Looking out the Kaufmann Mercantile studios and across the street toward a former knitting factory, it’s easy to become transfixed by the ornate sign that stretches across the building’s façade. Like a triumphal WPA poster from the 1930s, the bold black-and-white letterforms canvassed on a limestone background read, “Ready, Willing & Able.” The sign is striking not only for its size (“able” takes up more than a window pane from where I sit) but also because it reveals the steady handed and precise work of talented craftsmen.
Sign painting was the original brand identity tool. Before “Mad Men” and Google, countless sign painters illustrated a company logo or product in iconic ads that sometimes stretched for stories, scaling even the tallest of skyscrapers. Sign painters knew the power of the eye-catching, the witty and the aesthetically pleasing image. In their hands, no less than the heritage of a local culture was beamed out for all to see. As the face of every city and town across the country, hand-painted signs featured on storefronts, sandwich boards, building facades and billboards.
The deep impression sign painting has had on American media, advertising and design was apparent even in 1900, when the New York Times published an article elaborating on the scale and magnitude to which signs populated the city: “The mercantile buildings of to-day are in many instances literally covered with signs and, in fact, every available space is more or less occupied by a liberal display.”
Sign painters earned their stripes. They traveled from town to town, often alone. After illustrating hundreds of barns in the Chattanooga area in with the bold exclamation “See Rock City!” legendary sign painter Clark Byers would sleep in the bed of his pickup or in a nearby field. In the morning, he would rise early, careful not to disturb the occasional irritable bull close by.
As the view from my desk suggests, the trade continues to have a strong presence, despite competition from new technologies. While vinyl cut outs may have taken shots at the business in the 1980s, contemporary sign painters are working with digital design, not against it. Take Jeff Canham, a San Francisco-based artist who is one of several sign painters championed in the recent documentary Sign Painters, which surveys the craft and tells its many-layered history.
Sign painters are once again taking charge of how cities look. As former sign painter and seminal modern artist Ed Ruscha wrote in Sign Painters, a book that accompanies the documentary:“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 lineup. This is something you take to heart.”
Given the demand today for unique products that will last, it’s not difficult to imagine the squirrel-hair brushes and laser-cutting machines working together to produce a better image – not merely as a means to cut corners.
As Ruscha put it, “We have seen sign painters grow from primitive instincts and humble beginnings to this present world of advanced culture.” The craft remains a bold blend of business, industry and artistry. Just ask Sean Barton. The contemporary sign painter works to re-popularize the art form in both traditional and conceptual ways, reinterpreting the slowly disappearing American landscape of original design. I spoke with him recently and included our conversation here.
How does it feel to be a sign painter in a world of predominantly digital and vinyl signage?
The advantage of having a sign designed and painted by a sign painter is that it stands in a class of its own. The human eye is attracted to it. Whether it is the color or the bounce of imperfections, people are drawn in.
What interests you about working with paint?
The immediacy of the material. If red isn’t looking right, paint it black.
Does this come from a sense of pride or resolve – choosing to work with paint over other mediums?
As much pride as I have for my day job of being a sign painter, I share an equal connection with all materials. Being a well-rounded sign painter requires a larger sense of the sign business. There are many ways to create signs and a new material challenge is always welcomed. I use the same approach in my fine art to create sculptural paintings and installations.
Any significant accomplishments you’d like to share?
Becoming a self-taught journeyman sign painter. I’ve also exhibited my artwork in galleries in the U.S., Tokyo, Milan and Los Angeles. I’ve been in the trade now for over 13 years, which has taught me the patience to persevere and practice.
See Sean Barton’s work at the Joshua Liner Gallery in New York as part of the show ICY Signs: Perfection is Standard, Mistakes Cost Extra, opening October 24, 2013.