Artisanal Advertising: Reviving the Tradition of Hand-Painted Signs

January 13th, 2014

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Now that anyone with Photoshop can pretend they’re a graphic designer, the art of signage has lost its luster. But before cheaply made vinyl banners took the heart out the sign industry, hand painting billboards and shop windows was a highly valued skill, and literally the only way to go.

“Vinyl plotters allowed all of these people to open shops that put out terrible signage.”

In any urban area, remnants of this bygone era still cling to the brick facades of older buildings, faded ghost signs advertising products and companies lost to time. Their handsome lettering and eye-catching graphics survive as the legacy of each sign painter, who acted as designer, marketing director, artist, and contractor, all in one.

For most of the 20th century, nearly every business hired sign painters to attract new customers with their skillfully arranged lettering and images, whether painted on a billboard, window pane, or the side of an old barn. Then in the 1980s, automated cutting plotters began flooding the market. These devices printed lettering onto sheets of adhesive-backed vinyl that could be applied to lighted signs, windows, or even the sides of vehicles.

Top: A photo from the catalog for the Butera School of Art in Boston, Massachussetts. Above: A page from Charles L. H. Wagner’s “Blue Print Text Book of Sign and Show Card Lettering,” from 1946. Courtesy Princeton Architectural Press.

Top: A photo from the catalog for the Butera School of Art in Boston, Massachussetts. Courtesy Butera School of Art, Boston, MA. Above: A page from Charles L. H. Wagner’s “Blue Print Text Book of Sign and Show Card Lettering,” from 1946. Courtesy Wagner School of Sign Arts Publishers.

With this one technological shift, the world’s signage was forever altered, since it was both cheaper and faster to print a vinyl version rather than to have a painter create a personalized design. The great majority of sign production switched to vinyl (picture the infinitely bland signs hanging in strip malls across America), and has remained that way ever since.

But sign painting isn’t a lost art; in fact, according to filmmakers Faythe Levine and Sam Macon, it’s actually having a small renaissance. For their recent documentary film and accompanying book, both titled simply “Sign Painters,” Levine and Macon scoured the country to meet folks who still paint signs by hand. The duo was genuinely surprised by the variety of painters they encountered, as well as how many newcomers to the field are dedicated to carrying on this overlooked art form.

We recently spoke with Levine about her eye-opening exploration of the sign-painting industry.

A billboard in Brooklyn painted by Colossal Media announces the release of Levin and Macon's "Sign Painters" documentary. Via colossalmedia.com.

A billboard in Brooklyn painted by Colossal Media announces the release of Levin and Macon’s “Sign Painters” documentary. Via colossalmedia.com.

Collectors Weekly: What first attracted you to sign painting?

Faythe Levine: This project has its roots in Minneapolis in the late ’90s. I was friends with a group of artists in a neighborhood that was dominated by one person’s signs, this guy named Phil Vandervaart, who’s in the book and the film. My friends started hanging out at Phil’s shop, so that was my first entry into the industry, to even knowing that there were jobs for sign painters.

I was already interested in letters and signage, and after I finished my first film, I was surprised that there wasn’t more information about sign painting online. So I approached my co-director Sam, and we just jumped in, starting with that group of friends I knew from Minneapolis. Several of them had actually gone on to open sign shops around the country.

The familiar Coca-Cola logo, seen here on a hand-painted ghost sign in Gonzales, Texas, was originally designed using sign-lettering techniques. Photo by Molly Block.

The familiar Coca-Cola logo, seen here on a hand-painted ghost sign in Gonzales, Texas, was originally designed using sign-lettering techniques. Photo by Molly Block.

Collectors Weekly: Do sign painters consider themselves artists?

Levine: It’s a learned trade. There are people who do sign work as a side job to their fine-art career or people who use sign-painting techniques in their fine-art careers. Then there are people who don’t view sign painting as an art form at all. You’re going to get across-the-board answers, and that’s reflected in the film and book as well.

The sign industry originally branched out of branding and badging products in the late 19th century. The sign painter became the go-to person, because there were no advertising agencies then. Some legendary, iconic logos that we all know, like the ones for Ford and Coca-Cola, were designed by a sign painter. That’s how significantly this industry defined how our urban landscape looked and how we digest advertising.

Painter Chauncey Curtis works on a silent film advertisement for a theater in Mankato, Minnesota, in the 1930s. Courtesy Faythe Levine and Sam Macon.

Painter Chauncey Curtis works on a silent film advertisement for a theater in Mankato, Minnesota, in the 1930s. Courtesy Faythe Levine and Sam Macon.

Collectors Weekly: What makes a sign most appealing to you?

Levine: I think my answer to that would’ve been different before working on this project. Aesthetically, I’m definitely drawn to what would be considered “folk signage,” now that I know what I’m speaking about. My personal definition, which is not true for everyone, would be signage created by someone who’s self-taught, and not trained in design or layout or the “correct” way to paint, not like a journeyman sign painter.

Hand-painted decor in a sign graphics studio at the Los Angeles Trade Technical College. Courtesy Faythe Levine and Sam Macon.

Hand-painted decor in a sign graphics studio at the Los Angeles Trade Technical College. Courtesy Faythe Levine and Sam Macon.

Collectors Weekly: Do most painters learn their craft through a trade school?

Levine: A lot of the older people did, but we also met many who were self-taught or did an apprenticeship at a sign shop. We even met people who learned to paint signs in prison. In the past, you could learn the trade through textbooks or union schools, but younger sign painters today learn mostly through apprenticeships. There’s one trade school left, the Los Angeles Trade Technical College (LATTC), that offers a sign-graphics program, where you start with a pencil and you end with the most up-to-date computer skills, but in between that, you learn to do all the lettering with a brush.

A classroom at LATTC, one of the last remaining schools that offers a program in sign graphics. Courtesy Faythe Levine and Sam Macon.

A classroom at LATTC, one of the last remaining schools that offers a program in sign graphics. Courtesy Faythe Levine and Sam Macon.

For sign painting, lettering is referred to as “alphabets,” not fonts, and traditionally, you would learn a couple standard alphabets right away in a technical school and then you would go from there. For anyone who’s interested in sign painting, Justin Green’s comic strips are one of the best sources of industry terminology and tips. It was originally part of a monthly column for “Signs of the Times” magazine, and was later published as a book called “Sign Game.”

A spread from Justin Green's "The Sign Game," which suggests that the rules of sign painting should be bent in unique situations. Courtesy Princeton Architectural Press.

A spread from Justin Green’s “The Sign Game,” which suggests that the rules of sign painting should be bent in unique situations, like near a city jail. Courtesy Justin Green.

Collectors Weekly: Why are apprenticeships such an important part of the field?

This mirror for Ralph Lauren features reverse glass-gilding by Roderick Laine Treece. Courtesy Faythe Levine and Sam Macon.

This mirror for Ralph Lauren features reverse glass-gilding by Roderick Laine Treece. Courtesy Faythe Levine and Sam Macon.

Levine: It’s the last way to get access to this trade. When people use the word apprenticeship, historically, it was very formal. People who are doing formal apprenticeships today will usually let you know because they’re putting in some serious time. But most people tend to use the term more loosely, including close mentoring in the same category.

We found that most of the older generation of sign painters, who’ve put in anywhere from 15 to 40 plus years in the industry, are so excited that young people are interested in learning their trade that they’re actually inviting them in. That was not the case at the height of the industry: People were very protective of their tricks of the trade because everyone else was competition. Being a sign painter was like being a plumber—you had to hustle.

I think that dynamic has really shifted, and it’s awesome because now enough people are staying with it and keeping these skills alive. It’s not going to die out. It’ll never be the industry it once was, because financially they can’t compete with Inkjet printing and vinyl plotters. But there are enough people who have a passion for hand-painted signs that the tradition is absolutely going to continue.

Collectors Weekly: How did the invention of vinyl signage affect the industry?

Levine: In the late 1970s and early ’80s, the first vinyl plotters were introduced. They were initially marketed toward sign shops to eliminate the repetitive bench work of doing a hundred “For Sale” signs or basic things like that. You had to buy the software for each individual alphabet, so a lot of shops would share their alphabets because they were very expensive. I think some sign painters also found it useful for doing window work, for cutting letters that adhere to windows. It seems that those in the sign industry had very mixed opinions about it.

Josh Luke's design for the Pre-Vinylite Society's logo. Via previnylitesociety.tumblr.com.

Josh Luke’s design for the Pre-Vinylite Society’s logo. Via previnylitesociety.tumblr.com.

Vinyl plotters allowed all of these people who were not trained within the industry to open shops that put out terrible signage. The copy would be scrunched into the wrong space, and no thought was given to the design of the sign. Things really spiraled out of control, because most sign painters couldn’t compete with the prices, so they put down their brushes and went to vinyl or reinvented themselves within a different industry.

letterhead-news

Painter Mark Oatis designed this Letterheads show card for “SignCraft” magazine in 1981. Courtesy Mark and Rose Oatis.

Collectors Weekly: What’s the Pre-Vinylite Society?

Levine:  It’s similar to a group that was formed in the ’80s, called the Letterheads, which was mostly younger people who were interested in old-school sign-painting techniques, and sharing these little tricks, brushes, and materials that longtime painters had figured out worked well. In that way, the Pre-Vinylite Society is about encouraging an appreciation for hand paint. Check out founder Josh Luke’s website for more information.

After vinyl plotters took over, we had this generation gap where people running small businesses didn’t know that hiring a sign painter to do a quality sign that reflected their business was even an option. What we’re seeing right now is that entrepreneurs know there are painters available, and they’re starting to hire them again. That’s been awesome to watch happen over the course of our project. For example, out in San Francisco, you have New Bohemia Signs, which is a great example of an accessible shop that is cranking out a lot of work.

Lettering by Jeff Canham in the New Bohemia studio in San Francisco. Courtesy Princeton Architectural Press.

Lettering by Jeff Canham seen in the New Bohemia studio in San Francisco. Courtesy Jeff Canham.

Collectors Weekly: Do certain types of businesses seek out hand-painted signs?

Sean Barton paints a tongue-in-cheek sign in Seattle, Washington. Courtesy Princeton Architectural Press.

Sean Barton paints a tongue-in-cheek sign in Seattle, Washington. Courtesy Faythe Levine and Sam Macon.

Levine: I think a lot of new business owners are opening stores or restaurants that have specific ideals behind sourcing their products locally, or selling handmade and organic goods, so having signage that reflects the store’s mission is important.

But you don’t necessarily need an old-timey look to get a painted sign; these signs can be very contemporary and modern. Now that businesses have started realizing that, it’s expanded the market for sign painters. We’re even seeing a lot of very large companies starting to hire sign painters again. The Gap did a whole marketing campaign with hand paint. I know John Fluevog, the shoe company, has hired sign painters recently to do its stores. Whole Foods brought in Doc Guthrie, one of the sign painters we worked with, to teach its designers to do chalkboard signage correctly.

Right now, it seems like we’re at a stabilizing point: You see people who are learning the traditional hand-paint methods but also using new technology in the mix, and older sign painters are doing that as well. They might take a design from a client and put it into a computer program to manipulate the design by blowing it up or scaling it down to make a pattern. Not everyone is anti-technology, though you do have a lot of painters who are going to do everything with a pencil first and foremost.

A well-preserved ghost sign for Bull Durham Tobacco from the late 19th century was recently discovered in Goliad, Texas. Photo by Molly Block.

A well-preserved ghost sign for Bull Durham Tobacco from the late 19th century was recently discovered in Goliad, Texas. Photo by Molly Block.

Collectors Weekly: Is the revival of hand-painted signs part of this larger trend for artisan, hand-crafted culture?

Levine: Personally, I would say yes. I think that today more people want to know where their eggs come from. People are interested in their jeans being manufactured within the same region as where they buy them. I think hand-painted signs are part of this larger change, but I also think that there’s another audience that’s into design-related things. I think when people like designers and typographers have access to the history of hand paint, they just eat it up.

Sam and I decided early on that we wanted to make a film for the general audience. We could’ve made an industry film for the sign painters, and the content would’ve been totally different. But we made this film for a general audience, hoping the sign industry would embrace it, and we’ve been really thankful that actually happened.

atkinson

Frank Atkinson’s classic manual of sign painting was first published in 1909, and updated six times by 1991. Via graphicology.com.

Collectors Weekly: Do you have a favorite painted sign where you live?

Levine: My favorite painted sign in Milwaukee got sandblasted about five years ago. Oh my gosh, it was so beautiful. It was on a five-storey Cream City brick building, this type of light-colored brick from a nearby quarry. And the sign was a beautiful, giant, bizarre-o ’70s rainbow, like this faded bubbly rainbow. I don’t even know what it was advertising. I think the building was just a storage space. Luckily I got a picture of it before they sanded it away for no reason.

Levine's favorite ghost sign. Photo by Faythe Levine, Milwaukee, 2004.

Levine’s favorite ghost sign. Photo by Faythe Levine, Milwaukee, 2004.

(Thanks to the “Sign Painters” team, Princeton Architectural Press, and Molly Block.)

14 comments so far

  1. Tamra-Shae Oatman Says:

    I’ve always loved those old signs and considered them art. (And it’s interesting that two of the examples were from Texas!) What a great article and so nice to learn that the art is making a comeback.

  2. Peter Kelsey Says:

    Hello fellow Sign Painters, I was a Painter for 30 yrs. now retired dur to health reasons and do I ever miss the trade.
    Sign Painting is a almost lost art, thanks for keeping it alive, I am from Mount Pearl Newfoundland Canada, and there are very few of us left, well take care.

    Peter Kelsey

  3. Sam Roberts Says:

    What a fantastic interview, thanks for sharing. The film is brilliant and I’m very proud to be finally bringing it to London, UK.

  4. Gordon Fox Says:

    Thanks for a great article and I got the Sign Painters book for Christmas from my nephew and I’m looking forward to seeing the movie at the earliest oppoertunity.

    I was trained as a technical illustrator and ended up doing graphic design and desktop publishing for a college’s in house printing department until I had a mental breakdown in the 90s which took me many years to recover from, brought on in some part by the stress of working over 10 hours a day at a Macintosh computer to meet tight deadlines and I was forced to retire early.

    To help with that recovery and get back to my roots pre-computer days and get fit for work again I went back to hand rendering, taught myself calligraphy, canal narrowboat decoration from books and a weekend course at National Waterways Museum, Ellesmere Port near Liverpool. I then started using those skills in signing chalkboards after I saw a landlady in the pub I was in making a mess of a board. She was impressed enough to retain my services with beer and food and word got around (the best kind of advertising) and I eventually went full time two years ago.

    I’ll never be rich, but I can pay the bills (just) and I’m my own boss, able to set my own deadlines and I wish now that I’d done an apprenticeship in sign writing from my schooldays… I love it.

    It is a shame though to have to black over a good board when it needs changing, but I try to photograph everything I do and upload them where they can be seen at http://www.blackboardblokeonabike.co.uk/ and my most recent work is on facebook https://www.facebook.com /impactchalkboards?fref=ts where I’ve just posted a link to this article for my likers to see.

  5. Paula Graham Says:

    My Father was a sign painter from the 1920′s until his death in 1990. He did everything from wall size Coca-Cola’s to window front gold leaf. I still have his shop, photos of his work, and a lot of his gear, which I cherish. Its so nice to hear of new folk picking up the torch. Thank you so much for this article.

  6. Stacy Says:

    I am a third generation sign person!! My Granddad hand painted all his signs at first, then went to hand crafting metal and acrylic lettering when he started building electric signs. Just before he passed, my Dad and I showed him how to cut vinyl letters on a plotter! Boy was he impressed!! All he could talk about was how much time and money that would have saved him over the 40+ years he hand painted signs!! He had me making him all types of signs from “that fancy stuff”!! I wish I had been old enough to learn his original trade! My husband is going to try his hand at it for retirement…. just not enough time to learn now.

  7. Ron Leonard Says:

    Leonard “The Brush” Signs:
    Paula Graham’s (above) father, Pete Webster operated a sign shop in Mayberry/Mt. Airy, NC @65 years and you could see one of his signs and know right off that it was by “ol’ man Pete Webster”……….you could judge it by his layout, alphabets, color, etc. That means you have character my friends.

    He took this “young green painter” in his shop and paid me $1.00 per hour to try and teach the craft of painting a sign, it wasn’t easy and it wasn’t quick. But one day after painting and sanding boards for about two years he let me paint my first sign……”No Trespassing”…….I was in hog heaven, prouder than a puppy with a ham bone ! That
    was in 1967 and I will never forget that day….”I’m a sign painter now “ I told myself.

    Like many of you ol’ timers, I have painted signs on everything possible in the last 45 years and still have the utmost respect to all of you that have survived this “graphic
    art phase” and still can take pride in saying after a sign job is completed stand back and say….”I did that all by myself”. A so called graphic sign shop operating without any paint and brushes in it is like a computer garage operating without a screw driver, pliers and duct tape.

    I’m still trying, my eyes are not so good…my back is worse and hours are longer, but as long as I can breath and move I will still try to paint a sign like my God father “ol’ Pete Webster” taught me.

    Best of luck to all you young people that try to continue this art of painting a sign.

  8. Matt Says:

    Thanks for the great article. I’m going to forward it to my good friend and Sign Painter, Gordon. He will enjoy it!
    Gordon has been able to find his niche and is owner/operator of Ironwood Signs here in Arizona. Not only is Gordon savvy in the art of hand painted signage but is also more than competent in computer aided design and vinyl graphics. From the stories he has told me, there are a few things that have stood out:
    * Modern vinyl graphics companies have employees that have very little design sense as it relates to signage layout- often they give Gordon the complicated design layouts. It seems these employees are not learning this craft from experienced sign painters as they would have long ago.
    * These types of companies subcontract out almost all installations (install on a building, standalone pole sign, etc.). Easy money for Gordon.
    * Gordon is highly sought after (from all over the state) to do large painted signage. The type that cannot be done with vinyl. He has done a half dozen or more of all the basketball court logos throughout the state! These logos average 12 feet in diameter and must be painted – vinyl wont last and the logo is then covered by several coats of clear epoxy. Funny, they can’t find anyone but him that has the experience and skill to do this kind of work!
    * A little closer to home- Gordon says he is going to paint the raised lettering on my vintage Coca-Cola 6 pack cooler. He said, “Matt, don’t try to do it yourself. This is the hardest type of lettering to paint because of the curved edges of the raised letters.” Well, yeah, of course I’m going to let him paint the letters. duh. ; )

  9. Pete Simonson Says:

    That last image of the colored overlapping circles and the small sign ‘around the corner’ – my first impression was that it advertized a pool hall…

  10. James Adams Says:

    When I was growing up, I was always an artist. Then when I was about 15 or so (about 1960), a man asked me to paint the word “Cafe” on the inside (reverse lettering) of his window. I did, and he paid me $25! Wow. That was the most money I ever had! I continued to paint signs through the ’90′s here in New Mexico, (some are still around, but fading). This article has inspired me to get out my old lettering quill and paint some new signs.

  11. Erwin Dale Brown Says:

    I worked as a “Sign Writer” for many years to feed the family. I enjoyed the work.

  12. Jason Says:

    I have been employed for the last few years by sign painting . Now a lot of the contracts are moving to vinyl.

  13. Doug F Says:

    I am one of your new breed sign painters, I started as a pinstriper and taught myself from books, how to letter; as I was going to school for graphic design. I was lucky enough to live around the country and meet all different sign guys and had apprenticed for 3 years. I am blown away by Josh Luke’s work and am glad to have actually worked with him and became his friend. Everywhere I go, I educate everyone of the advantages of a hand painted sign and LOVE doing gold leaf. Actually, Faythe borrowed my Mike Stevens lettering video to use in part for the next Sign Painter movie.

  14. john knight Says:

    Hello everyone, I a signwriter of 62 years standing, and still working,but pick and choose my jobs now .
    No more high ladder work or working in the middle of the road doing a railway bridge whilst a young lad directs the traffic, (wouldn’t be allowed nowadays).
    I’ve done every type of sign you can imagine and more from football grounds to deed boxes, from mini-vans to 40ft. artics.
    Great to see such a film appear at last in honour of the Trade, can’ wait for the dvd to come out,as I live in Brighton, England I have not seen the film because it was not shown locally.
    Regards to all, John Knight.


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