Building a Solid Sign Painting Foundation by Bob Sauls
Bob Sauls is the owner and operator of Sauls Signs in Tallahassee, Florida and has been a traditional sign maker since 1980. Bob is also a devoted family man, a talented graphic artist and a regular contributor to SignCraft Magazine.
MAKING anything look easy is a sure indication of mastery, whether it be sports, magic tricks or playing a musical instrument. It is the end result of sufficient time being devoted to perfecting mind and hand-eye coordination.
When the uninitiated see an adept craftsman so aptly plying his trade, there is a logical disconnect. A great musician must have a really nice guitar or a sign painter must be using special “sign” brushes, these statements are often our first clue to just how lost we can be. If we are not careful our assessment of what is taking place will be limited to only what we see and a few simplistic notions that we are able to conjure up. The accomplished sign painter is not just handling the quill well as he makes consistent letterforms. He is silently building those characters based upon a very real ideal, esthetics that he has learned from study. Those 6-8 brush-strokes (the building blocks of sign painting) must be mastered but there is so much more to the trade. The silent ideals are what make or break us.
Crawl then walk, now run like the wind
I recall having the following conversation a number of times, mainly (but not exclusively) with young people. They are showing me their attempts at painting pictures, hoping for a few pointers from a professional.
What they are really asking is, how can they get their paint to behave in a certain way to end up with a better picture?
My answer, to be honest is, they cannot.
Their problem is that they are not addressing the underlying issue. When I ask, if they draw well, they will often confide that they do not.
The next question that comes to my mind is, if you know you do not draw well, how on earth will adding wet color with a brush make things better?
Let’s draw from that
I do hope that if you are interested in learning how to hand-letter that my words will encourage while perhaps highlight what I foresee as a bitter truth for some of you. A truth you will be better off coming to grips with from the outset.
If you do not draw you must learn.
Notice I did not say, if you cannot draw.
Do not get the wrong idea. I am not saying that you must be a perfect draftsman. In fact it is vital for you to be familiar with your starting skill level.
I really am not sure if I was typical. I had always thought that artists were cool but at age 14 * kapow * I knew it. I noticed the drawn line illustration used by Don Martin, the cartoonist of MAD Magazine fame. I was fascinated that his style enhanced his comic genius. I began drawing while mimicking his style. Of course this led to keeping a sketchbook (all through high school I carried one). Which finally leads us into my main point: we devote our time and efforts to that which we are passionate about. As you execute your sketches you will make hundreds of design decisions most of which will be at a subconscious level. Nevertheless you will be your own teacher as you bump up against trial and error.
Eventually, you will see improvement, which will spur you on! I recall a few specific drawings in my pad that an evolutionist could point to as proof of punctuated equilibrium. Something suddenly clicked and drafts were much better after that. I cannot express to you in mere words the excitement experienced as you improve, it is like a snowball rolling down hill.
How does all of this enthusiastic passion relate to sign painting?
Probably in a round about way, the things you teach yourself as you are drawing are the same tactile skills you will need as you begin to study letterforms.
You will learn this by drawing them.
As you draw pictures you should also develop an eye towards composition.
Drawing is the graphic equivalent of note taking.
I mentioned before that much of what you pick up would be at a subconscious level so the practice is more relevant than the subject matter itself. If you are crazy about typefaces by all means draw them now!
Here, I’ll say, study Speedball lettering books, you are not ready to make up outlandish letters before you have paid tribute to the real ones.
At 14 that discipline was the last thing I was interested in or ready for. For me it was funny faces, hobbits and wizards in mystical, crystal towers. I later found that beautiful thrill in developing as a graphic artist and sign painter but that is another story.
If it is not for the passion for the art why are you doing it? It is going to take some real effort. No pointing and clicking allowed.