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A Sign Of The Times

A Sign of the Times

The best part of our job here at Nine Mag is being able to meet so many talented people from tattooists and piercers to machine builders. But in this issue we took a break from the world of tattooing to discover the equally skilled art of signwriting.

Article – Pippa Blenkinsop
Photography – Rich Luxton

Having been in decline for many years, this fascinating craft is currently experiencing a mini revival as well as becoming increasingly popular with tattoo studios. So Nine Mag went to visit traditional Signwriter Wayne Osborne – painter of Black Garden and Ink Slingers studios – to find out just what it’s all about and to watch him put the finishing touches to our own banner.

After a long journey we find his studio tucked away down a backstreet in the sleepy town of Midhurst, West Sussex. Although small, it is here – accompanied by Jack Russell Sam – that he paints everything from basic house names and parish boards to fancy double-sided swinging pub signs and elaborate vintage-style funfair banners. Indeed, as we arrive he’s just about to start work on a school honours board. “With honours boards, you’re often having to continue the work of others. I had one once where the hand of the guy who worked on it prior to me had become a bit wobbly in old age – but you can’t just take over – you have to purposely make yours wobbly and then gradually build it back to being straight again” laughs Wayne. Conservation and heritage work like this is common for Wayne being the master of a historic craft, but he also does a lot of in-situ work to his own design including shop fascias, painted or gold leaf gilt window signs and vehicle signage. Working on these kinds of projects means Wayne is experienced in signing on wide variety of surfaces from glass to troublesome brick. Once more, although we automatically associate signwriting with lettering Wayne is also accomplished in pictorial artwork.


Having now been in the industry nearly 20 years, Wayne explains how signwriting is a job he’d always wanted to do ever since he was a teenager. “I started before I left school with lettering and things – I got in with a local guy. I pestered the nuts off him forever and eventually managed to wriggle my way in and worked for him for a little while. I used to help him out weekends – sweep the floor, make the tea…” he says. Yet Wayne admits his interest in typography goes back even further, to when he was a boy. “Looking back now I can see where my influences have been” he says, “as a kid I was always interested in packaging and used to cut the letters out of the cornflakes packet and keep them.”

Like tattooists, most signwriters learn their trade by doing an apprenticeship but, having already gained some experience and having done a lot of self-teaching, when Wayne left school in 1991 he was able to look for paid jobs straight away. Unfortunately, this proved very difficult, as for an aspiring signwriter this couldn’t have been a worse time – not only was Britain in a recession but the introduction of CAD had sent the industry into rapid decline. It’s easy to forget that at one time all signs required handwriting including simple things which we now take for granted like directional signs. However with the introduction of computers, it soon became far quicker and cheaper for the more menial signs to be printed onto flexiboard or to have generic digital lettering laser cut on vinyl.

Despite being smothered by technology the trade has never been fully extinguished and there still remains a market for hand sign writing today – albeit far more niche. Indeed, what once was a necessity has now become more of an aesthetic desire, allowing only a few of the most skilled in the more elaborate typographical styles to survive. Luckily Wayne was one of these – he got a job, mastered the art and then went self-employed in 1994, but he explains how having to compete with technology filtered out poor quality tradesman and changed the nature of the business. “There used to be good stuff and bad stuff – now there is no real place for bad painted stuff – it has to be good. I don’t do a lot of ‘keep off the grass’ signs much anymore because it’s so much easier and cheaper done on plastic. Instead, people are coming to me because they want a painterly thing – they want elaborate typography with colours and shadows etc.” he says.

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Consequently, most of the work Wayne does now is custom and involves a whole design process. And, whilst he likes the creativity, he admits he doesn’t enjoy being faced with a blank canvas and prefers to have at least some direction in order to avoid disappointing the client! “Tattoo guys are great because they know what they like the look of and they’ll feed lots of stuff at you – as they are artists they already have half an idea of how they want it to look.”

First he’ll sketch out a rough design. Next, once the client is happy, the surface is prepared and painted – “there’s no such thing as a bad background colour as long as you team it with ones that are complimentary” he says. When dry the base is then mounted onto a vertical easel and the design is transferred. Contrary to popular belief, signwriting isn’t just a case of painting by numbers and filling in computer generated shapes – instead, all the typography is sketched out freehand to Wayne’s own design then brush drawn. “All my fonts follow a form of lettering” says Wayne, “but once you know those rules you can break them and make your own letters” he adds. Occasionally Wayne will trace over a projection but only as a time saver to enlarge one of his own designs or to replicate a client logo.

As well as being aesthetically pleasing it is also important to remember that signs have to fulfill a function – usually to inform and advertise. One of the many skills of a signwriter is their ability to understand the unique character of different typographical styles as well as knowing the right contexts in which to use them. Interestingly today Wayne sees a lot of these conventions being broken – “it used to be just the professional trades that had gold leaf – Solicitors, Dentists and Doctors etc – now people are starting to mix it up and it is used for lots of different things” he explains. Similarly when it comes to composition he knows that less is more and tries not exceed three different fonts in one sign to ensure harmony and clarity.

Once the design has been loosely mapped out onto the surface and measured to ensure consistent height Wayne is ready to start writing. To do this requires the use of traditional signwriting tools – sable brushes (made from weasel hair), palette and mahl stick (wooden stick covered with cloth at one end). Holding the palette in his left hand and the brush in his right Wayne then creates each letter from a series of rapid directional brush strokes. To maintain a steady hand and avoid smudging Wayne also holds a mahl stick in his left hand – with the fabric covered end pressing against the sign Wayne rests his wrist on the stick for support whilst painting.


But it’s not always that simple. Often, as can be seen in our sign, Wayne will use a style of lettering he calls a ‘split block shade’ – three-dimensional letters with shadows originally developed as a way to give the appearance of a more expensive sign on a flat surface. This is much more complex to construct than simple two-dimensional, sans-serif block lettering and consists of several stages each requiring different brushes and colours. First the flat surface of the text is painted, followed by the sides, then the shadows or highlights are picked out last. It’s a time-consuming process but once the painting is finished that’s it – due to the durable enamel paints that signwriters use lacquering or varnishing is not necessary, meaning all that’s left to do is hang the sign!

Having seen our sign completed it is easy to appreciate why this craft is experiencing a revival. With its visible brushstrokes and occasional imperfections hand painted signs have a unique character and charm unachievable with computer aided design. It’s also clear to see why they are increasingly popular with independent businesses, for whom standing out from the crowd has never been more important. Not only do hand painted signs give an impression of quality and longevity, but being free from the restrictions of computer software means they are all completely individual and bespoke. For anybody wanting to have a go at signwriting there are good books available but in Wayne’s opinion there really is no substitute for having professional guidance. So, passionate about his craft and eager to pass it on Wayne, as well as many other signwriters, has started to run classes to give people a basic introduction.