Hand Painted Signs

I spent the morning watching a documentary on sign painters – talking through the history, art, and future of the industry that is almost invisible to us today. Now, a very small industry full of people with a common goal: painting beautiful signs.

They are a bunch of cooks. Some lovable, some not. All extremely talented.

The documentary got me thinking, so I took a drive around Milwaukee to try and find some of the painted signs I never stop to notice.


Sign painting is a rare art form these days. In the 70s and 80s, as computer and printing technology developed, vinyl signs became the standard – due to their extreme cheapness and ease to make. Of course, the old standard exists in the world of signs as well: of quality, budget and speed, you can only choose two. The world of signs today is often dominated by budget and speed. With crummy and dirty vinyl signs hanging in every town in America.

Image via SpeedySigns.

Near the end of the documentary, an old sign painter mused that vinyl signs will turn into garbage 30 years from now, but hand painted signs will turn into artwork. The painted signs of the last century still plastered across our cities are precious. They are artworks. Memories of a different world. With different values and technology and practices.

Many of the sign painters interviewed lamented the insatiable desire for today’s cheap signage. They are part of a dying generation that values the honesty and stability of long, hard work. Of hand lettering and human imperfection.

I agree. And I think today, more people are starting to look back with fondness on the signs and practices of the last generation, discovering a richer and truer beauty in their work. I think, perhaps, sign painters and the unique beauty they create could once again step into the spotlight.

In hopes of paying homage to the past, I started creating a font from one of the beautiful signs I saw on my search.

The Art of the Find

On a rare scroll through Twitter the other night, I stumbled across a blog I’d never seen before. Created by a designer and web developed named Reagan Ray.

Reagan is a curator. He collects things he loves, category by category, and shares them with the world. From famous Texans, to comic book super hero lettering, to his top 22 sci-fi films.

His most recent post takes you through the title lettering of all the Oscar Best Picture winners. From the 1927 Wings to Parasite. It’s a beautiful scroll. Having it all collected in one, clean place, allows you to look and make new connections and think in new ways about the work.

A section from Reagan Ray’s ‘Best Picture Lettering.’

Curation itself can be an art form – the act of actively looking for things you love, things that inspire you, and collecting those things from the corners of the world. That’s a gift for others to find. A place for others to find appreciation.

In a Wired interview, musician, Brian Eno, said:

“An artist is now a curator. An artist is now much more seen as a connector of things, a person who scans the enormous field of possible places for artistic attention, and says, What I am going to do is draw your attention to this sequence of things.

(Here’s the full quote for free)

Scrolling through my Pinterest boards, I see the collections of things that have inspired me visually. Flipping through my notebook, I see the quotes I’ve curated and documented in pen.

Looking through my movies-watched list, I can see patterns. Scrolling through my saved Instagram posts, I see phases of art as I scroll through months and years of saved artworks. Cartoons, then comic book illustrations, then lino-cut prints, then ultra minimalistic posters. Then architecture photographs, fashion illustration and logo designs. We are all curators in a sense.

Looking through your curated collections from seasons passed can show you what you cared about. What you liked best. What was making an impression.

What we curate doesn’t only help guide what we make or what we share, it also tells us about ourselves. It can invigorate us, or show us our own growth.

Curating doesn’t just document the world around us, it documents us.

Beautifying Scraps

Image via SixtySix

This is Nicole McLaughlin, 27 year old designer based in New York. She specializes in upcycling and sustainability in her bizarre and fantastical apparel.

Image via Nicolemclaughlin.net

This video dives into Nicole’s thoughts on sustainability in design and fashion, and her making-process (you can skip the in-video ad from 0:45-1:27).

I happened upon Nicole’s work within the last couple weeks, on one of my brief and shallow dips into Twitter, and was immediately captured by the playfulness and originality of her designs. Not only is she making things that are so clearly sustainably repurposed goods, she is doing it in a way that highlights the past lives of each item. Like a woodworker highlighting live edge of a maple slab, Nicole is beautifying the scraps of material. She is creating a sense of fashion in a place few people have ever looked before.

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After gaining traction online with items like volleyball slippers and bread mittens, Nicole has become a voice in the fashion world for sustainable and eco-friendly design.

Her creativity and willingness to play with her work is inspiring.

You can read a more in depth look at her life and work here.

Goya and Van Gogh

Two famous painters from history – Francisco Goya and Vincent van Gogh – were born on this day, 275 years and 168 years ago respectively. I do not have anything very insightful to say, I just scanned through each of their works again this evening, and pulled several ‘comparable’ pieces (only in rough terms of color and subject matter) to put on display here.

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First we’ll start with self portraits, hard at their work. (These remind me of one of my favorite paintings)

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Churches with blue skies.

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Women in blue.

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And finally, secluded gathers behind tall trees.

It’s quite beautiful to see how unique these two worlds are. And, despite how different the subject and scene of each painting is, how clearly every work fits in to the over arching world of the painter.

Both Goya and Van Gogh really found their thing. I wonder, when I’m old and gray and looking back at my life’s work, what my thing will be.

Here’s a bonus video about a piece of Goya’s work by one of my favorite YouTube channels.

Quantity Masks Crudity

Even crude work becomes impressive in high enough quantity. Like Jason Polan’s Every Person in New York.

Pretty much anything becomes impressive or beautiful to us humans in high enough quantity. LEGO clone troopers. Layers of paint. Words repeated a 100,000 times in a row.

Sometimes, if you find yourself struggling to create a singular masterpiece – create 50 or 100 or 1,000 small, crude pieces. And the mass collective can become the singular masterpiece.

If you’re struggling to write the book, just get one sentence down today. In her book on writing and life, Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott describes her own writing process. She sits at her desk, wondering what on God’s green earth to write, maybe hyperventilating a little, until she finally notices the 1-inch picture frame beside her monitor.

It reminds me that all I have todo is to write down as much as I can see through a one-inch picture frame. This is all I have to bite off for the time being. All I am going to do right now, for example, is write that one paragraph that sets the story in my hometown, in the late fifties, when the trains were still running.”

The title of that chapter is “Short Assignments.”

Lots of short assignments lead to big payoffs. Often times, quality only comes with quantity. With practice. With repetition. Or simply, with enough of the bad that it simply morphs into a giant, singular good. David Bayles and Ted Orland display this idea beautifully in their book, Art & Fear:

[A] ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality. His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pound of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot — albeit a perfect one — to get an “A”. Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work – and learning from their mistakes — the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.”

Quantity leads to quality.

This project – drawing 100 of something – taught me this lesson in my second year of art school. In my case, it was finding spaceships within splotches of watercolor.

Today, I started a new quantity-over-quality project, with these 2×3 inch paintings of shapes. It was fun to paint with real brushes again, rather than my stylus and computer. And though these are not special in any way individually, I’m hoping once I fill a wall with 30 or 40 of them, the quantity will mask the crudity.

Sharing Paint

I was toddling around the living room tonight, having closed my laptop for the sake of my eyes not melting out of their sockets, when I heard a cheer from the open window. My street is full of bars and restaurants, and as spring has started to emerge, the weekends have gotten louder and louder. I glanced out of the window and caught a glimpse of a TV on in an upper room across the street, and what looked like a basketball playing. I wonder if the Bucks are playing right now… I flipped on the television, and found myself dropped into the middle of a 90s crime drama. I started changing the channels, looking for tall dudes in green, when I landed instead on an old grainy image of a man painting against a black backdrop.

Of course, I know Bob Ross. But I realized in that moment that I’d never actually sat and watched Bob Ross paint before. I’d seen images and short clips forever, but I’d never sat with him. So, having very little inclination to do anything else, I leaned back and watched. And listened.

And felt that this was exactly what he was meant to do. He seems to really love painting – and to love to share painting. And if he doesn’t, what does it matter? It made me want to paint. And certainly it made countless others want to paint as well.

The artwork of Jason Polan

Today, this blog post from Austin Kleon introduced me to a charming new artist – Jason Polan.

Jason died on January 27, 2020.

I’d like to continue learning more about Jason, “one of the quirkiest and most prolific denizens of the New York art scene.” But from the little I know about him now, it seems like Jason is someone I’d like to be like. Ambitious, hard working, consistent.

On multiple occasions, Jason sketches every piece of artwork in the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA).



In this video, Jason said “I think there’s a quality in quantity.” I agree with him whole-heartedly.

After reading and watching a little bit about Jason, and seeing his artwork, I was inspired to go back to a past project of mine, a comic strip called Stephanie and Carl. I drew Stephanie and Carl today for the first time in many months, and hope to keep drawing them.

A work day at home

I spent the day working at my small round, white kitchen table, then the evening working on my couch. Different projects here and there – but the evening was dedicated entirely to posters and personal work (though I had not planned to work on personal poster projects for 5+ hours today).

I made another animation today! It was really fun to play around with the “squeeze” and “stretch” effect on the bun during its bounce – a key foundational aspect of 2D animation.

This week’s design challenge is a poster that incorporates an element made in a 3D software… I don’t like 3D software. I’m trying to figure out a way to blend an element of 3D with my normal 2D style, like seen in this sketch. The concept is a mailman in the 2D world very confused at this 3D package.

Thoughts?