Profile: Gibbs Connors
A couple months ago I had the opportunity to meet Gibbs Connors at Roderick Treece’s gilding workshop. I had seen footage of him painting
and was amazed at the speed at which he could execute letterforms. Not knowing or meeting many sign painters, I was surprised at how friendly
he was and his enthusiasm for sign painting and gold leaf was a breath of fresh air. Gibbs set aside a few minutes of his busy schedule to answer
a few questions and provides some really good insight on getting work and starting your sign business.
How long have you been painting signs?
I started painting signs in 1986. I had gone to art school and was back in my home town doing construction, mixing mortar by hand, running a jack hammer and doing a lot of shoveling. We were finishing up a project and I saw this old guy (who was about the same age as I am now) lettering the storefront glass. I stood there and watched him. Eventually I asked him if I could talk to him for a minute. I knew he was working so I didn’t want to be a bother. He gave me his card and told me to stop by his shop. I went by, brought this big portfolio full of prints, drawings, paintings and so on. After looking through the portfolio he said, “I don’t know anything about art but if you can draw like that, you can paint signs, frankly I think you’d be selling yourself short but you could do it”. I can still clearly recall all that he told me that day and it all rings true: “You won’t get rich but you’ll always have work. Do good work, be fair with people and they will keep coming back. Sign painting is the easiest work to find, just walk down the street, fInd a business that’s opening, or someone who you think needs a new sign, or a better sign.” My favorite, “Sign painting is the world’s oldest profession.”
Who were your inspirations/mentors in learning the craft?
John Daly from Troy, NY. he was the “Old guy” I spoke with that day. In my town, there were 4 sign painters that I knew of. John Snyder who Daly apprenticed with, there was Roman Smith and Red Murphy. Since Daly apprenticed under Snyder, their work was very similar but I could tell their work apart. They used a similar typeface and that typeface was all over town. It made the town look the way it looked, it made the streetscape. Daly met Snyder the same way I met Daly. Snyder was working on a window when Daly, who was 10 years old at the time was walking home from school and saw him lettering a window. He watched Snyder the way I watched Daly. They had similar conversations. The big difference was I didn’t apprentice in the true sense. I’d talk to Daly, ask him questions, ask him to go look at a job I did and tell me what he thought. He was always encouraging. That there is the “tradition of sign painting”. We pass the craft on to the next generation the way family traditions are passed down. After not seeing Daly for over 25 years and not even knowing if he was still alive, I was able to track him down. I met up with him for one main reason: to thank him for taking the time to talk to me about sign painting that day when I was 24 years old and had little to no direction in life.
How do you approach potential clients about investing in a hand painted sign?
Oh, tough one! I don’t often go looking for work but when a client calls me I tell them a bit of what I do. Many don’t even understand what a “hand painted sign” is. They envision the worst. For years the craft was under-appreciated, in fact often dismissed. Hand painted work was overly scrutinized and held up to whatever DPI the latest printers could make. It’s different now and much more highly respected, particularly the gold work. Still, there is a gap between the clients and the sign painters. Architects and designers can close that gap.
What is the best way that you have found to get your name out there to get exposure and to get more work?
I think everyone should have a website. I think of it as an online portfolio. If you don’t have a website these days, you don’t exist. Clients are wary and need images to see to build confidence in the business relationship. I find that makes the sale before they even contact me. If I am speaking with someone for the first time and they have concerns, I ask them to look at my website. The main thing that they want to know is that you will show up and the work will be done when it’s promised. John Daly told me that “sign painters are the last tradesmen to get called into the job and the last to get paid”. With that in mind you need to have good communication skills, a cheery can-do attitude and be ready to hit the ground running. Then there is social media. I use instagram. That is a great device to share images, look for inspiration and most importantly make contact with others in the trade. It’s never been at this level where we all know who each other are, what everyone is doing and can show our support for others and the love that we have for what we do. It’s truly a tour de force in the trade.
I have seen video of you lettering with the sign laying flat as opposed to sitting on an easel. Do you have any preference?
It depends on the size. Working vertically is certainly better. It’s better for your back, you tend to get less drips of paint and certainly less dust. Why do I work flat sometimes? It’s easier to lay out patterns when the sign is flat, otherwise I’m simply full of bad habits.
You recently attended Roderick Treece’s gilding workshop. How was that experience and what was the most important thing you learned during that time?
It was incredible. I walked into roderick’s shop and looked around in awe at all of his glass signs that he’s made. Aside from guessing at what carat of gold was used, I didn’t know much more. I have done plenty of water gilding, but I am largely self taught. By the time I left I had a pretty good understanding of what had mystified me. Sean Starr said of Roderick, “He’s a walking encyclopedia of leafing and glass signs”. He certainly is. His knowledge is always at the tip of his tongue and he can articulate the most complex processes in a way that is comprehendible. His workshop for me was the next logical step. It unleashed this monster in me that can’t wait until my next gold leaf job. In the meantime I am back to trying techniques on 6×6″ pieces of glass, back to making samples to show future clients. This is the way I taught myself to letter, gild, and decipher techniques: By making a sample box. The most important thing I learned? Aim high, take risks, have some vision, think ahead.
Sign painting and lettering books are essential for good reference. Do you keep a digital reference on computer or 3 ring binders as well?
I have thousands of pictures that I have taken of old signs on my computers from my travels. I’m obsessed with old sign painting books. Henderson, Atkinson, Strong ,Leblanc, Matthews. I tell clients that, “I am intentionally behind the times”. While most of the design world can’t wait for the next version of the software for their computer design program, I am always looking for old sign painting books and images of old signs. Everywhere I go I am looking at old signs, porcelain enamel and neon, “ghost signs” even work by unskilled itinerants.
For those that are just starting their sign business, do you have any sound business advice or practice you would recommend?
Many of us “fell backwards” into sign painting. Like Daly told me, I’d be under employed. The problem with sign painting is that if you are any good at it, you can’t get out of it. It’s too much fun, there is too much to learn and the combinations of techniques that make of the craft are endless. With that in mind: don’t take work that you don’t want and in particular, don’t take work you don’t want because you need the money. It’s a recipe for disaster. Keep overhead low and build an inventory of materials left over from jobs. A fancy shop is nice but you really need to be committed, have the client base to support it and be ready to hustle to keep it going. That can get stressful. Don’t be pushed around by clients. When giving a quote, always give a higher price first than your bottom line, people like to negotiate. If you give them your bottom line up front, you’ll get hurt. Work COD whenever you can. If they don’t trust you, don’t trust them. Don’t be afraid to say no and always be ready to walk away from a potential project during negotiations. That is where you hold the most power in the transaction. When you have plenty of work, raise your prices. If you’re hungry for work, don’t show it. Ideally if you can work with companies that you believe in and they believe in you, that is the best kind of relationship. It may be an ideal that we only rarely see.
Any advice for those wishing to learn the craft?
If you can find someone to work with, do it, be prompt, treat it like it’s your job, even if the position is unpaid. Stay in touch even when it’s over. End it on good terms even if it didn’t work out. If you want to last in the trade, just stick with it. Any day of the week it can feel like it’s all over but for the tears. The next job and the best job is right over the horizon. Take pictures of everything you do.
As for learning, if you can watch someone work, do it. Certainly practicing. Set goals, have ideals. I’m always learning new stuff. I don’t think i’ll ever stop learning. sometimes I relearn. I find myself doing a bad habit, then I remember the better way. Ask questions. Learn to mix colors. One shot mixes differently than fine art oil paint. It took me a long time to realize that you can’t make a color lighter by adding white or make it darker by adding black. It just won’t work. Certain colors neutralize other colors.
A link to your website? www.gibbsconnors.com @gibbsconnors on instagram