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InsightFeb 09, 2023

The unique art of sign painting: One man’s journey

Now 90, Angela Brown Carter grandfather was a traditional signage painter when digitization in design was not yet imagined. Angela shares his journey, design methods employed in that era and how it influenced her career trajectory.

Growing up, our house was never short on paper. We seemed to have reams of it. Crisp white paper, of all different widths, rolled up, bound by elastic and organized vertically, filled large boxes and bags. As a kid, it was a curiosity: why do we have all this?

My grandfather, Dave Curran, known as “Poppy,” was a traditional sign painter. All the paper scraps he couldn’t use (for banners or elsewhere) would end up at our house, ready for whatever creative project my brother or I could conjure.

While those scraps may not have rendered any masterpieces, Poppy’s influence certainly impacted my career trajectory. For a number of years I’ve worked for a signage consultancy. And though not intended as a direct comparison, it’s interesting for me to consider and reflect on the particulars of his hand-painted signs against the backdrop of the large-scale signage programs I’ve become familiar with.

Over the course of several interviews, Poppy, now age 90, provided me with a glimpse of his career in sign painting and beyond. From our discussion, it is clear that his willingness to learn, interest in materials, passion for the process or making of art and his connections with others kept him tethered to this art form throughout his life.

As Poppy describes it, in Northern Ireland in the 1940s, the focus and structure of education was largely technical. At Colraine Tech he took courses in woodworking, machine shop, radio assembly, oil painting, bookkeeping and physics, to name a few. Upon further study at Portrush Tech he learned to be proficient in sign painting. However, it was through the mentorship of other local painters that Poppy learned core techniques such as wood grains, drop shadows, outlines, gilding and gold leaf. In his off hours, Poppy would travel to any location he knew a mentor might be to gain instruction that was hands-on, in-depth and in real time. This range of hands-on training would prove relevant and useful throughout his life.

The Town of Newmarket Historical Plaques are a case in point. When the Historical Society of Newmarket was looking to identify century-old homes, they wanted the signs to be hand-done. As a known hand-letterer in the community, Poppy was asked to produce these signs.

With his earlier education in woodworking and skillfulness as a painter, Poppy describes his process for producing each custom sign: A large crezon sheet is cut to a specific size that maximizes the overall sheet size. Each piece is primed, then coated, before the content (lettering) is applied using One-Shot enamel.

The last of these signs was completed in 2014 and several hundred can be found throughout the downtown of the Town of Newmarket, identifiable by their design details: black and white lettering set against a gray shield most often displaying the original owner’s name and occupation, along with the date the house was built. In some instances, the Ontario Heritage Act required an additional layer of information, which was then applied to an accompanying sign. In each case, the design layout was roughed out with lines and strokes before any paint was applied. The process was labor-intensive, careful, exacting.

Other types of lettering have gone by the wayside or have been replaced with the use of vinyl. For example, in the 1970s, Poppy describes car dealerships, bus companies and even racing teams requiring hand lettering on their vehicles. This required less precision than on a sign, and was typically done using a One Shot poster paint that was more easily removed than the One Shot enamel. A more temporary kind of work, but requiring much skill nonetheless.

What is especially interesting in all the work, particularly the historical plaques, is this very hands-on approach. That is not to say that in modern signage applications this is not done. On the contrary, prototypes, material or printed samples are indispensable, often with multiple iterations prior to any kind of production. But there is something to be said for working with the materials in such a focused, one-on-one way. The intimacy and artistic value is unique to each hand painted sign, giving it a life and legacy all its own.

Although Poppy pursued other forms of work throughout his life, sign painting remained a mainstay. His passion is evident in the way he describes the process of creating a sign and associated elements, whether it be materials or mediums. In art, as in life, getting good (or at the very least getting better) takes time and energy, so the best advice is always ‘practice, practice, practice.


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