Interview: Signwriter Ged Palmer
1. What made you decide to be a sign painter?
I’ve been messing about with letter forms in one way or another since I was kid. It started off as a weird obsession with cereal packets, comics, album covers, graffiti and all manner of signs around the place. Later I studied typography, but as I was set on drawing letters by hand I started up under my own name straight out of school trying to sell my lettering to people. I’ve been really lucky to work under letterers such as Tom Lane in Bristol and I’ve been over to the States a lot in the last five years meeting my lettering heroes who encouraged and inspired me to keep at it. In 2012 I went out to San Francisco to work with Derek McDonald at Golden West Signs and that’s when I began really focusing on the painting and gilding work.
2. Why do you think the more traditional practices like signwriting are making a comeback?
I think it’s part of a wider return to well made things, as they used to be done. If you look at the work that has gone into old furniture, clothes, buildings, packaging etc you can see they were really well considered and built to last. In design and signs particularly there has been a ‘more, quicker’ mentality for the last few decades and to keep up with the demand, the computer has been the go-to tool to bash it out and get it out there. Unfortunately a lot of the skill, draftsmanship and thought has been forgotten and this means our high streets are looking pretty bland and unimaginative. Luckily, however, more people are beginning to see the value of having something custom made by hand that will speak volumes about how they are and what they do. Old packaging, luggage tags, posters, signs or anything really, they were all so well made and considered.
In the 80s and 90s the computer became the go to tool for design & typography and vinyl plotters replaced the sign painter in most of the sign making world. It’s amazing that people are once again appreciating proper draftsmanship and hand lettering both in the design and sign world. The important difference is that working by hand means that you are designing something custom for your client, it’s not an off the shelf typeface, it’s something unique that you make for them. Our visual environment is so crowded with this stock design, often badly handled, so folks can really see the difference if they go the extra mile and get something bespoke made for them.
3. How do you keep your ideas fresh and interesting?
I try to look forward with one foot placed firmly in the past. I am serious old book junkie and there are so many incredible old books out there on calligraphy, lettering and sign painting. Every time I see an obnoxious billboard with badly spaced typography I prescribe myself some golden era design and breath a sigh of relief.
4. Which artists influence your work?
In the lettering world I am all about Herb Lublin, Tom Carnase, Donald Young, Tony DiSpigna, David Quay, in the sign world I am inspired by Alf Becker, H.C Martin, F Atkinson and contemporary painters such as David Smith, Best Dressed Signs, Gold West, Brilliant Signs and countless others. I also follow a lot of the ideas of William Morris which lead me to join the Art Workers Guild this year. I’m learning a lot from those folks about how craft can exist in our busy lives these days.
5. What is your favourite project to date?
This summer I was hired by Fullers to do a custom logotype, identity, gilded swing signs, four fascias and three large scale gilded windows for their pub The Sun & 13 Cantons in Soho. They really went the whole nine with the project and they were amazing in giving me pretty much free reign on the designs. I can’t ask for anything more that creating all of the design work, signs and gilding work for a project and the team down at the pub were really great to work with. I was also able to call in a few other painters to help out so it was win win really – I had help from Jack Hollands and Tobias Newbigin in doing the painting and they absolutely smashed it too.
6. Do you use the computer for any part of the process?
Less and less. Everything starts with a sketch and sometimes, say for a foil blocked book cover, I’ll need to create a vector version of the artwork. With my sign work though I often just blow up the sketch to the size I need and then make patterns and get painting.
7. What is your favourite brush and why?
My go to brush is the Handover 2112. I guess it’s just a workhorse of a brush, it has plenty of snap, forms a nice chisel and whips through single stroke lettering like a champ.
8. You’ve been buying brushes from Handover for a long time, what kept you coming back?
The A.S. Handover shop in Stoke Newington is an absolute wonderland for me. The guys who work there are awesome and I am always finding great new things that I suddenly ‘need’ even though they are nothing to do with what I went in for.
9. What would be your dream project?
I’d love to paint some more big stuff. If anyone has an old aeroplane or sail boat they need lettering then I will happily oblige.
10. Do you have any advice for anyone wanting to try their hand at signwriting?
Personally, my advice is always to get started with calligraphy if you want to learn lettering. Lettering, sign painting and typography all have their roots in writing. It’s a quick, space and time efficient way to learn how letterforms are constructed. Speedball do a range of good tools and books. It takes more than one lifetime to master but the most important thing is to practice and to have fun.