“It’s not science, but it’s beautiful and all artists recognize this” says Ed Ruscha in his forward to Sign Painters, a book about hand painted signs and the people who create them. And yet sign painting must be a science—the spacing, the embellishments, brushwork, the fluidity of the type. Hand painted signs were once just signs, but now in an era of Photoshop and Illustrator, they’re something else—they’re a mark that says that someone cared enough to get something special designed for their business.
That’s one of the surprises about the book; it’s not overly nostalgic because sign painting is something that is going on now. There’s a priceless photo of a painter completing the lettering on a notice for a coffee shop. It reads, “The Cell Phone Booth is Out Side”, with an illustration of a streetlamp, and an arrow pointing to it. The charm isn’t just the commentary on technology—the fact that the hand-painted sign is now more common than a phone booth is funny, sure but what takes it beyond just a little joke is the sign’s quality.
Image courtesy Princeton Architectural Press. Caption. Sean Barton’s steady hand.
The type is crisp, the color palette is subtle and inviting, the words are spaced so that they’re easy on the eyes, and you’re almost tricked into reading it. If you didn’t know English, you would look at it anyway because it’s an attractive message, and it’s a welcome respite from the angry all-cap messages from baristas and store clerks, penned in Sharpie, which decidedly lack any nuance.
Caption: Sean Barton’s “The Cell Phone Booth Is Outside.”
The format of Sign Painters—brief first-person essays with the artists, combined with photos of signs that can take your breath away—is a bit of a surprise. Interviews with sign painters means that with every column of type, you’re missing out on another great photo. And sometimes the voice of the painter is just not as interesting or well-spoken as their work.
But when painter Ernie Gosnell says, “I’ve got brushes I’ve had for forty years that I still use,” or Bob Dewhurst talks about showing up “in a town on a Greyhound bus, sleep in a field, and be painting a sign the next day,” or you read the story of a former stock broker who decided to become a sign painting apprentice, there’s a better sense of what this trade is all about—determination and a little bit of craziness. And then there’s the story about how a sign-feud between two competing sign-painters was resolved, which shockingly doesn’t happen in the 30’s or 40’s—it’s in 1996.
Colt Firearms sign by Roderick Laine Treece, who specializes in gold leaf.
The two authors, Faythe Levine and Sam Macon have been working on a documentary about the practice of sign painting, and while the film has not yet been released, this book seems like the perfect companion piece.
Look to the Moon, by Caitlyn Galloway.
There’s something about the text that goes beyond just talking about aesthetics. Sign painter Sean Starr addresses just what people might find so appealing about a hand painted sign: “People have become conditioned by uniformity. When corporate America started taking over and steamrolling everything, we became and more disconnected.”
It’s important to keep things in perspective. I don’t want to read too much into the beauty of a gold-gilded glass sign, or imagine that a hand-lettered marquee for a movie theatre is going to connect people more than one that was designed in Photoshop or Illustrator. I don’t want to, but I do.
The book is beautifully executed—full color, with hand type illustrating the [each] chapter. And there’s a charming excerpt of a Wagner’s Blue Print Text Book of Sign and Show Card Lettering that concludes the text. It shows diagrams of letter forms, brush specs and typography treatments. The message is clear: get to work.