In this post, I will introduce you to the basics of sign painting through my recent workshop experience.
In my last post, I discussed the many different ways artists are turning to the art of hand lettering to create unique content and give their work a new voice the world has yet to see. But that focus was on the digital side of hand lettering—I now want to introduce you to another form of hand lettering. In a world where everything is evolving, progressing and becoming better and faster, this form of hand lettering has stood the test of time and you’d be surprised at just how often you’ve seen it out in the real world. That art form is sign painting.
What is sign painting?
A historic, yet equally modern way of communicating, sign painting is the art of painting lettering on buildings, billboards or signboards to advertise products, services or events. And yes, I do mean with a paint brush and paint. No computer in sight. I recently got my first taste of sign painting through a four-day workshop taught by a legendary sign painter in the field, Mike Meyer. Hailing from Mazeppa, Minnesota, Mike travels the world as a sign painting ambassador to teach students of all backgrounds the basics of sign painting.
These basics included drawing and developing an understanding of basic letterforms, setting out and painting Block, Casual and Script letterforms, and using the various letter styles to develop and build the necessary brush skills. Now, I have a good deal of experience when it comes to typography and lettering and while I still have a great deal to learn, I like to think I have the basic understanding of letter structure down and I can confidently say I am no stranger when it comes to creating lettering compositions for my own work. So the hand lettering aspect of this workshop was going to be a breeze, right? Wrong.
The first and second day of the workshop, us sign painting newbies were put to the hand lettering test. My workshop mates and I all came from various lettering, design, or pinstriping backgrounds, so we all had an idea of what we were getting ourselves into but it wasn’t until Mike quickly demonstrated his letter structure technique that we knew we were in for a rough few days. To start, we hesitantly prepared our easels and started creating grids using our mahl sticks and triangular rulers. Once prepped and ready, we began to letter.
Day One: Block and Thick & Thin Lettering
We were first introduced to the block and thick & thin letter structure. In sign painting, block letters (i.e. “Columbus” in the following photos) refers to letters that are the same, consistent weight throughout the whole letter. To achieve the same thickness, your 5-layered line grid has to be consistent and share the same height throughout your composition. Thick & think letters (i.e. “Ohio” and “Bakery”) are exactly that ¬– both thick and thin throughout the composition of the letters. In the grid, you add an extra line toward the top and bottom of your grid to gauge how thin you want your thins to be. The contrast between thick and thin can be as significant or as subtle as you desire.
In the second half of our day, we started to learn proper brush techniques. We learned how to get the most out of our strokes, how not to waste paint, and how to get into the tricky corners of letters with our brushes. Limited to only using gray paint for the first two days, we started filling in our letters. Mike and his assistant, Pascale, kept reminding us this was the time to try out different techniques and make all the mistakes we possibly could. And mistakes we made.
Day Two: Casual and Script Lettering
Day two we moved on to casual and script lettering. Both were much more relaxed in nature and allowed for a bit more personality to come through from each artist. Casual is likely the most easily recognized sign lettering style. As you can see in the booklets in the image, casual and slant casual are both options. We were encouraged to start with slant casual as it was easier to get an understanding of how the brush moved. To start, you write out your words in chicken scratch and paint over the pencil or chalk letters with the casual script. There is a lot of room to add in your own personal style as the artist whether that is through letters that are bouncy and clean or even messy and dripping down the page.
Script lettering was very challenging but surprisingly fun to work with. Mike and Pascale mentioned it takes at least five years to develop your script style and actually like it so if we were anywhere close to appreciating our own work this day, we were in luck! To achieve the script appearance, you apply more pressure and thicker lines to the downstrokes of the letters, and ease up on the upstrokes, creating a thinner line.
Day Three: Block and Cast Shadows
Day three we were finally allowed to start using color and were introduced to block and cast shadows. Block shadows are when the shadow extends directly from the letters at an angle while never actually touching the letters. To make the shadows more realistic, you have to take a light source into consideration. We learned two different types of blending for shadows – hard and soft. “Dude” is an example of hard blending as you can see the lighter blue directly intersects with the darker blue, rather than blending in with it.
The second shadow type we learned was cast shadows. To achieve a cast shadow (i.e. “The End”), you must redraw the entire letter a second time offset from the original letter and it’s original placement. Cast shadows are meant to look as if the letter is floating over the paper and typically don’t feature any blending unless the shadow is fading to the same color as the paper.
Day Four: Beveling, Outlining, and Highlighting
Day four we learned how to bring our lettering to life through beveling, outlining, and highlighting. These three aspects give letters a three-dimensional feel. To bevel the letters you have to treat each letter as a box, depending on where your light source is coming from. Mine was coming from the top left so the lightest part of the letter (1) is at the top, the second lightest to the left, third lightest to the right, and the darkest is at the bottom.
You have to have to take each stroke and cross section into consideration to make the letters look as realistic as possible. As I mentioned blending before, I used soft blending in the S and highlighted the in-line of the letters in white to make them appear three-dimensional. While I didn’t get around to outlining the letters, you can also bevel the outlines using the same box technique to make them look three-dimensional as well. It’s safe to say this was the most satisfying day as all our newly acquired skills started to come together.
What I Learned
This workshop was an exciting, overwhelming and exhausting experience. I was pushed far outside of my comfort zone, developed new techniques, and even painted on a car in just four short days. Mike’s teaching method allowed us to learn the basics and use the skill we developed to find our own personality and style within a beautiful, long-lasting craft. Overall, I truly learned that no matter how much you think you know, there is always more to learn. I look forward to the opportunity to take my newly acquired skills and implement them throughout my work and career here at Rattleback—whether it’s hand crafted with a paintbrush and paint, or digitally with a mouse and computer.