Helen Cann’s Signsmiths article – what a gem!! Big thanks Helen.
Helen with her fab Day 2 panel!
It was through a discussion with friends of mine that I realised I’d be pretty useless in the event of an apocalypse. Illustrators are not at the top of the list when it comes to survivalist skills………Which is how I ended up on a traditional sign writing course. Definitely a useful skill. Definitely. The world is always gonna need signs.
OK perhaps I’m being slightly facetious. A beautifully painted sign in heritage colour enamel is not going to be at the top of your thoughts in a life and death situation and there are certainly other reasons to learn traditional sign writing. Put simply, it’s a beautiful and skillful trade and I wanted to learn how to do it. Signs have always fascinated me and there are few things other than a lovely typeface and an eloquent design created by hand that can make your heart sing more. I work with letters often and thought I could increase my skill set, especially after a friend of mine had been on the same course and I’d seen how much her lettering and chalk boards had started to fly.
Nick Garrett was our tutor at The London Signsmiths. A third generation sign writer, he was passionate about the craft, had a deep understanding of the cultural significance of signs and an almost encyclopedic knowledge of typefaces. By simply adding a serif or elongating or curling or thickening a line, you could watch him unfold the history of letters from the Romans onwards.
We started drawing out sans serif letters. Nice and straight and clean. Concentrating on keeping parallel strokes even, understanding the correct angles for diagonals and playing with heights of cross lines. I found it deeply satisfying and meditative.
Paint skills followed. Practice working with the long sign writers’ brushes, a palette and the mahl stick which acts as a hand rest. This was far more challenging for me because I was unused to the brush and awkward hand angle. The way the paint was applied was also different – in its distribution within the brush and how it could be brushdragged to create pin sharp straight lines or brushtwisted to make sharp killer corners.
Oh those corners…. Totally necessary to master for the serifs of Roman lettering. Practice, practice, practice. Again and again until the mechanics come easy. How many years does it take till you truly master them?
Other forms of lettering were offered up. The fluidity of Script, the brashness but surprising complexity of Dom Casual, beloved of the retail sale, and the almost magical fades and shades found in the vintage bazaar and the fairground. Each form was explained and demonstrated and by the end of the week, could be practiced by students.
I wish I had worked on something larger for my last project – a challenge to create a traditional sign using multiple lettering styles in a pleasing design. I often use lettering in my personal work and I’m used to working small so I could have learnt more, I think, by stretching to some wider dimensions. But perhaps that will come with time and I’ve already got some MDF cut out waiting for me.
So how will the course affect my work as it is now? Every year, I send out a mail shot to publishers in hand lettered envelopes. For these and my maps, I have never aimed to create a perfect letter and appreciate the quirks and irregularities of something that looks hand made and has some personality.
I also used to regularly paint chalk boards for the Dukes at Komedia cinema in Brighton which was mainly briefed to be a hand rendered version of a film poster of some kind where the lettering was a straightforward copy of the original.
I think I now have a much better understanding of letter shapes, painting process and how to make space work well for me and it will truly be interesting to see, having completed the course, if my lettering changes and improves.
And should there be an apocalypse any time soon, I’m pretty sure the world will still need some (beautifully painted) signs. Definitely.