In 2009, after being asked to participate in a group art show, I decided to pick up a brush and paint an old door that was lying in the street by my house. Knowing nothing about sign paint or sign painting, I chose sign enamel to paint my door, buying the paint on sale at a local art store that was going out of business.
Two years later, I’m still painting, and early this year I made the decision to enroll in a sign painting curriculum at Los Angeles Trade Tech College. I still have a robust freelance design business, which is also very important to me, but painting has evolved beyond a mere hobby. So what is it about this lost, and arguably useless art that has captivated my attention and caused a possible detour in my career path?
In 1984, with the introduction of the Macintosh computer, there was a major shift in the world of graphic design. The change to digital typography resulted in a revolution in the world of visual communication. While the digital type revolution is largely considered to be positive, the same cannot be said for the business of sign-making.
Signs are everywhere. We take for granted their importance in our world. Imagine what it would be like to go to the hospital with a medical emergency having no signs to show you where to go, or navigating to your gate in the airport, having to ask people every step of the way.
Before computers made the scene, many signs and billboards were hand painted. Journeymen sign painters, probably thousands of them throughout the world, painted most of the signs in our urban environment.
With the new computer technology came a new sign technique. The new process, known as applied vinyl, is cheaper, faster and makes sign creation much easier. What used to take hours of painstaking work, now could be completed in minutes. And anyone with a computer, a few fonts, and a plotter could make signs.
The vinyl signs are now ubiquitous. The remaining hand-painted signs are faded and adored, but few people realize why our urban landscape now lacks the visual charm of the not-so-distant past. Vinyl signs, which go perfectly with our penchant for bad urban architecture, look like they were made by a five year-old. Those journeymen sign painters? They’re gone. They’ve either adapted to the vinyl business or quit long ago.
The reason those old ghost signs and the few other hand painted signs in your neighborhood look so good, is because their creators understood their craft. Even beyond brush control and their faded good looks, these signs were designed by professionals who understood how to make a sign that is both beautiful and functional.
I believe that these qualities in visual communication, through hand-painted signage and art, are worth preserving. So I’ve decided to practice and study it for myself, and also to share it with others. Look for more hand painted goodness on these pages in the future!