June 4, 2010
I grew up the youngest son of a sign painter. Sorry, I was the youngest son of a meat cutter who worked a full-time second job as a sign painter. Dad worked nearly every night of the week and most weekend nights, Sundays and Tuesday were his days off from the grocery store – Sundays were typically work-free but Tuesdays were painting days. I vividly remember walking home from school on Tuesdays excited because he’d usually be home working in the garage. Tuesdays were also art class days in elementary school, so I would typically be pretty excited to show off what we had worked on that day.
As I got older those evenings were less about playing with GI Joes while dad painted and more about helping when I could. You just pick things up when you’re constantly exposed to someone else’s craft. My children will most definitely pickup my craft of swearing due to their exposure, it’s a gift that will keep on giving. Me, well I picked up how to properly close OneShot paint cans, to mix thinner and how to properly primer coat 4×8′ sheets of plywood. I also learned how to use an overhead projector, a long extension cord and dusk to project sign patterns up onto 8′ tall, 32′ wide signs for a major raceway. Along the way I soaked up a love for typography, color, grids, layout and craftsmanship.
So more and more I would jump in and help out. I’d do color filling, I’d advise on type choices (picking out Letraset transfer lettering sheets then) and I’d do a LOT of pattern taping and pouncing. I learned by doing. Those skills are mostly applicable today although my work is done on computer, some are not, for instance I still know how to properly hold and pull a line with a sable striping brush, and could do basic gold-leafing if the fate of the nation depended on it.
In all of those years I never remember explicitly asking to learn techniques. I do remember buying lots of book that claimed to I could learn to draw comics or cars or whatever else. For some reason it was more appealing to try and learn from unknown dime store authors than the master artist standing next to me. That mentality is likely why I never took a single art class in high school. And when I attempted to take one in college, my junior year, I failed big time. I was used to doing the work, not learning about it. Art history, in particular medieval art history appealed to me and I excelled at those courses, but not so much for the studio classes.
So who cares? Well anyone who cares about design should, a little. Needless to say this article hit close to home. It’s an interview with a sign painter from the south, James Chastain. He recounts his years spent learning the craft and his passion to be a sign painter. It’s chock full of great insight, but a sad arc of a dying trade. The sun appears to be setting on this type of craftsmanship, the hand-lettered artwork the post author seems to love for it’s folksy, kitsch qualities is a true treasure. Not because of it’s folksiness, but because of the craftsmanship and years of dedication it took to master. James laments (through his conversations with the author) how flat and sterile computer-produced signs are, how detached from the artist the product has become. The art form is dying, it has been since the Steve Jobs changed the industry. And as if a Greek tragedy – the same tools that brought that art form down are what have given me the amazing life I have today. Sorry Dad, I just can’t design on 4×8 sheets of plywood, but I like to think the lessons I learned from those days influence the work I do today.
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