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A Brush with Greatness

Hand-lettered signs are still out there; you just have to look.

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Hand-lettered signs are still out there; you just have to look.

CONVENTIONAL WISDOM HOLDS that computers (and vinyl) ushered in the demise of the hand-lettered sign. For “meat and potatoes” projects, such as grocery store price sheets and retail easel displays, this was certainly the case.

Hand-painted work continued, but there was less of it; many talented artists had to learn the computer, or give up the trade completely. Without these experienced mentors in the field, the apprentice model broke down, and the craft was all but lost.

The thousands of hours of focus and discipline required to learn the stroke patterns of various fonts, combined with low pay and tough conditions, ensured that this particular craft would never thrive again. The digital age merely hastened its demise.

To me, these skillful signwriters hold a mythical status; I’ve never understood why their incredible skill and talent weren’t valued by vinyl-converted shops and short-sighted clients.

Today, a new generation of sign artists has risen from those ashes, and we are again celebrating master sign painters, as well as their rock-star predecessors.

The exact same strokes, actually. These two signs perfectly demonstrate the discipline required to repeat letterforms over and over. With the exception of the red arrows, these ‘No Parking’ signs are virtually identical.

The exact same strokes, actually. These two signs perfectly demonstrate the discipline required to repeat letterforms over and over. With the exception of the red arrows, these ‘No Parking’ signs are virtually identical.

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With this in mind, I recently set out on a quest to find examples of pre-digital hand-lettering that have somehow survived.

Strolling through urban back-alleys and off the beaten path with my trusty camera (read: phone), I looked for examples beyond the tattered billboard or faded ghost-sign variety. I wanted to find some good old mahl stick and drafting-table lettering. The kind of thing worked out beforehand with a non-repro-blue pencil and finished with a sable brush.

I eyeballed businesses that had been around for decades, churches that stood for centuries and parts of town that were deserted and crumbling.

I found surviving examples in each of these spots. Surprisingly, a theme emerged – every pre-digital hand-lettered sign I found pertained to parking, specifically “No Parking.” That theme wasn’t the only thing the signs had in common.

To ensure readability, the signs shared a limited palette. There is a size convention that stresses the most important aspects of the message and finally, a propensity for sans-serif, all caps that endows the message with a stern “voice” (much like what is done today via texting and social media).

Oxidation reveals the skilled strokes required to produce quality hand-lettering. Variation of font size, weight and color, and the combination of bold and italics, increase this sign’s readability and appropriately convey its message. The “two-story” NO adds a bit of flair.

Oxidation reveals the skilled strokes required to produce quality hand-lettering. Variation of font size, weight and color, and the combination of bold and italics, increase this sign’s readability and appropriately convey its message. The “two-story” NO adds a bit of flair.

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I wonder how many people who encounter these signs realize that they were done by hand. How many people understand that these signs were crafted by artists who, despite their skill, were unappreciated in their day?

In the end, I find it fitting that after 50-75 years of duty, these noble signs soldier on in relative anonymity, much like the artists who created them.

Jeff Russ is a content studio manager for SmartWork Media and was the senior art director of Signs of the Times from 1996-2021. A graphic designer and illustrator with an interest in sign design and sign history, Jeff documents important, interesting and notable design trends in the sign industry as a contributor to Signs of the Times. He has written dozens of features for Signs, and his column, Design Matters, was published for more than a decade.

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