Signwriting with Ray Howell at House of Illustration

Signwriting with Ray Howell at House of Illustration
Ray Howell Signwriter

Ray Howell setting the benchmark

Signwriting Alphabet

The (almost) finished alphabet

You may realise now how much I love traditional signwriting (or signpainting for those on the other side of the pond). Well I wasn’t going to pass up the opportunity to join a workshop with prolific signwriter Ray Howell at the lovely House of Illustration in King’s Cross at the weekend! A chance to not only see the man at work, but to have a go myself. Hm. More of that later!

It’s always a privilege to see signwriting happening right before your eyes – seeing the letterforms unfold at the swoosh of the brush, the mark of signwriter inextricably entwined within the bristles… And I love that each signwriter develops their own style, and own take on letterforms.

Ray set about an alphabet which we were to aspire to. Then it was time for the group to get to grips with it. We started using a carpenter’s pencil, to get the angle right and the feel of the different weights of strokes, creating the alphabet in both uppercase and lowercase. We then moved from that to markers, making a more definite, bolder and more confident mark.

I wasn’t quite getting the thick / thin strokes right – it was at this point that I discovered I was at a disadvantage – being a leftie. Yes, being left-handed means it’ll make it that much more difficult to learn the skill, but of course not impossible. I was also very surprised to find myself the only leftie in the whole room.

Zoë signwriting

Yours truly, practising the thick / thin strokes with a brush

Best attempt: Z

My pièce de résistance of the day: the bottom stroke of the Z

We moved on to what everyone was waiting for – using a signwriting brush. These beautiful delicate items that most definitely take a bit of getting used to. We had to use the right pressure in the right places to construct the letterforms as they should be. Plus this was the first time we moved to a vertical surface, which was a totally different experience, but not as weird as I thought it might be.

And of course I had major problems using the mahl stick as a left-hander – I inevitably ended up dragging it through the letters I had already painstakingly crafted. I did give up on that and started to use my hand as a rest instead. Which is not ideal as it’s best to stand further back to see as you paint.

The end of the session saw a good discussion about the place of signwriting today, and sparked debate about good design, which I won’t go into in depth here as that is worthy of a massive post of its own. Taking signage as an example, with the abundance of fonts and various types of software available today, anyone and everyone believes they have the necessary design skills to produce good signage. What is often forgotten is that it needs a skilled and trained eye to get it right – good design most often goes unnoticed, whereas bad design jumps out and smacks you in the face. Sadly in this digital age bad design has become so commonplace, it is now difficult for many to distinguish it anyway. Most signwriters on the other hand trained as apprentices, developing and refining their skill over years of practice.

Design debate aside, I loved every minute of the workshop! I definitely want to try it again, and will keep practising. In the meantime I will carry on with the other lettering that I can safely do with my left hand…

I’d love to include a link to Ray’s work here, but I can’t seem to find a dedicated website for him – if anyone comes across anything, please do let me know and I’ll update it here.

Plus I wrote an earlier piece ‘An Ode to Signwriting’ that you may like to read here.


Spot the pro!