Sunday, March 10, 2013

Documentary on sign painters

SIGN PAINTERS (OFFICIAL TRAILER) from samuel j macon on Vimeo.
(Direct link to video) Directors Faythe Levine and Sam Macon documented the stories of sign painters who still follow the traditional methods of lettering by hand. Here's the trailer for their documentary "Sign Painters," the first anecdotal history of the craft, featuring the stories of more than two dozen sign painters, young and old, working throughout the United States.

"There was a time, as recently as the 1980s, when 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 techno-fueled promise of quicker and cheaper. The resulting 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."

Book related to the project: Sign Painters by Faythe Levine
Documentary website:
Previously on GurneyJourney: "Hand Painted Signs" and "Irish Hand Painted Signs"
Documentary "Up There" about artists who paint murals on buildings (thanks, Marney Morris)
There are several Flickr groups devoted to this subject:
“Hand-Painted Signs of the World.”
“Folk Typography”
“Signpaintr,” dedicated to the lost art of hand-lettering
“Hand-Painted Signs of Cambodia.”


MrCachet said...

I'm hopping on this one. I was a sign painter. I had my own business at the age of 15, taught the craft by my dad - I cleaned his brushes when I was 5. I knew how to read and write by the time I went to school, so the teachers let me do art on the blackboards instead of learning the Palmer method. There is something magical about being able to suspend a character in your mind, pick yourself up and walk all the way around it - see it from every angle. In a sense it is not a 'lost' art. There are still 'Letterheads' and 'Walldogs' who enjoy (and make a living) in the sign business. It isn't what it used to be. By the time I came back from Vietnam in 1970, VINYL had taken over. People who want quality over speed and cheap will still find an artist to create a piece of art - that just happens to be a sign.

James Gurney said...

Thanks for that story. I can identify, too, because got my first freelance work as a calligrapher back in the early '70s and met a few of the single-stroke guys. They knew their brushes, and as the guy alludes in the trailer, they always looked for opacity. Back then every grocery store had their weekly sales prices painted in tempera on paper in the front widows.

In college, the only "art" related job I could find was working in the student union sign shop, but it had totally gone over to vinyl, so I learned that method, but never liked it.

You're right, it's not a lost art. Some cafes and Trader Joes keep up the tradition, and so have non-franchise stores at the very top and the very bottom economic strata. You see hand painted signs in the super-ritzy neighborhoods and the poor neighborhoods. And of course hand painted signs are still alive and well in Ireland.

Andy said...

I was a self-taught signwriter (as we call them in Australia) until I took up at apprenticeship at age 24 (1985). Vinyl was really only just getting going here around then. It was almost a case of "you can have any of these six colours in Helvetica or Times. And if you want 'fancy', we can set it on a curve."

I was lucky, I learnt brushwork and mostly avoided the vinyl. But soon after getting my papers, I drifted into illustration and advertising. Interestingly, I feel the computer opened these areas up to greater possibilities while the sign industry was still going backward with technology.

James Gurney said...

Andy, thanks for that perspective. Exactly as you say, with the vinyls in the 70s and 80s, there wasn't much opportunity for creativity.

And you make a great point. It's interesting how computer tools and hand skills can be allied in all sorts of ways. In the recent blog post about etched and gilded glass signs, the artist showed how he lettered by hand and then rasterized the files. And stop motion animation has been given a huge infusion of new energy because of 3D digital design and 3D printing. So at least from my perspective, it's not at all a case of "this" versus "that."

Bob Easton said...

Thanks James for the great set of links.

Dad passed before vinyl appeared. Maybe that's good. He would have been outraged by how poor those early vinyl signs were.

He fed a family of 6 with the magic of his lettering brushes, and his artistic sensibilities.

It's good to see people document the "lost art" that shouldn't be.

Thanks for the best set of links I've found in a long time!

Celeste Bergin said...

Happy to see this post about sign painters. When I was a graphic designer we all had to hand letter and though it was fraught with a high degree of tension, it was also such a badge of honor to be able to do it. I daresay, not to sound all old fogey, the "old ways" make all work look more human. Illustrators make such fantastic fine artists (IMHO) because they understand design...and because they have spent inordinate amounts of time studying everything! The same can be said for sign painters...they are brilliant! Thanks for the video. I really enjoyed it.

PETE said...

I like how the film ended with an advertizement for "red sable pencils". The more we learn, the more we forget.

jeff jordan said...

I was a signpainter for about 20 years, back when 1-Shot had lead in it. That was amazing paint! Needless to say, the new stuff doesn't hold a candle to it.

I see some of the Young Dudes around here taking it up, old school sign painting, as a way to make $$ with a brush. And I must say I learned more about how to use a brush painting signs than anything else I did.

Roberto said...

Thanks for posting this James!
I didn’t start painting seriously until 1980. I tried drafting and calligraphy, but my poor eye-site and large-temperament made it difficult to work on such a small scale. Once I discovered outdoor signs, billboards, and wall-murals I was hooked. It’s a thrill and a challenge to work on a really large scale project, hanging on a tall wall, high above the world, slingin’ paint around w big brushes and painting with your whole body involved.
Early on I hooked up w a Pub-and-Bar developer, traveling around the western states doing artwork, signs, menus, and carnival/circus style painting w a troop of local artists and sign-painters. What a great way to learn a craft! Collaborating and learning from a wide range of talented artisans.
(Being able to knock-out a sign project has also really helped during the lean times of ‘Art’ making.)
Your post on Monday, March 4, 2013 Documentary about Ornamental Glass Art was likewise inspirational. This is a great example of how a ‘decorative craft’ can be elevated to the level of ‘Fine-Art’.
Thanx for the trip down memory lane. Keep up the good work. -RQ

Amber said...

My best friend was mentored by a sign painter/letterer; I hope this film comes to Minneapolis/St. Paul!

It's such an unrealized and underestimated skill!

Unknown said...

This looks really good, I learnt how to paint signs at Art College, oh boy its like a symphony the music the paint, the brush your instrument, the surface was an audience. Thats the only way you can express, all my graphics work had to be screen printed and you hand painted your acetates, it was a real skill. Now I can jump into photoshop and do a sign in seconds. The little nuances like letters such as O and S and J even Q could break a design. You had to know how to handle the brush, load it and then the brush stroke. Oh its all flooding back to me now, turning your fingers in to get a sweep, little finger on the surface to get your curve. My little trick was to do a stroke a straight as a ruler. It took a lot of practice and pride. I even hold my wacom pen the same way thinking about it. Thanks James for a memory trip, gonna see this film.

Unknown said...

It's interesting to me

People are starting to realize that there is a certain something to "real paint" that just can't be reproduced any other way.

See todays article in the NYT on Brian Sanders

Anonymous said...

When I was young my parents owned a trophy shop, and they made a good living at making trophies, plaques, and other awards products. When my sister graduated high school in 1994 my father decided to start a new side to his business. My father and sister took off to Florida to a seminar and got instructed in how to do vinyl graphics. They came back with a Macintosh and a 32" plotter. It's now to this day what she does for a living. When she started she was one of two sign shops in town, and the other one did nothing but neon. Today, there's one on just about every street corner by some idiot with a piece of crap computer and a cheap plotter who thinks they can do what she does for a living. She succeeds because she can do more than plot out Helvetica or Arial letters. She's capable like any creative person to use whatever she has as just another tool, so the plotter wasn't the doom for these old sign painters. They should embrace technology and figure out ways to extend their creativity like Mr. Smith in the Born & Raised video you linked to a few days ago. He had absolutely no trouble laying out late 19th century ornate designs in the computer. It's just a tool.

I'm a graphic artist, and it's difficult sometimes when anyone with a stolen copy of Photoshop thinks they can design or illustrate. It's essentially the same thing as what these sign painters in this trailer are experiencing. It makes us bitter, and it really makes us confrontational with clients who think they could do what we do or that what we do can't be that hard because we have a computer to do it for us. But, that's life. It'll be interesting to watch this documentary. There's hardly anything more entertaining than watching masters working their craft.

Keith Parker said...

Back in the 90s my dad would paints all kinds of signs for our church (which is probably a bigger deal than it sounds because they run a couple thousand on Sunday mornings but I digress). At one point though this lead to a businessman hiring him to paint a sign for a local bussinessman's restuarant...that didn't go too well though because my dad felt he didn't get enough money for all the work he put into it while, the bussinessman felt he had paid too much (which he didn't) my dad is notorious for not charging enough.

But I'm glad to see that hand painted signs are making a comeback! Thanks for sharing James! :)

Randall said...

Awesome, glad to see the old ways of sign painting alive today and they are right it give some soul to the sign.


Andy said...

I wonder if the documentary features that oft-heard question - "what's that stick for mister?"

Somehow, the fact that we rested on the mahl stick when we painted never seemed to give away its purpose :)

Roca said...

I am REALLY excited to see this documentary! I have always loved old hand-painted signs and I wish I could find someone to teach me how to do it. I always regretted not taking that calligraphy class in college, too. My old Speedball book is cool, but not the same as learning from a master.