Sign shop


Dear Artist,

As my daughter, Sara, and Richard Thompson are getting married on Friday my studio has been turned into a sign shop. There’s a lot of excitement around here and I’m as busy as a one-armed man using dental floss. Cut-out “Love” letters for the vintage cars. Striping and repainting items for the boats. Wreaths for the best dogs. I’m hardly even standing at the sanctuary of my easel; it’s more like running past. Then I noticed this email from Maureen O’Leary of Palo Alto, California: “When I apprenticed as a sign painter I was told that we do not sit down to work. To get a good downward stroke or a nicely curved “S” takes more of the body than just a forearm. Pinstripers use their entire body. Sign shops do not have chairs for working. Chairs slow down production.”

Thanks for reminding us, Maureen. A book could be written on what fine artists can learn from sign painters. Unfortunately sign painting with a brush is a dying art and there will soon be no one left from whom one can learn: brush holding, esoteric brushes, mahlsticks, striper wheels, quills, pounce wheels and pounces, bridges, chalk-snaps, hook and ladder, projectors, grids, cut-awls, the list goes on. The need for speed and economy in show-card, billboard and other illustrative forms influenced and freshened the likes of P. C. Leyendecker, Andrew Loomis and Norman Rockwell. A remarkably high percentage of fine artists have come out of sign shops, advertising agencies and printing establishments. These artists have what I call “the worker’s edge.” Sign painters show up for work in the morning and paint all day. Steady work habits in the shop make it easier when they move into a studio. Think of those huge hand-painted movie marquees that were produced in every town and city in the twenties and thirties — colourful, often highly competent, with great likenesses and an understanding of anatomy and chiaroscuro, to say nothing of lettering. And those guys were paid by the hour.

And this stuff here is being done for love.

Best regards,


PS: “If you work and love, work and love will accumulate.” (Joseph P. Blodgett) “Keep your shop and your shop will keep you.” (Benjamin Franklin)

Esoterica: Born in Germany, P. C. Leyendecker (1874-1951) immigrated to the USA as a child. At 15 he apprenticed to the printing house of J. Manz & Co. in Chicago. He went on to do covers for Century and Post Magazines. His best known advertising work was for Arrow Collars. Some terrific Leyendecker art can be seen at

The following are selected correspondence arising from the above letter. Thanks for writing.


Graphic design route
by Kevin Casey

When I was a college student I was convinced by others that a BFA was a one-way ticket to the poor-house. I bought that advice, reluctantly, and switched my major to graphic design. I tried my best to keep one foot in both worlds while a student and beyond, always with an eye on coming back to it. I recall a painting teacher, Richard Gubernick, remarking that his best students came from the design department. Since then I spent over twenty years toiling in the printing industry as a pre-press craftsman before getting hold of Photoshop in 1993. I now work (play) as a Photoshop artist for an Advertising/Marketing establishment that houses a digital photo studio. Throughout a very busy career I have kept that other foot in the world of art. I don’t do as much personal work as I’d like but am inching my way in that direction and have built a studio this past year to that end. To come back to the point I have no doubt that the work ethic, the attention to detail and the quality-orientation that evolves from working as a graphic arts craftsman has been, and will continue to be, critical in forging the direction of my personal work.


Much more
by Maureen O’Leary, Palo Alto, California, USA

I have met a lot of sign painters who were so much more. Many did fine woodworking, sculptural figures from wood and fiberglass, carving, murals, illustrations and airbrush work. They could play a jig, sing a song or tell a great story. Rather like the poets of Ireland they traveled from place to place every day bringing the gossip and jokes to those who were tied to more traditional jobs. With your kit in hand you could show up anywhere in the world and someone would offer you work within a day or two. Saipan, Ireland, France, the Yucatan, everyone needs a sign.


Different jobs
by Annette Waterbeek


painting by Annette Waterbeek

I too worked for a short time at a Sign/Graphics shop. The original owner was there for a short time while I was there as he had sold the shop to a couple who didn’t know you had to have a gift to do this job well. The gift this fellow had was beautiful, unfortunately our paths crossed for a short time only. I wish I could have learned more from him. We stood. It was just that way. My next move was in the composing room for a newspaper, cutting bits of type with an Exacto knife & waxing them on to a surface. I had the reputation of being very, very fast and always standing and moving, high paced deadlines…three days to get the paper out no matter what the size… then fish wrap the day after it hit the streets. Now I am sitting in a dark little hole staring at a little 15″ illuminated screen tapping away at little cubes and clicking a mouse. It just doesn’t seem to work as well — it somehow feels wrong. I truly believe all experiences in life affect the way we leave our mark on the page.


Family tradition
by June Raabe, Vancouver Island, Canada

My dad was a signwriter. He learned from his father, and it goes back through many generations of coachpainters and signwriters. My dad “held the candle” for his older brothers, and was never formally apprenticed. Nevertheless after arriving in Canada in his mid forties and spending a year or two as a “front end man” in a gas station, he decided to go into business. He had spent a year personalizing his work-mates tool boxes with freehand lettering of their names. He never made a fortune but he was well known in the small town. He practiced his trade until he died at the age of 76. I now own some partly used sheets of gold leaf, his old brushes, liners and the special brush to apply the gold leaf to banker’s windows. It fascinated me because he worked in reverse from the inside. He also could free hand draw an “O” flawlessly in two strokes. He made his own mahlsticks, and now I do the same with a thin dowel, a scrap of smooth leather and some string and stuffing. I was immensely proud of this small, shy and profoundly deaf man. I mentioned to my mother once that dad was “handicapped” and she indignantly said he was not. He could read lips very well and managed conversations by starting them and controlling the content. Sadly he had no sons to carry on. I could do calligraphy but didn’t have an eye for large-scale work. I am doing genealogy and I hope, someday, that I will find cousins somewhere, in England perhaps, that still do carry on the ancient and noble art of carriage painting in our family tradition.


Wedding productions
by Daniel Dunn

As my daughter’s wedding date grew near there was a problem with the shop that was to provide the cake and my tearful offspring persuaded me to provide something in its stead. By this time I had already prepared a canvass for this event which looked like an aged parchment with a rather Gothic castle in the background — an ominous drawbridge connecting the mountaintop castle and path. That provided the background for the Old Germanic calligraphy of the wedding certificate, which the Lutheran minister, the groom, the bride and the witnesses kindly signed and stamped. The canvass was then signed by all the wedding guests in a fine tipped gold ink pen. My daughter had collaborated in the design of this canvass so I knew she loved the castle idea. Using the image as my blueprint I proceeded to construct a castle wedding cake. Knowing more about construction materials than the baking industry, I transformed painted cardboard and drywall mud into a rather unique impersonation of plastic and icing. The cake ended up a little over 7 feet tall and other than labor ran around $65 including the strings of plastic pearls and silk flowers. Although this was a far cry from traditional, it ended up being the Belle of the Ball. I was a wreck, but despite the hectic pace, volatile emotions and unfinished last minute details everything ended up quite nicely.


Picture painter who was once a sign painter
by Conor O’Brien

Your letter about sign painting brought back memories of my sign-painting days — the best “regular” job I ever had. When I was about 20 years old, I was hired by a sign painter as assistant in his one-man shop. I seemed to have a talent for the art and, after a few months, it became more of a two-man shop. We did all sorts of signs from show-cards to truck doors to sides of buildings. I really hated doing scaffold work due to my acrophobia. He, of course, was fearless which caused me great consternation. Although we stood at the board, we used rolling stools for painting car and truck doors. Our taborets were also on wheels. Vehicles up to the size of 18-wheeler trucks-and-trailers could be driven right into the shop. My boss (I’ll never forget him) Francisco Serrianni, was a rough-and-tumble Italian guy who had a joy for living. He studied at Cooper Union and had great ability and sense of design. He was a true artist with gold and silver leaf on glass. I’m sorry I never learned leafing from him. We became working partners and friends. The things I learned while working with him have been invaluable to me in life and painting. And, it was all great fun. I am proud to be numbered among those picture painters who were once (and, maybe, still are) sign painters.


Lettering good for learning negative areas
by Tony van Hasselt


painting by Tony van Hasselt

As a kid, I’ve done my share of show-card lettering with the brush in a department store in Europe. Sitting in a cellar studio as a 15 year old was not fun, but I did it for three years and learned to manipulate the brush. Sign-painters have the automatic advantage of painting the positive while being aware of the negative. That space between the letters has to be of a consistent visual weight. In watercolor, it sure helps with cutting around things, doing vignettes and with the positive indicating what the negative might be. I also enjoyed hearing about Andrew Loomis. I learned an awful lot through his books and down to earth explanations about color.


Rockin’ artist
by Thubten Yeshe, Balaclava, Australia

Re: chairs in the studio: A dear old friend, alas long gone to the next life, told me once of a painter friend who kept an old fashioned rocking chair in his studio. He would paint for a while, but when he wanted to look at his work from a distance he would sit in the chair and begin to rock. The floor in his studio was uneven hardwood so the chair would begin to travel slowly around the studio, and rocking away, he would see his painting from many different angles. Standing, moving, dancing, standing on your head or rocking… all valid.


Contest entries

The following are a few more of the 400 or so entries that have come in since the contest was announced. They are not necessarily finalists in the “Free Painting Workshop in Brittany” contest.


“Garden Inn”
by Elaine Tweedy, Spruce Grove, Alberta, Canada


by Frank Sant A’gata, Kerrville, Texus, USA








“Three Sisters”
by Kendra Smith


painting by Dennis Brown








painting by Sutherland MacMillan


“Pears on a plate”
by Alice Rich









by Carol Little


“Northern Lights”
by Pauline Braun









You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 100 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2002.


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