A still photo from the the film, Sign Painters, screening in Canberra on March 7. Click for more photos

Sign painting: a time-honoured tradition

A still photo from the the film, Sign Painters, screening in Canberra on March 7.

A renaissance is taking place in Canberra, led by a new wave of energetic small business people who are reclaiming craftsmanship and wearing time-honoured tradition as a badge of honour.

And there’s no better example of this in Canberra’s visual landscape, than in the re-emergence of traditional hand-painted signs. 

Almost stamped out with the emergence of new technologies and digital printing, hand-painted signs are making a comeback.

A sign by George Rose in Canberra's Smoque restaurant.

A sign by George Rose in Canberra's Smoque restaurant.

From Lonsdale Street Roasters in Braddon and Mocan and Green Grout in New Acton, to Lava Cafe in Weston – you can see them prominently around town.

It’s a trend that can be seen across Australia and even in the US, as documented by a new film to screen in Canberra this month called Sign Painters.

Many of these new signs in Canberra are the work of several talented local artists with a range of skills in design, typography and illustration, who are carving out a niche for themselves by studying the age-old art of signwriting.

Sign painter George Rose, originally from Canberra.

Sign painter George Rose, originally from Canberra. Photo: Alberto Zimmermann

Originally from Braidwood, sign painter Bohie Palecek has done work for many businesses in the capital, including a sign on glass for The Front and mural signage inside Lonsdale Street Roasters.

Now based in Adelaide, she has been working full  time as a sign painter since the end of 2011, and has  spent time in the US studying the craft with other established professionals.

“I found graphic design first, but I always had a real passion for the tangible and was hand-drawing a lot of my typography for assignments and stuff at school,” Palecek said.

Bohie Palecek working on a sign for a mural in Lonsdale Street Roasters.

Bohie Palecek working on a sign for a mural in Lonsdale Street Roasters. Photo: Stella-Rae Zelnik

“I studied at TAFE and very soon after graduating I completely understood that I needed to step away from computers, almost whole- heartedly. I very rarely work on computers now and I really try to do everything I can to get back to those original practices.”

Signwriting was once a ubiquitous trade in Australia with ‘‘old masters’’ in every town and city, versed in the craft and invested in training up new apprentices who could carry on the tradition.

But with the advent of printed vinyl signs and the raft of other sign-making technologies that came after them, hand-painted signs became an expensive option and the trade went into decline from about the 1980s onwards.
Palecek has done sign painting work up and down the east coast of Australia, and is always conscious of stepping on the toes of other sign painters when she arrives in a new town. But she said sadly, it’s rarely a problem.

“I’ve spent the past two years travelling the east coast of Australia and looking for those old masters and calling those little numbers at the bottom of the murals to see if I can find someone to learn from,” she said. “They’re long retired more often than not. It has been quite difficult.”

Palecek’s  mother was a sign painter for 10 years, but her interest in sign painting was really only cemented following a trip to the US, after she had quit her design job in Canberra.

“I travelled for about four months, sleeping on the floors of galleries or hanging out with different screen printing crews here and there,” she said.

“By the time I got down to Austin, Texas, about four months later, I’d emailed a signwriter [Joe Swec]. He just took me under his wing absolutely and mentored me.

“This guy was so fresh and energetic and surrounded by really  talented creatives, and he really inspired me to just take it up and really make it my own,” Palecek said.

But not everyone making a living out of signwriting these days has had traditional training.

Another young sign painter and designer from Canberra, George Rose, describes herself as a “self-taught” practitioner.

Like Palecek, Rose has a background in graphic design and gave up a full-time design job in Canberra to go out on her own.

With only some basic instruction from an acquaintance who once worked as a sign painter, Rose set out on her own  personal journey of learning the craft. It  involved a lot of research and many painstaking hours ofpractise.

And a long list of clients speaks to the quality of her work.

Splitting her time evenly between Melbourne and Canberra, Rose has done hand-painted signs for Lonsdale Street Roasters, Mocan and Green Grout, Lava Espresso in Weston Creek, the Molonglo Group and other Canberra businesses.

But how does she go about designing and painting a sign?
Rose said the process depends on the needs of the client.

“If it was someone wanting something from scratch, you go through the design process as well,” she said.

“There’s a back and forth between the client and designer about the idea that they want, the look and feel, what sort of type they want to use. Usually I use a customtype.”

After an initial discussion with the client Rose gets to work by sketching up a design, then getting onto the computer to make a design file. At times she’ll print off the sign quite large, and use the printed image to sketch up the design on a surface.

"Or you can actually just sketch it up from hand, by eye. It depends on how specific they need it to be.”

She said if the signage is on clear glass without UV coatings or other layers, she works on the inside of the glass, using an enamel-based paint.

Rose said generally the process involves one or two coats and a base coat. If the sign is on glass the base coat goes on last, but if it’s on a wall it goes on first.

“Then all the little intricacies come from using brushes ... what brushes you use, how you use them and how you load them with the paint. A lot of that is muscle memory. Once you practise  enough, you gauge how to do that or what you need to do.”

Both Palecek and Rose agree that while digital sign printing is here to stay, demand for hand-painted signs is picking up.

“It’s happening all over Australia and all over the world as well. We’re just seeing a big resurgence in craft. And it’s a really beautiful thing,” Palecek says.

She  believes hand-painted signs can help speak to a customer about the ideals and values of a business, reflecting a focus on quality and authenticity.

“I think a lot of business owners are starting to understand that now. It’s that subliminal kind of warmth and energy that comes from the hand-painted sign.

The decline then renaissance in sign writing has been documented in the US, by American filmmakers Sam Macon and Faythe Levine.

Their film, Sign Painters, is an anecdotal history of the craft and features stories of more than two dozen sign painters, working in cities throughout the US.

The filmmakers conducted more than 70  interviews for the project and had to whittle down 120 hours of footage into an 80 minute documentary.

“There are a lot of amazing characters, that’s for certain,” Levine says.

“Not a single person we interviewed was boring and no one wasn’t included in the film for lack of a story.”

Levine agrees sign painting is enjoying a renaissance and hand-painted signs can speak to a customer in a special way.

“We seem to be getting the same feedback from American sign painters – that there is a new market for their work with younger business owners realising they can work with a craftsperson to help make their business reflect on the outside what is on the inside.”

Sign Painters is currently having a run of screenings in capital cities across the Australia.

But it almost didn’t come to the ACT.

Good Design Club director and Canberrran, Juliette Dudley, was researching the history of sign painting recently, when she came across the film’s website – which had a list of screening dates for Australia.

Canberra was on the list, but the date and venue were listed as ‘‘to be confirmed’’. 

She was so keen to see the film for herself, Dudley contacted the distributors and offered to help arrange the local screening with the help of the University of Canberra, ID/Lab and the Sumo Visual Group.

Good Design Club is a new design community that aims to connect and inspire designers and illustrators in the ACT through a central website and via local events. The aim is to bring designers in Canberra together to share ideas, learn from each other and celebrate design for design’s sake.

The Canberra screening of the Sign Painters at the University of Canberra on March 7 coincides with the Good Design Club’s launch event.

And from all accounts, it’s a must-see for anyone with an interest in the history of art and design.

‘‘Sign painting reminds us of a time before technology. And when people look at hand painted signs, you can imagine the person actually painting the sign. It’s that connection to an organic medium,” Dudley said.

“Part of the appeal of this movie and people’s interest in sign painting generally is the connection with the past.”

■  Sign Painters screens at the University of Canberra in Room 1, Level A, Building 9, at 7pm on Friday, March 7. Tickets are $15 and can be purchased online at signpainterscanberra.eventbrite.com.au

■ The Good Design Club launch party will be held after the film screening at La De Da in Belconnen from 9pm. Entry is free and all are welcome.