Growth Mindset & Adventures in Sign Painting
I’m a big believer in the growth mindset. It’s the idea that our talents are not fixed traits, and can be developed over time through hard work, discipline, and experience. This was a welcomed reassurance since I was prepared to do whatever it took to improve my lettering. But at the time I discovered my love for lettering (circa 2013), there were very few resources on how to draw letterforms. I set out to piece together information from its different professions and my research led me to travel near and far to learn a trade that has since gotten a renewed appreciation - Sign Painting.
The first stop was right in my own backyard in San Francisco at New Bohemia Signs, where I took their '“Introduction to Brush Lettering” workshop.
New Bohemia is one of the oldest running sign shop in San Francisco. If you’ve ever spent your afternoon at a local coffee shop, strolled the MoMa, shopped a local business, or dined at a restaurant in the city, chances are, the first thing you saw was one of their masterfully crafted signs. Damon Styer, pictured above, started off as an apprentice at the shop in 1999. He went on to take over the business and has been there ever since. I understood that feeling very well. An eclectic library of signs filled the walls. Years of paint and material layered the floor. The moment I stepped through the doors, I knew I was exactly where I was meant to be.
Class started off with going through the foundation, which consisted of learning the rhythm of prepping your paint brush. Getting the paletting down was key to getting your strokes to apply correctly. We then went on to basic strokes, and spent the whole first half of the day in repetition, practicing the technique, and building up muscle memory before we were permitted to draw letters. Those first 3 hours felt like torture, as we were all eager to start painting signs. We were the lucky ones however, as we learned that 3 hours is nothing compared to the time students pursuing a sign painting degree put in. We were informed that they would spend weeks painting nothing but these strokes. If there's any testament to the power of the growth mindset, it's here in the discipline of sign painting. When we finally began the first alphabet set, Gothic, I was grateful, if not yearned for the time to go back to those basic strokes.
Gothic letters are one of the hardest forms to paint. The perfect straight lines, curves and proportions seem like something only achievable by machine, and in this case, years of practice and patience. I did my best, but it was clear to me that simply painting a straight line was not as simple as it sounds.
We moved onto Casual letters next, and I was curious if Damon had purposely put us through the Gothic alphabet first as a stress test to make way for these more relaxed letters. Casual letters are much more forgiving than Gothic. There’s a slant and a slight flick to each stroke that allow for some playfulness, room for error, and personality. Needless to say, these became my favorite style to paint.
The next day, Damon showed us how to scale up our work and transfer it onto a surface. For my sign, I chose to create something with gothic letters, shadows, slanted layout, and a border - ambitious? Just a little. I practiced my sign over and over on tracing paper before taking the leap onto the final board. My gothic letters need some some love in practice, but that’s ok because this was only the beginning of my adventures in sign painting. Next stop - Arizona.
Mike Meyer is a prolific sign painter. His talent is well known in the industry, as is his quirky personality. Beginning in 2013, he started traveling the world teaching workshops. I first heard about Mike from a missed opportunity to take one of his classes while he was in San Francisco. Which led me to follow him out Tuscon, Arizona, where he was hosting his final North American tour for the year.
With no time to plan or find a place to stay, I immediately purchased a spot in his “Hand Lettering and Lettering Effects” workshop, and set out on an solo road trip to Arizona. The morning of, I hopped into the car with only a change of clothes, a pillow, a blanket, and a loaded up playlist from my favorite podcast, with the idea of sleeping in the backseat of my car.
The stories about Mike Meyer did not disappoint. Mike had an effortless way to his demeanor and strokes; clear evidence of the years of practice he’s put into the craft and life on the road. I appreciated this aloofness, as I had been a bit stuck in trying to achieve perfection with my letterforms.
Outlines, scripts, bevels, cast shadows, offset, lining and more. We learned about how to apply different techniques to dress up our letters. The class offered the perfect next steps to level up my lettering.
I appreciate the sense of camaraderie that a shared passion can bring. We were a group of strangers from different skill levels, professions, and age. Yet, by the last day, we were all painting, swapping numbers, drinking beers and making music like it was our family reunion. This is what it feels like to find your community. A sense of belonging and support with like-minded people no matter where you travel.
Words and Photos by Kim Van Vu.