In response to the internet’s (often unfortunate) habit of making things disposable and somehow less “real,” our growing appreciation for all things handmade and labored-over has extended to everything from cheese and chocolate to work by graphic designers. Over the past few years, we’ve watched more and more designers power down their devices in favor of screenprinting, letterpress, and other time-honored (and sometimes just plain old-timey) traditions. And to our surprise, the art of the hand-painted sign has gone from a bit of a graphic design gimmick to a serious revival, with a new generation of designers finding solace in the brush, ink, and mahl stick that are the tools of the trade.
One of the catalysts of this revival—and the man behind the wildly popular Better Letters workshops—is Sam Roberts, who found his way into sign painting via London’s “ghost signs”—vintage painted advertising that can be spotted fading on walls and buildings around the city. “Early on, I jumped to the conclusion that these were evidence of something we’ve lost, but quickly discovered otherwise,” says Roberts, who believes that although the business has shrunk, it’s still thriving. “I don’t subscribe to the ‘dying trade’ narrative that’s so often trundled out without any reference to what’s really happening in the business,” he adds.
There are certainly parallels to be drawn with the perennial “print is dead” debate, which seems to rage on despite all evidence to the contrary. As Roberts explains, a closer look at the sign-painting industry reveals an international movement with hundreds of people earning a living from the trade and new practitioners joining each year. It’s hard to pinpoint what’s kick-started this revival, but after seeing the kind of people who attend sign painting workshops (namely graphic designers, tattooists, graffiti artists, and type designers), Roberts agrees that there’s an underlying trend. “One thing I hear over and over again is, ‘I wanted to get away from my computer and start working again.’”
One of the converts from these workshops is Alex May Hughes, a typography graduate from London who now works primarily with paint and gold leaf on glass. After presenting her first solo show (with another exhibition in the works), Hughes explains that sign painting was an opportunity to get away from the dominance of the computer. “I’ve always really enjoyed using my hands to create, and using a brush seemed like a natural extension of that,” she says. “I enjoy the process of painting signs and letters, particularly the handmade look of the work and the instant gratification. Although computers are a helpful tool, it’s great to get away from that and create something more tangible and unique. You can’t gold leaf gild on a computer.”
Charlotte Wright, another convert to the trade, divides her time between photography, graphic design, and sign painting. For Wright, it was the handcrafted element that drew her into the practice. “It’s beautiful to see hand-painted signs up close and notice little things that confirm it was done by hand. It’s so personal,” she says. She admits that the physical process of painting can be therapeutic, too. “I love the slow, soft movements and the silky feel of the brush on the different surfaces. It’s nice to be actually creating something physically in front of you—there’s a closeness you just can’t get with computer work.” It’s also an opportunity to escape the all-encompassing perfection of graphic design, Wright says, with sign painting purposefully leaving in the human “errors” that a designer would typically remove.
The physicality and inherent imperfection of the work was also a draw for Lucinda Ireland, a trained graphic designer who spent two years at branding agency KentLyons before moving to freelance. She says painting her own signs was a natural progression from her time spent experimenting with typography while studying; her interest was spurred on last year after a workshop with legendary sign painter Mike Meyer. “I needed that escape,” she admits. “I don’t feel half as creative sitting in front of a computer screen as I do when I’m painting. It takes a lot of focus, and I like that. I think it’s much easier to push things about on screen, but where’s the fun and the happy accidents in that?”
She also believes sign painting is an opportunity to broaden her own knowledge of type, and as a craft it goes right back to how lettering was created thousands of years before computers arrived. “The brush is so connected with the history of lettering that you’re not only learning a new skill, but getting a history lesson as well,” Sam Roberts agrees. He explains that it’s an opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of the role tools have played in the development of the letterforms designers are so familiar with today. For example, how the turn in the brush at the end of a stroke led to the bifurcations that are now often associated with Victorian and fairground lettering.
Alice Mazilli, a calligrapher based in London, also recalls how a workshop in London completely shifted her perspective on lettering. “I remember going back to work and thinking: I just want to draw letters all day,” she says. Now part of an all-girl hand-lettering group, The Brushettes, Mazzilli has also had her big break through an apprenticeship with calligrapher Paul Antonio Scribe. Something that started as an escape from the screen has given her a deeper connection to type. “It’s very important not to lose the handmade side of things,” she agrees. “Calligraphy and lettering are ancient crafts that played a crucial role in human evolution and, in my opinion, it’s something that cannot be forgotten.”
As more designers leave their desks to pursue craft-based practices, Roberts has witnessed a new wave of maverick designers-turned-sign painters emerging, people who substitute a lack of formal signwriting education with learning by any means necessary. “The latter group is perhaps less constrained by tradition, and able to be more free in breaking rules and experimenting,” he says. “In the case of graphic designers making the transition, they have the eye for design, so most of the work is in developing the hand for the brush.” Ironically, the very thing designers are trying to move away from—the screen—may well be what’s saving this traditional art form. “I think there’s an increasing recognition of the skills that are out there and how they can be used,” Roberts adds. “The internet, especially Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter, are allowing people to find and access talent that was largely hidden before.”