Outside the realms of the established typographic community are a handful of signwriters who ply their trade creating bespoke lettering in the physical environment. These are craftspeople who do not need to over-theorise their work, but just create beautiful hand painted signs that are fit for purpose.
Handmade lettering has been experiencing somewhat of a revival recently and a good number of us from Dalton Maag were keen to get our hands dirty. Departing at an ungodly hour on Saturday morning from Waterloo Station, we were bound for a signwriting workshop hosted by traditional signwriter and all-round top chap, Wayne Osborne, at his workshop in Midhurst, South Downs.
Armed with a standard sized brush, palette and steadying stick, our day began with basic stroke drawing exercises. We started with verticals, then progressed to horizontals, diagonals and finally, rounds. Controlling the brush and flow of paint takes time to learn, the objective being to construct letterforms in as few precise strokes as possible with a good even fill of colour. Mistakes whilst using the brush are not easily rectified, so the right balance of brush control and paint consistency are paramount.
In practice, a signwriter has to be in absolute control of their chosen medium of mark making. Oil based paint or gold leaf is unforgiving and one awry movement could potentially ruin a commission. Difficult, large-scale surfaces add an extra level of complexity as work is often executed on rough render, brickwork and buildings of historical or personal importance. No such thing as command-z in this industry!
Following a very British lunch of ham salad sandwiches and Jaffa Cakes (or Bakewell tart for the more adventurous) we were into the afternoon’s activity of creating our own hand painted signs.
Selecting a plastic board from a random collection of sizes we proceeded to trace around the board and draft out our compositions in pencil on paper. Chalking the reverse side of the paper, the design is then transferred to the board by retracing the outline on the design side of the paper with the board underneath. Painting can then begin in earnest using the impression of the chalk lines as a guide.
Varying grades of sable brush sizes are used depending on the intricacy of the design, but the essential principles of patience, mark economy and hand-eye coordination remain. The results of our toils, in both groups who attended, were of a competent standard for a first attempt with some rather ambitious colour work taking place, alongside some beautifully delicate profanities (nice one, Bruno!).
It was certainly refreshing to escape the digital environment for a day and make more of a human connection with letterforms. My attitude towards the craftsmen and women who make a living out of signwriting is now certainly one of reverence.