Artist Feature – Archie Proudfoot
I had been meaning to catch up with Archie for a little while now, his work combines immense technical ability with an eloquent understanding of design, the results are a stylised asththeic, rooted in tradition and craftmanship – and it is an absolute joy to look at.
I had a chat with Archie via email and you can read that below, be sure to follow Archie’s work over on his instagram and website!
-How did you first discover sign painting as a craft? Have you had any formal education around lettering or design?
It’s difficult to pinpoint the exact moment of discovery, but I think it came through finding the work of Steve Powers on the street art blogs and tumblrs that I used to follow in the pre instagram days. It was his murals series the “Love Letters to the City” that used some of the sign painting aesthetic where I first remember really falling for that typographic style. From there I found the blog of the Sign Painter’s film from back when it was still in production, and that introduced me to so many more amazing people keeping the craft alive. I then became enamoured with the dream of New Bohemia Signs and the like who were leading the beginnings of the revival in sing painting at the time.
I was 21 when I fell upon this chain of discoveries that led me to sign painting. Up until that point, despite having always been artistically minded, I don’t think I had ever heard the name of the trade, let alone have anyone suggest I might give it a go myself. Art was my favourite subject at school and after after A-levels I did a year long Fine Art Foundation course which worked on things like life drawing, still life and concept development, but never lettering or design. I then decided a Fine Art Degree wasn’t for me and spent three years away from any kind of tactile creative work studying English Literature.
It wasn’t until I found Joby Carter’s week long intro to sign painting course a few months after that initial discovery post graduating that I had any ‘formal training’. Joby is brilliant and rigorous, but ultimately its only a week. So since then its just been old books, time and tips passed on by other sign painters who I’ve met along the way.
-Any advice you would give to someone wanting to begin sign painting?
It’s such an obvious response, but practice. Just keep at it. Find ways to make it interesting for you and keep challenging yourself. Yes when you’re in the very early days you need to do lots of repetitive vertical lines etc, but don’t get too formulaic, mix it up. Make sure you’re developing your layout and design skills as much as your brushwork. Because ultimately its easier to get away with slightly dodgy brushwork than it is a poor layout or design.
Also, you probably don’t need as many reference or instructional books as you think, a couple of good ones will do. It’s easy to tell yourself they will help solve whatever block you’ve found yourself at in your development, but they wont, practice will. So just keep going. You’re not learning violin for a classical orchestra, you’re painting, so when the frustration gets the better of you just remember: its just paint and paper not life and death. Or in other words IOAFS!
-Is there anything you know now you wish you had known when you started sign painting?
It would have been nice to have had all the resources for learning that are out there now, but I still managed to find a way. The only thing I would change if I could go back is to spend more time working on keeping a lighter grip on the brush, I’ve been dogged by RSI and tendinitis issues in my elbow over the last couple of years because of my bad iron grip habit. In general remember that it is a physical task, do the work to make sure your posture is as good as it can be. And don’t just ignore pain and push through when you feel it, adapt what your doing to reduce it.
-What type of things inspire your work?
Pretty much everything around me inspires work, but London has always been a big source. I was lucky enough to grow up here immersed in all of those aesthetic styles and cultures that have come and gone over the course of its history have fed into me and my work. One of the main reasons I fell for craft was that a sign can act as kind of public artwork, a way of affecting the city environment for the better, making it softer and more human.
-What are your go-to materials?
Up until the last year or so I was working almost exclusively on glass with gold leaf when doing self initiated work. But actually it was starting to get a bit too high stakes, slow and constricted. So recently I’ve really enjoyed working on paper with the poster enamels, you get the same satisfying paint qualities in terms of opacity and flow but with a much more immediate outcome. Because of that I’ve been able to experiment more and develop faster. Right now I’m starting to work with glass and gold again and it feels a bit awkward picking it back up but exciting at the same time.
-You frequently create print runs of some of your pieces, is this a new venture? what made you decide to produce runs of prints?
It’s something I’ve done on the side for a long time but never really made a focus of. I’ve had an online shop for the last seven years but only in the last year did I decide to really push it to become my main source of income. Before then it was always neglected in favour of commissioned signage work and so it never really brought home more than beer money.
But when the pandemic hit I decided it was a good time to take an extended break from commissioned work to focus on building up my online shop. It’s been a really great experience, and luckily a very successful one. Over the last year people have become much more aware of the importance of their homes and how drastically artwork transforms these spaces. So its been really great to supply people with that transformative experience through these print editions. It’s strange to not be painting signs anymore, but I can’t say I miss dealing with clients…
-Do you consider how to print the work when first creating the art? or is that a secondary challenge after it is done?
It can be either. So for some editions I’m actually taking older artwork that was made on glass and using the photograph of that piece to then create the design for a print edition. This reproduces the original in a way but also deviates from it and becomes it’s own thing in the production process through colour selection and different finishing techniques.
Then there has also been artwork that is designed and painted from the start to be turned into a print. But ultimately that will go through the same process of change as it moves from photograph of original to final print edition. That’s part of what I love about the screen printing process vs getting a digital Giclée print made. The ability to shift and develop the structure of a design in act of making the edition means it stands apart from the original artwork. I also really want to try hand painting the transparencies for the screen printing process, so the process becomes fully analogue and see how that effects the final feel of the print.
-Followers on your Instagram will have seen the amount of work that goes into the printing process, with many colours being used and the screenprinting of gold size, was this always the type of print you wanted to make, or did these grow in complexity through discussions with your printers, Mansons Press?
I’d seen lots of other fine art editions use gold leaf before, but I thought that my experience using it in a sign painting context would help me push it further for a print. Fortunately in Alasdair (Manson’s Press) I had a screen printer who also has a proper understanding of sign painting, so it was a perfect match. We started with relatively straightforward applications of gold and then moved on to attempting directionally burnished prints that were twice gilded for the ‘RUN’ edition. Which is certainly not something I’ve seen done in other fine art prints.
Usually if you were directionally burnishing a surface gilded sign you would just be doing that one piece of signage, but we were attempting to replicate a technique that subtle to the same standard over an edition of thirty prints – it was a challenge! But it also made it much more interesting and fun for Alasdair to push the envelope technically rather than just do another three or four layer print that he’s done a thousand times. Ultimately the results were fantastic, and we learned a lot about what to do better next time.
-Following the success of your recent print runs, has this changed the direction you see your work going in?
What started out as a six month sabbatical from commissioned work has now turned into a year, and I can’t see myself going back anytime soon. Selling prints to people all around the world and being in complete control of my time and my focus has been a brilliant experience. Right now I just want to continue to build that platform for the long term and only say yes to the occasional ‘special’ commission in the future.
-How big of a part does social media play in getting your work seen?
Pretty big! Especially in the last year, its virtually exclusively how my work is seen. But hopefully I can get back to putting on physical shows again soon. Over the years I’ve done art fairs, trade shows and even hired a space for a solo show to get my work seen. So I’ve never been totally reliant on social media. And even over the last year I’ve tried to build up my mailing list so I can have a more direct line with people interested in my work.
It goes without saying that the social media companies aren’t looking out for your best interests, and in the last couple of years Instagram especially has been geared increasingly to getting you to pay to have your work seen. There’s nothing wrong with that, but if your thinking of paying to have your work seen then I would recommend investing that money in the chance for people to see it in the flesh. If you hire a market stand for a weekend it will be a much more enriching and interesting experience than paying to promote a post. Even if you lose money on that stall you’ll have learnt so much more than if you just stayed at the whim of the algorithmic gods (these false idols can never actually be appeased, avoid bending your work or your life to do so at all costs). Because being able to experience people’s actual reactions to your work is infinitely more valuable than a ‘like’ or a few emojis.
-So far what has been the project you are most proud of and what would be your dream project?
The project I’m most proud of is the ‘A1 in May Poster Challenge’ I set myself last year. I was in the doldrums creatively, struggling to find any rhythm in the early days of the first lockdown and grieving for my Dad who had died a few months earlier as well, this combo had me in a bind. I was planning on giving up my big fancy new studio space to keep costs down as the commercial world contracted, but I wanted to go down swinging and give something a proper go in that space first. So I decided to set myself this challenge of designing and painting an A1 size poster every day for three weeks, using only a limited palette of colours (the poster colours I already owned) and with only my bookshelf for inspiration/reference material – no internet.
It was an intense three weeks but by the end I felt creatively reborn. It was at that point that I decided to take an extended break from commissioned work to focus on my own artwork and trying to make my online shop pay the rent. I made that collection of fifteen posters into prints and they sold incredibly well, effectively setting me up for this new era in my work. Which also meant I could justify keeping my nice studio space. Now, after a year in there, it really feels like it’s mine.
I don’t have any obvious ‘dream project’ ideas, but I‘d like to hopefully get the chance to do more public artwork commissions in the future. That public aspect is what attracted me to sign painting in the first place, and I think it would be really interesting to blur that line between utility and artistry further and in perhaps more subtle ways than just a big old mural on a wall in Shoreditch.
-Do you have any big plans for the future?
Well, I’m about to become a Dad for a first time in June – so that’s certainly my biggest plan right now! I think the rest of this year will just be adapting to that new role in my life and finding out how I manage that responsibility alongside my work while making sure I have as much time as possible for the sleep deprived joys of early parenthood.
I don’t usually plan too far ahead, generally I’ll have two or three major things I want to get done each year. I once heard something that we over estimate what we can achieve in a year and underestimate what we can achieve in five years. Which I definitely think is true. After five years or so working full time as a sign painter, last year was the beginning of a new five year cycle for me. So over the next few years I just want to keep building away at this new period of what I’ve been calling in my own head ‘radical independence’, which is certainly too grandiose a term but effectively means surviving without relying on middle men. So no clients for one, but also no galleries or agents involved in selling my artwork. I really enjoy the total control of being the only place to buy my work. I do all the promotional work: product photography, video etc and then also package and ship every order with a personal touch. Which makes me feel like I’m making the most out of living in a time where e-commerce sites social media promotion makes that possible.
This new structure means that for the first time, despite several years of being self employed, I actually define when where and how I work – which is about as good as it gets. Maybe one day that will be functioning well enough to justify my own bricks and mortar high street gallery shop, which would be pretty special…
Huge thanks to Archie for taking the time to have a chat, you can visit his webshop for prints here, and incase you missed them earlier on, you can follow Archie’s work over on his instagram and website!