An Ode to Signwriting

An Ode to Signwriting

I’ve been super excited to have been to a few events recently concerning the traditional skilled craft of signwriting (also known as sign painting). At one time all signs were hand crafted by trained sign writers – shop fronts, windows, billboards, fairgrounds and so on. They were predominantly painted, and many were gilded with gold leaf. However in the early 1980s vinyl plotters arrived on the scene – now it was possible to create lettering for signage very quickly and very cheaply. As a result sign writers began to be pushed out of the market and subsequently many bland and unappealing vinyl signs began to proliferate the urban landscape instead. And sadly now there is access to more fonts than ever in this digital age, this problem is becoming worse. It’s increasingly common to find poorly designed and executed lettering and signage, rather than beautifully crafted bespoke signwriting by an artisan that has been practising the art of sign writing for years and is fully at one with the letterforms.

Wagner Shading

Shading from Blue Print Text Book of Sign and Show Card Lettering, Wagner, 1926

However I have noticed, slowly but surely, a growing interest in this almost lost art – and I’m happy to conclude that it is still going very strong; I may be as bold as to say it is making a major resurgence. I know there is a thriving scene in London.

Why might this be? My first thoughts are:

  • More attention is being paid to the handmade in general
  • More attention is being paid to craftsmanship and appreciation of the learning and skill that comes with this
  • Painted signs are unique
  • You can see the brush marks in painted signs
  • Painted signs ooze quality
  • They been created with hard-earned skill, love and care
Peter Hardwicke

Peter Hardwicke at a recent Better Letters signwriting seminar. Photo: Sam Roberts

You can check out the many videos of sign writers at work online – but if you’re ever lucky to watch a sign painter live at work, you will see how beautiful the movement of the brush is, especially as it turns a corner, the precision yet speed with which this is done, the attention to detail, and the attention to the letterforms as pieces of art in themselves. The photo above shows Peter Hardwicke up to his magic at a recent seminar I attended, organised by Better Letters. It was wonderful to watch this sign come alive before my eyes through Peter’s own way of designing the letterforms, which are typically unique to the individual sign writer rather than the use of a typeface outright. An interesting point that came up during this seminar is the relationship between sign writer and graphic designer, something that really grabbed me, but which I will have to address another time. Something to ponder on in the meantime though…

I also had the privilege to see the great documentary Sign Painters the Movie in its London showing in February. Two filmmakers, Faythe Levine and Sam Macon began to document sign writers in 2010, culminating in this amazing and insightful film about the world of sign writing. I highly recommend it if it stops by your town some day.

The film also draws attention to Letterheads, formed in 1975 in Denver, Colorado by several sign shop artists and apprentices, in part with the desire to keep this wonderful craft alive, but also as a creative community to help each other out, discuss techniques, swap advice and so on. It’s wonderful to see that sign writers are such a close-knit bunch. Now there are other groups of Letterheads across the globe, including one in the UK, all of which meet annually to share their love of sign writing.

I for one have absolutely fallen in love with sign writing and will keep going to as many events, seminars, screenings about it as possible. And if the resurgence really is happening in a big way, I hope it means that others can share the beauty of sign writing too…

More info can be found at:
Peter Hardwicke –
Better Letters –
Sign Painters the Movie –
Letterheads –
Joby Carter –
Caetano Calomino –

Peter Hardwicke Ginger Pig

Peter Hardwicke – Ginger Pig. Photo: Peter Hardwicke

Joby Carter - Hoopla Test Your Skill

Joby Carter – Hoopla Test Your Skill. Photo: Joby Carter

Sign Painters Do It Better

Caetano Calomino – Sign Painters Do It Better. Photo: Caetano Calomino

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  1. Pingback: Signwriting with Ray Howell at House of Illustration - Typelark

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