Painting Signs Once Was a Craft

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I designed and ordered a metal sign this week for Thrive360, the nonprofit at which I spend most days. It is for a building on our campus that will house our after-school program in the fall. Using Adobe InDesign, I created the sign using the same proportions of the sign being replaced. Then I emailed it for a quote and proof to a local sign company. The fellow there will use his computer to create decals to be placed upon a piece of aluminum. Likely, the sign can be completed in an hour or less.

My dad, if he were alive, would be shaking his head. He was a sign painter for 30 years, until a botched medical procedure left him unable to work or really fend for himself. He was only 59, two years younger than I am now. I think about that often.

Computers were just coming into use for making signs when my dad was forced to retire. He was openly contemptuous of their ability to create signs that could match the craftsmanship of an experienced sign painter like him. He wasn’t being a braggart; he just did not believe any computer could make each sign look unique in the way he could, with his steady hand and attention to the little touches, like the serif on a capital “F”.

My dad never anticipated the sophistication of modern design software, which allows one to modify every character in a word — from kerning to tracking the space between characters, to manipulating type in countless ways. That does not change the basic rules of design, the primary purpose being to effectively communicate a message. The same software in the wrong hands results in some dreadful pieces — garish, overloaded with gee-whiz features used just because they exist.

I recall when newspapers gained the ability — because of computers — to produce in color at far lower production costs than previous years. Some folks — including me for a short time — went wacko, slapping color on everything. A green tint on this boxed story, headlines in bright cyan, shadow boxes outlined in magenta — all of which simply made a newspaper harder to read, not easier. Some newspapers still favor this approach. I suspect they are not terribly successful.

It was a pleasure to watch my dad hand-letter a sign. His favorite was freestyle, such as on a glass door, or creating placards for limited use, such as a store sale. His stroke was sure but quick, his style readily discernible once you knew it. He lightly outlined the sign in pencil than, holding the wrist of his right hand with his left, painted quickly and beautifully. My dad also painted billboards — one for Weller’s Whiskey stood on Estes Parkway near the now-gone Cherokee Drive-in for years — and designed the neon for the former Cargill Theatre, and the menu and assorted signs at The Butcher Shop in Longview. Those signs still are being used, best to my knowledge, though the prices have changed, of course.

During high school, I coated many signs for him in the converted carport that served as his studio. He taught me how to paint — not art, but plywood and houses as well — and how to properly (and always) clean brushes. My dad worked at Eastman when we first moved here painting signs for a company that contracted with the plant, and did sign work and screen printing for others on the side. He designed and produced the first “Lucky Me, I Live in Longview” bumper sticker, which I occasionally still see on vehicles. I think it is a later version, however.

When my dad went to work for Globe Signs, he quit doing side work for the most part. That freed up more time for his fine art in a variety of mediums — pen and ink, charcoal, pencil, oils and pastels. He used to talk about someday being able to give up sign work — although he always enjoyed it — and making a living as an artist.

Sadly, that day never came.

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  • Mitzi West Easley


    Our dads were giants in their respective fields, weren't they? While cleaningg out Mama's house I found a picture your dad drew of John Wayne. So detailed. I have it, and would send it to you. If you would like to contact me with an address, I would be happy to get it to you. Great story about your dad.

    • admin


      Thanks, Mitzi. The John Wayne pic is a print, and I have a few hundred of them. It's very kind of you to offer to send it to me, but I have plenty. Please keep it, or give it to someone who will appreciate it. Regards, Gary B.

  • W. Floyd Elliott


    I think 30 decades is a little too much. If my "old school math" still works, that equates to something like 300 years. Still love your columns - over decades. Floyd

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