from life. What I was really interested in was hearing Bill describe the difference that scale makes in your approach to a pictorial painting. You have to be a lot more methodical on the wall - you can skip all around a small painting, but if you're working at wall scale, you can't be skipping all over the place. Most anyone can become a good painter, but equally important is becoming efficient at it.

Mural Projects

Over the course of the weekend, six murals were painted around the American Sign Museum. The design and organization for each mural was led by certain individuals in the planning and design stages. During the event, teams organized to help execute the painting and see the murals to completion. I got up on the scaffold myself and roughed in a hub cap which was later perfected by Alton Gillespie (in other words, completely covered over. Thanks Alton. In years to come I'll be the crazy old lady bragging about her buried hubcap on that mural from way-back-when.) Each mural was designed based on something related to Cincinnati and captured a part of the city's history. It was a gruelling task and the level of detail and craftsmanship on the murals was really astounding to see it all completed in only 4 days. The best sight was Bill Riedel, nearly 90 years old, sitting in a chair 8 feet up on scaffolding, mahlstick in hand, painting in the numbers on a radio dial. A close second was watching Bill Hueg paint his 20 foot tall baseball player alter-ego with matching moustache.

Pinstripers & Panel Jams

If I were to list the areas of painting I'd like to work on this coming year, pinstriping would be up there next to improving my pictorial work and learning to paint Roman Capitals. I had previously thought pinstriping was two things: 1. painting straight lines, which didn't seem too interesting 2. ornamental zig-zags on the hoods of cars which I wasn't really that into either. Turns out that as I was dismissing it as something I really didn't have a use to learn, I found all sorts of occasions where I wished I knew how to pull a long, smooth and steady line - outlines on large letters, borders on signs, skinny highlights, and my new personal favourite - skinny, bouncy script lettering. Spending some time with the pinstripers was a really eye-opening experience which made me realize it was all about how to pull a brush with control - beyond that, you could apply it to so much more than vehicles! At the back of the museum, locals pulled up their hotrods for the stripers to work on when they found out these guys were going to be in town. I had the pleasure of watching over Alan Johnson's shoulder as he worked on one. I got to also meet DeWayne Connot and Darrell Roberts - both really great gentlemen who were nice enough to give myself and Joanna pretty much a full seminar and demo on the basics of striping and brush handling while we were wandering around.

The Sights Around Cincinnati

Cincinnati was an interesting city - pretty much bordering the northern border of Kentucky so for a city in Ohio, has a lot of southern influence. What I've figured out though, is that everywhere I travel in the states, most everyone is originally from Chicago - either a true statistic, or just some strange twist of fate. In lieu of the traditional sightseeing, I did a tour of downtown. Every trip I make to the States I marvel at the amount of old architecture they have standing. What was particularly striking about Cincinnati was the amount of Victorian-style buildings - beautifully ornate houses as well as tall skinny commercial shops. The most interesting part of my self-guided tour was the Over-The-Rhine area just north of downtown where many city blocks of abandoned and low-income housing were in the midst of being transformed into a trendy district of shops, markets, and condos. I managed to get some shots of the old apartment blocks soon to be gutted. I also took some shots over by the Ohio River, which was massive, some Art Deco era skyscrapers downtown and of course, a few signs and murals.


Gilding Workshop with Noel Weber and Dave Smith

Noel Jr. Weber, Lucy Weber, myself, Dave Smith, Noel Weber Sr.

Noel Jr. Weber, Lucy Weber, myself, Dave Smith, Noel Weber Sr.

Last week I had the most incredible experience of attending a reverse gold gilding workshop with masters of the craft - Dave Smith of Torquay, England and Noel Weber of Classic Design Studio in Boise, Idaho. They managed to cram what felt like a term's worth of art school into three and a half days - and it was glorious! Not only were these two fountains of knowledge, but they were happy to share and some of the most generous people I've ever met. 

I had a few days prior to getting down to work, so I took the opportunity to tour the city and snap a few shots of some of the signage work done by Noel and his shop in Boise, which you can view further down in the page.

The Process

We worked off of a beautiful design made by Dave - a Victorian style "B" for Boise. After a short lesson in applying vinyl to glass and screen printing the designs overtop, we hand-cut the patterns out on the areas to be acid etched. This process gave us the texture in areas at the bottom of the "B". Later, when water gilding the entire area, these textured portions stand out with a slightly more matted appearance from a distance. We hand-cut the vinyl with our screen printed design on it to expose the areas to be etched. Then the acid was mixed with mica flakes, applied in a paste, timed, and rinsed. 

After our glass had the texture etched into it, we water gilded the entire surface from the back. The differences in texture on the glass resulted in subtle shifts in how the applied gold reflected the light. The smooth portions showed off a mirrored finish, while the slightly textured areas were reflective, but appear slightly mottled. After the gold dried, we screen printed the design back over the gold to hold down the gold in the areas we wanted it to stay. The rest is let to dry and brushed off with Bon Ami glass cleaner and water. We were then shown various back-painting and blending techniques to apply graduated colour to the glass from behind. The degree of blending achievable with just a brush was quite amazing - almost with an airbrushed appearance. It became very apparent at this point, that experience with moving the paint and gauging drying times were important. We blended with with the brush, but also got right in there with a stippling brush and even our fingers. I like to tell people I finger painted the whole piece...

Photo Credit - Matthew Wordell

Photo Credit - Matthew Wordell

We also got the chance to learn a technique called glue chipping - which involves sandblasting areas of the glass and then applying a hide glue to the surface. As it dries, the glue yanks off a thin layer of glass and gives it these amazing deep patterns of chipping which can then be gilded (much like the acid-etched portion of the "B") Depending on how the glass chips off, you can end up with tiny little circles, or big swooping clam/feather looking chips. It's another technique to experiment with on projects! We also got to experiment with gilding on a slumped glass piece. After screen printing the image on each circle, the glass pieces were placed on metal rings inside the kiln and at controlled temperatures, heated, causing the glass to slump into a globe-like shape. The pieces can then be gilded with different types of gold, as shown in the last image in the following series of photos.

The Facilities

Here are a few images of the amazing shop setup. Classic Design is really a hidden gem in the city and well worth the visit! They have the main painting area with an office and a shop with a CNC mill, various saws, and a spraybooth. Adjoining the two areas is an open courtyard with a sand-blasting booth and seating for when you just want to eat some pizza and crack open a beer. They are next to a screen printing and neon bending shop with an artist residency and gallery space on the other side. The place is a creative zone for collaborators working and making art. A dream setup!

Of course, the shop was full of eye-candy and inspiration. Here are just a few of the pieces that Noel had laying around the shop.


Because I came a few days early and stayed a few days later, I did some sight-seeing around Boise. The following is a few photos I snapped from around town. They include some of the hand-painted signage done by Noel Weber and his Classic Design Studio as well as images of some old houses being restored in the area, and some parks. Boise is a beautiful city and I was pleasantly surprised by the artistic culture and rich history that seemed to permeate the downtown.

Photo Credit - Matthew Wordell

About the Instructors

Check out Noel Weber's Classic Design Studio. They do SO much more than gilding - you can see they offer workshops in gold gilding on glass (which was this class) as well as classes on neon, glass casting, and porcelain enamel (which is a workshop coming up this October for people who are interested.

David Adrian Smith is a sign writer based out of Torquay, England. He has been sign writing since he was 14 years old. When he saw some of Noel's glass gilding work, he wrote him a letter asking if he could come to America and learn his techniques. Since then, he's become one of the best-known glass gilders, doing work for high-profile clients including John Mayer for his "Born and Raised" record cover. Dave offers classes in his home studio in Torquay which are worth checking out as well. Check out his website at