There was a time – as recently as the 1980s – when sign painters worked without the aid of computers or other mechanized means, and storefronts, murals, banners, barn signs, billboards, and even street signs were all hand lettered with brush and paint. But, like many skilled trades, the sign industry has been overrun by the technology-fuelled promise of quicker and cheaper. The proliferation of computer-designed, die-cut vinyl lettering and inkjet printers has ushered a creeping sameness into our landscape.
Fortunately, there is a growing trend to seek out traditional sign painters and a renaissance in the trade. In 2010 film-makers Faythe Levine, co-author of Handmade Nation, and Sam Macon began documenting these dedicated practitioners, their time-honoured methods, and their appreciation for quality and craftsmanship. Sign Painters, the first anecdotal history of the craft, features stories and photographs of more than two dozen sign painters working in cities through United States – from Seattle, Washington, to Boston, Massachusetts. The book documents the old guard who kept sign painting alive during the vinyl boom as well as the new vanguard working solo or in shops, including San Francisco’s New Bohemia Signs and New York-based Colossal Medias Sky High crew. Sign Painters includes a foreword by the legendary painter Ed Ruscha.
The foreword to the book by Ed Ruscha
Growing up in the Southwest in the 1950s, I was exposed every day to hand-lettered signs, usually on wrinkly sheets of metal, say, for an unplanned Watermelon sign or a hamburger menu. Some sign painters had the facility to make any word grouping look good and make any letter of the alphabet look stylish. The watermelon sign, a particular American icon, often misspelled and full of genuinely folkish paint strokes, was everywhere. Then there were the painters who added impressive illustrations along with the smoothly handled letterforms. Sometimes they did it with gloss black one-stroked enamel letters on a glossy white background. Wow! And the ecstasy of seeing a sign on metal with a beautifully built-up edge of paint bulging from one side of the letter stroke! It’s not science, but it’s beautiful and all artists recognize this. These painters knew about optical illusions, that some letters like O and S need to go a shade higher and lower than the baselines to appear equal in the line-up. This is something you take to heart.
I’m reminded of the late Clark Byers (ca. 1915-2004), known as the barnyard Rembrandt. He painted SEE ROCK CITY (a roadside attraction outside of Chattanooga) on the sides of more than nine hundred barns in Tennessee and Georgia. He said, “I never passed up a good roof.” That leads me to flash forward to today’s world with our seven-story wrap-around motion graphics á la Las Vegas or Times Square.
The creators of hand-painted signs have engaged on an elegant and noble art form in all of its extremes, but in a world of computer plastics, where do we go? Children are not even taught longhand writing these days. You might say the closest thing to a sign painter would be a graffiti artist out on the street, looking for walls. (And boy, can they embellish Old English letters upside down and backward')
We have seen sign painting grow from primitive instincts and humble beginnings to this present world of advanced culture. Obviously I am all for the triumph and nobility of the hand-painted item, but all sign makers, whatever their method, know you have to do one main thing: PLAN AHEAD.
What other have said about this book
Sign Painters is a welcome addition to any sign-making enthusiasts reference library. Not only does it offer engaging portraits of seasoned veterans, but it also introduces readers to a new generation of practitioners who have adopted the trade and are taking it in new and surprising directions. – Ken Barber, House Industries
I have always felt an affinity with sign painters, at first mainly as a source for forms and styles, since we were all using the same twenty-six characters in their infinite variations and constantly needed other inspirations. But, later on, I recognized that these superbly skilled and inventive lettering artists had developed something special in and of itself. This book reveals their true genius. – Ed Fella.
Their signs are part of every community, as welcome and familiar as a friend, but the sign painters themselves are so rarely known. Levine and Macon gather their stories together so we can understand and admire their craft, their tradition, but most of all, their passion. – Tobias Frere-Jones, Hoefler & Frege-Jones.
”One letter at a time – thats how you appreciate Sign Painters and their stories, a fascinating collection of craftsmanship, clarity, and confidence that is assembled, like its topic, in a few certain strokes. Makes me wonder if I’m in the wrong profession!” – Stephen Doyle, Doyle Partners
Beautiful signs with beautiful lettering. Over 200 photographs of stunning signs and as well as the sign Painters at work. We can all learn something from this book. Also, tucked away at the back of the book is an ‘appendix’ that is actually a 23 page facsimile of Charles L H Wagner’s “Blue Print Text Book of Sign and Show Card Lettering” that was originally published by the Wagner School of Sign Arts.
Artists include: Doc Guthrie, Sean Barton, Stephen Powers, Justin Green, Mark & Rose Oatis, Bob Behounek, Norma Jean Maloney, Gary Martin, Ira Coyne, Roderick Laine Treece, Sean Starr, Caitlyn Galloway, Mike Meyer, John Downer, Ernie Gosnell Jeff Canham, Damon Styer, Josh Luke, Keith Knecht, Nick Barber, Bob Dewhurst, Phil Vandervaart, Forrest Wozniak, Colossal Media, Paul Lindahl and Adrian Moeller.
1st edition, 2013, paperback, 184pp, over 200 photos, 19.5 x 24cm