The New Generation of UK Signpainters: Mindset not Brushset
My recent 5 years as signpainter has centred around 3 pillars, building the right workload, teaching and taking on apprentices.
I’ve had 3 recently and am continuing with number 4 and looking forward to working with a new Italian lad, all identities remain closely guarded to spare their blushes!!
The first quality an apprentice must have or quickly develop is determination… we all know that, it’s obvious, nothing new. But it’s the tip of the iceberg because as the years go by the degree of intensity singles out and filters through a particular quality: ‘class’. Such qualities are found in few senior writers today, regardless of the many who have technical skills and print perfect eye to brush. Class among the top writers is something rather more to do with the marrow and spirit. The quiet mindful living and breathing of shapes and letters… and generosity of heart.
An apprentice must first learn to ignore distractions and at times the utter stupidity of the industry. Yes this industry is divided by jealousy and bitchin’. Have no part of it and make the New Generation of Signwriters better than mine please! If you get in a tussle grab a beer together and sort out misunderstandings. They are always minor and friendships are major.
In recent years then, there has been a refreshingly increasing interest in writing due mainly to young, talented graphic artists falling mindlessly in love with this venerable art… a breath of fresh air in my opinion, because many of the old guard had gone stale and kopped out using digital masking. What I love about the new kids is their inclusion of pure graphic fashion into this style based artform and sense of blissful paint!
The swinging seventies?
Whereas in the graphics world these guys have had to survive eggshells, mines and thin ice with sharp moves and a smart head, in the sign industry it’s more welter weight and open house. It’s safer to steer your own ship ironically. There’s plenty of scope for creating new genres of work, which is a completely new dynamic, because in the past we signwriters just painted the same old shite. Let’s be honest here, most mid century signwriters painted Gill, script, Standard Block and dodgy casual. For that reason until the seventies and eighties pub refits came along, it was dull… save for the Irish lads. But that’s another, genuinely, beautiful story.
So apart from a blip in Pub work, the demise of the mid eighties signpainter followed, and the rest is a story of City stickers.
Between 1986 and 2013 it was pretty barren.
Hipsters… thank god for Hipsters!
Then post 2008, came along the new sense of entrepreneurial retail with Ted Baker, All Saints, launching a hand painted front-end retail look. Young designer builders stripped off perspex shop fronts in Shoreditch and laid bare the treasures of the past. The hand painted name was re-born. Spitalfields opened the way for the new age of design-led retail. The game was back on!
By 2014 I saw a huge increase in work and influx of newbies from the graphic design world. A new form of design-based signage ensued. Photoshop and the brush found an unlikely alliance and made beautiful babies.
But thankfully things are especially different today to the grey era of the 70s… things ornate are loved and cherished… idolised. Optimism prevails. The young apprentice is ready to take on outlines and shades before he/she nails shape. They want to run, nay fly before they walk. As a hard core design fan how can I argue with that? How can I tether them to the real skill-sets that they will need to build and master? Easy… by teaching them in a new way.
You see a 5 year apprenticeship would cost £200k to run for a young artists today and so that model and argument is dead. Yet some old guard say it is the only way… (there is today the refreshing new belief that there never should again be the only way). The 5 year sweat-box, nerve busting apprenticeship was a way to control the young. A paternal domination that was a road destined to fail Britain and British design… the collapse of Britush design can be seen no clearer in the creation of the British Leyland Marina, Allegro, Acclaim and Princess… an ugly boxset of shit which sank our car industry at a time when we had the likes of The Beatles and Stones leading the world. Leyland collapsed and the likes of VW and Toyota rose… Lennon wrote Imagine and got shot.
You see we have to take courage… you cannot say the youngsters must wait for the treasures.
That philosophy should be made a crime.
10 Keypoints to succexit
Post Brexit, young artists must be set free to create a better signwriting industry than ever went before. And they can do it because they are shrugging off the bickering, tasteless sniping of the past and stepping into the light by design and common sense. Certainly they are making errors and certainly realising them quickly… but so did we… yet we continued those errors and failed to spawn trust and optimism. These youngsters are having a ball (when the weather allows). I back them.
So since I started apprenticing in 2013 and teaching vocational lettering in 2014, I have seen some key trip wires pop up and snare a few.
Here they are, the 10 key points of becoming a great signhead:
Low Pricing: If you make excuses about the need for experience hence a catastrophically low price, you have every chance of getting nothing out of the exercise – no worse you will harm your new vulnerable experience. You will also kill the market and have a year of straw (for all of us) until you learn to hold for the right price. Don’t do it.
High pricing, T&C and Deposits: This means you HAVE to deliver! And you get the rewards. You also protect the industry value tag. In your first year you will spend 40% of earnings on materials and kit. If you charge 375.00 per day you take home 250.00 after materials, travel tax… and considering you won’t have work everyday and yet you will have rent to pay, 375.00 is the absolute number in order to survive clearing 20-25k in yr first year. It’s sounds like a kings ransom but it aint. Always secure a 50% deposit up from and make clear balance on completion. Create a Terms and Conditions page on your site.
Adwords: A great way to pick up enquiries. 60% will be time wasters. 250.00 investment per month will reap 25k profit per annum.
Door to Door: Tough call because the client assumes you are on dire straits if you have to cold call and simply won’t go to the right place. However I have picked up some rad contacts this way.
Sub contract: Great way to get started but you have to be able to deliver nice quality otherwise you will be chopped out.
Website and Kit: buy the best and make a great website or blog.
In-Trade Contacts: Go where the vibe is open… speak, think, feel as you find.
Using Tape: Use it for all commercial projects if you want to stay alive like a pro. Most of those who say it’s not a true way of lettering end up using vinyl masks. Don’t listen to that shit… use yr loaf and stay on point and fine commercial.
Practice on the job: Never use a job as a practice session. It’s commercial work and if done well will teach you by default how to paint great signs.
Training: A course must be academic and vocational all in one. Do not rely on the showman type because as fun as it is your money is at stake. Don’t buy into hype. Look at the course set up. Ask around the students who have used the course. Choose one that has strong historical and typographic components or emphasis.
Final word. I feel people like Noel Weber, Dave Smith, Jack Hollands and Ash Willerton are certainly top of the game solely because they place special value on keeping it real. The future of sign painting relies on the new generation forming their own bonds, being bigger than the rest, always an open mind and staying patient to the gradual process of improvement.
As one of very few writers who enjoy the enormity of training the new and teaching it all, take it from me: all means all and afford to be optimistic for your brave new world.