Post Paint Boy

This is a piece I wrote for the Pre-Vinylite Society blog two years ago. The Pre-Vinylite Society is the brainchild of Boston husband and wife team Josh Luke and Meredith Kasabian of Best Dressed Signs. As well as being working signpainters, they also run workshops, curate sign-inspired exhibitions, and generally strive to promote the appreciation and continuation of the hand-painted sign tradition. See the links at the bottom of the page for more information.

1.

My first job was painting estate agent posts. Two and a half metre lengths of 2×2 pine – planed and finished with a sharp spike at one end. I would usually paint a hundred in one go – ten at a time laid out in a tidy row on a pair of trestles, painting the upper most sides first before flipping them over one at a time and continuing until all four sides were covered, then I would lean them against the wall to dry and line up the next batch. Each post would require two or three coats. I was ten years old.

I enjoyed the work and I loved spending time at my dad’s sign workshop (not mentioning the pocket money!). If the weather was fine he would set me up out front on the gravel driveway in oversized paint overalls where I would often meet the tradesmen who frequented the building to arrange and collect sign orders or to deliver materials.

The workshop itself was a converted stable in a suburb in the southern coastal town of Bournemouth – a ramshackle two floors of paint-encrusted work surfaces and cobwebbed corners stacked with disused signs and old silkscreens, all flavoured with the constant chatter and radio buzz of good work. In between post-painting chores and sweeping the floors there was plenty of time for exploring and an array of dark, untouched spaces in which to do so.

My recollections of the workshop seem vivid, right down to insignificant details – hours spent playing on the large wooden stairway and utilising my dad’s mahl stick and T-squares as makeshift weapons. I can still recall the photo pinned on the wall of my grandfather on a Christmas carnival float dressed in full Santa attire, taken from the local newspaper, and the many paint smears adorning the walls where the my dad and his team would test colours.

The experiences gathered here can go some way to explaining some of my current values. I consider this the reason why I can’t tolerate too tidy a workspace, why I find a cluttered workbench or an old tin with paint dripped and hardened around the rim aesthetically pleasing, why the smell of paint thinners is not altogether unpleasant.

2.

My dad left school in 1962, aged 16, to begin a signwriting apprenticeship, which in those days also incorporated skills in painting and decorating. He then followed his father into the family sign business, established in 1954, and has worked in the trade ever since with no real desire to retire despite being well into his sixties.

My dad often recounts tales of those pre-vinyl years. Some I’ve heard many times though I don’t tire of them. Stories of my grandfather suffering an attack of vertigo whilst signwriting at the top of a triple extension ladder, or the time my dad had to paint the name on a boat by hanging upside down over the edge of the vessel in question. He would tell me of times when they would work through the night, working to deadlines painting signs for exhibitions in London. He’s also helped me to imagine scenes at the Dean Court football ground with workers from different sign companies painting the billboards surrounding the pitch, sharing paints and conversation.

These days the notion of a job for life can seem quaint or simplistic, in a time where mature student numbers are at their highest and it’s not uncommon to experience a mid-life career crisis and re-evaluation. This, of course, can be a very positive thing, but there’s much to admire in someone devoting their entire life to a vocation. Some folk just manage to find their groove earlier than others I suppose.

In contrast my path was thus: I left school with moderate grades, a brief stint at college, a couple of enjoyable but undemanding jobs before taking employment in the family sign company cutting vinyl in a back room that had once been my sister’s bedroom (by this time a recession and the advent of vinyl had forced my dad to strip everything back, including staff and workspace and start from scratch with a computer and vinyl plotter, working from home), blew that all of after a couple of years so I could go travel with my future wife, came home and took a job in retail, and crawled back to my dad when that turned sour (by which time things had begun to improve and he now had a small high street sign shop).

So far it’s a fairly regular tale of a non-committal career progression. I’ve been with him ten years now and, while I’ve always had a pretty strong work ethic, for a time I still found it hard to say “this is what I’ll be doing for the rest of my life”. It took some time to convince myself that this was where my heart was. But then something changed.

3.

I can’t remember the exact time I decided to take up hand-painted lettering. It had been on my mind for some time but things were often too busy in the office to consider what would essentially be an apprenticeship. It certainly wasn’t a decision rooted in any business incentive – my dad was still keeping his hand in with small gilding jobs and the occasional pub signwriting – but it was hardly boom time. So the decision to venture into signpainting was less of a financial concern and more formed from a desire to do something substantial, something that couldn’t be achieved in a month with the right software and a YouTube tutorial. It also seemed absurd not to, considering I was working every day with someone in possession of a lifetime’s experience and the required skills to teach me.

I’d spent much of my time to this point flitting between various interests, being intensely preoccupied for a time before moving on, never particularly distraught when things ran their course. The pursuit of signpainting had weight to it, something that was threaded through the best part of a century of my family history.

This, coupled with a burgeoning online community of like-minded people, who seem intent on dragging signpainting from its revered place in the past into a more contemporary setting, not content to just view it in a nostalgic context, are all the incentives needed to push through the barrier that can occasionally appear when you’ve spent an hour painting single practice strokes in black one-shot enamel – striving for some kind of perfection, realising all the time that this truly takes practice, this takes work. It’s been just short of two years since I first picked up the brush, and I’m trying to balance the patience of persistent practice, of really grasping the basics and not getting too ahead of myself, with the occasional regret that surfaces – that I didn’t get round to this sooner. But there’s little point in beating yourself up over the time it takes to get to where you’re going, it’s good to just get there.

4.

With my main focus now firmly on becoming a signwriter it can become easy to dismiss vinyl although I’ve always been slightly at odds with this attitude. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve heard customers bemoaning the modern computer methods in comparison to the traditional – not that many of them would invest in the extra time and money required for good handpainted work.

Time is my main grievance. The time it takes to produce vinyls has raised client expectations to the extent that it’s sometimes hard to meet demand. Last week I had to turn a potential customer away after he enquired about “while-you-wait signs”. I politely told him to get in the queue.

Of course there is excellent work being produced in digital and vinyl formats, providing people invest their heart and energy in their work it shows in the finished product. The funny thing is that without vinyl my dad would possibly be scraping a living as a painter and decorator now. Investing in a plotter gave him a lifeline, an opportunity to keep working within the trade when things turned tough, even though he resented it at the time. And now that there are signs of resurgence, when signwriting is being recognised for its craft and people are looking for beautiful, hand-crafted signs to make the most of their business, he’s back doing what he loves.

 

Best Dressed Signs

Pre-Vinylite Society

Ad Boy

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I was very grateful to receive a copy of “Ad Boy – Vintage Advertising With Character” by Warren Dotz and Masud Husain, as a christmas gift a few weeks ago.

It takes a look at examples of illustrations created for branding and advertising, mostly from the post-war United States, a period distinguished by bright cartoonish images and characters, many of which would achieve the status of pop culture icons in the years that followed.  It’s a valuable reference book, both artistically and culturally.

I’ve been keen on researching these kinds of characters for some time. In a work capacity I’ve always favoured striking but simple hand-drawn, vector graphics over those of a more digitalized nature, and I sometimes reference vintage ads for inspiration when working with customer logos and designs. In terms of hand-painting, these examples are perfect as this style of character image can often be produced very effectively using simple, clean brush strokes in just one-colour, lending uncomplicated charm to an otherwise flat design.

The appeal of these post-war ad campaigns is not difficult to decipher, as the author explains in the book’s introduction: “Product characters were designed to comfort consumers, to reassure them that they were making the smartest, safest, best quality choices and thus were wise, secure, good people”. The rise of character and cartoon led campaigns is also explained: “It’s important to recall that prior to the 1950’s manufacturers didn’t market to children……But as baby boomers populated the burgeoning suburbs and television reached out for the hearts and minds of America’s offspring…..Advertisers took note and kids were targeted to sway their parents’ spending”.

It’s interesting to evaluate the appeal of these earlier forms in comparison with more modern forms of advertising, which can often appear crass in comparison despite the fact that vintage and modern advertising are still coming from the same place, and serving the same purpose. Let’s face it, the primary aim of these characters was never just to make us feel good, it was to sell product – leading me to feel slightly paradoxical at experiencing nostalgia for these images when I find most forms of advertising, whether it be on television or on billboards, to be intrusive and somewhat cynical (a strange feeling to have for someone in the sign trade, I know!). These days I walk down the cereal aisle quietly bemoaning the packaging that’s selling breakfast products loaded with sugar to a target audience with impressionable minds and vulnerable teeth. Yet, leafing through Ad Boy I get a sudden pang of nostalgia when confronted with an early image of Kelloggs’ Tony The Tiger.

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It’s difficult not to see these characters as products of a more innocent time. I can’t imagine the same feelings being evoked in thirty years time, when we’re looking back at the advertising that we’re currently experiencing. Maybe because we’re saturated with it  – ads pop up on our TV screens, on our computers, social media feeds, in the palm of our hands, and not forgetting the more traditional advertising mediums of magazines and newspapers, and on the daily commute plastered on the sides of buses and at train stations. This saturation has perhaps led to a sense of weariness about advertising. It works in the short term but are we going to be quite so eager to take it to our hearts?

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But whether or not you agree with the practises and principles that led to the evolution of these forms of character-led branding, there’s little doubt that it’s a visually striking, psychologically perplexing, and often downright weird world to inhabit, providing a wealth of inspiration to draw from.

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The anthropomorphisation in some of these designs, particularly in food advertising, is a particularly fascinating aspect and leads you to question both the thinking that goes into it and the effect it’s had upon our eating habits and philosophies – what’s the best way to advertise meat products? Of course,  you produce a sweet cartoon image of a smiling pig or chicken about to happily tuck into a plate of bacon or chicken nuggets – self cannibalisation as a marketing tool! I’ve always been slightly perplexed by some of the UK high street mainstays too, the fish and chip shop with a smiling cod on the fascia, and the numerous fried chicken outlets selling their wares with the image of a happy hen! We live in a weird world, no?

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Ad Boy – Vintage Advertising With Character : by Warren Dotz and Musad Husain.

Published by Ten Speed Press / Random House

Warren Dotz

The Original Street Art

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/articles/1169wF7X6tlgLVs1wnJrC9X/raising-a-glass-to-the-original-street-art

Some good examples of the art of the pub sign on the BBC website.

Strangely enough, while glancing through the many fine examples, my eye was caught by the sign for The Milk Churn in Wiltshire. Something oddly familiar about this one…..

Milk Churn

This is a photo, first featured on this blog a couple of years ago, of my dad painting a milk churn for a wedding. At first I thought it was a coincidence, just a very similar image, until I noticed that the artist had even copied the holes that used to house the spindles of the busted old chair that my dad uses in his workshop, even down to the crack on the edge of the seat.

So there we have it – Vaughan Jones (kind of) immortalised on a pub sign in Wiltshire.

Convex

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Here’s something I’ve been meaning to try for some time now – convex lettering, the effect of curving or extending outwards.

For these techniques I thought I’d practice on a new kit box I picked up second hand a year ago. Since then I’ve been giving it a few coats of varnish and getting it ready for some tasty decorative lettering.

Light and shading effects are one of the strongest tools in a signwriters’ repertoire – quite often very simple decorative techniques which, when utilised correctly, can elevate and enhance lettering into something extraordinary. On a functional level, this perhaps isn’t as necessary in the current climate as trends in branding and contemporary typography have drifted towards the minimal, with the majority of our recent hand-painted work involving simple one-colour logo designs with bold, flat lettering and featuring very little in the way of flourishes or elaboration of any description.

While this is good, and I’ll admit to being an advocate of simplicity in design, there are few things as pleasing to the eye as well executed ornamental lettering.

So far my learning has followed what I imagine to be a fairly predictable trajectory – once moderately confident with painting basic letters you try experimenting with simple drop shadows, before progressing onto block or cast shadows, then introducing some lighting effects onto the letters, and so on….

Convex lettering manages to incorporate many of these techniques, light and shade, into one impressive whole, producing the effect of a solid, three dimensional text which, when embellished  with further shading treatments, can give the impression that the text is standing off or elevated above the surface of the sign.

When analysed this isn’t necessarily a complicated procedure, but it takes thought and deliberation, especially with the use of colour. I experienced a few issues while attempting to achieve the different pink tones on the letters – too subtle and you don’t achieve any distinction between the different surfaces of the letters; too strong and you get a patchwork effect which distracts and can strip the lettering of its clarity.