Sunday, June 16, 2013

The Dying Art of Sign Painting

Perhaps it goes back to the cave dwellers when paintings of deer, bear and other creatures was a way for the owner to advertise that he had smoked meat for sale, but it is clear that as we go more and more digital, we are losing certain artistic and hand-made skills.

Sign painter and mural artist Jackson
Smart talks about the tools of his trade.
As a Public Relations consultant years ago, I advised new businesses to think about how they were going to give their impression of what they were selling, which included signage. I worked with a few sign-makers in Boise, ID where my business was. However, even then I did not realize that, for the most part, the age-old apprenticeship program was how sign painters were trained. Tricks of the trade were not learned in books, but at the elbow of the master!

Recently I attended a presentation by a Port Angeles, WA, sign painter, Jackson Smart of SignArt Studio, demonstrating some of the learned techniques and the tools used, along with the paint construction. (The link is to an article in the Peninsula Daily News about Smart.)

There is a three-second rule for signs: it must be able to be seen and read, computed/internalized and a decision made in three seconds. "You are driving along the highway, see a sign and it either motivates you or you ignore it", Smart said. He added that it is not just letters, but colors and shapes, that convey the message and he is well known for his creative work around the Peninsula.

Smart demonstrates using a mahl stick to letter in script
style; it is used to keep hands and oils off the surface.
The Burma-Shave signs were inspired by the desire to sell. Started in 1925 to promote the shaving cream (purported to have ingredients from Burma), six signs placed in sequence along the highway originally sold the cream in little rhymes, but later offered safety messages.

One series I recall along the road from Peterborough, NH to Keene was this: Past / Schoolhouses / Take it slow / Let the little / Shavers grow / Burma-Shave. Although there wasn't actually a schoolhouse near where the signs were placed, we used to love to read them out loud as we rattled along to the lake, much to the irritation of the driver - usually our mother. Somehow even seeing them regularly didn't decrease our delight in this loud recognition of our reading ability.

Artist Smart uses a squirrel hair brush to demonstrate how
fine a line can be drawn with the right technique.
Increasing speeds, more sophisticated signage, television and other elements brought this roadside entertainment for the 'little shavers' to an end in the 60's. And just as the commercial elements of sign design were advancing, so was the looming digital age which would change it completely. And artist Smart opined that it is not just the digital age that is affecting sign painting skills, but there is a lack of desire on the part of the youth today to learn something that requires apprenticeship. "They want to be able to do it quickly. It requires learning about the shapes of letters, the distance between each letter, and the construction of the thinner and other chemicals in the paint and whether or not it is hot or cold outside, because that affects the performance of the paint, too." Smart says more and more signs are made on computer and fewer of the people who are making them have ever even used a brush.

Jackson Smart - an artisan and an artist - has painted on wood, metals, foam board, plastic and other materials. He has painted signs for businesses, on motorcycles, cars, trucks, and busses for a native american tribal casino as well as doing the Port of Port Angeles mural welcoming visitors from Canada.  As you enter Port Angeles from the East on Highway 101, you will see his sign greeting you to the city he has made home for the past 34 years. He is as much a part of the city as the signs and murals he has done here.

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