As the old saying goes, a business with no sign is a sign of no business, but before graphic design and vinyl letters became commonplace, the only way to put your name over the door of your business was with a hand painted sign. Sadly, as modern techniques crept in the works of traditional sign painters became faded, chipped and distressed; or relegated to ‘vintage’ status, selling from pile at a flea market.
Lately, though, the art of crafting hand-painted signs has seen a resurgence on the fronts and walls of new restaurants, cafés, bars and other businesses, who are increasingly turning to local artists to convey that what they offer is not mass-produced, or mainstream.
We spoke to sign painter Vanessa Power, from Signs of Power, about being part of a new generation of traditional sign painters, and how she is helping to revive the art form, one sign at a time.
How did you get involved in the world of sign painting?
I always has an interest in type and did a lot of hand lettering, drawing out letters, words and phrases in my spare time. I was working in web design and wanted to change career so I asked myself what area of design would be more type related? And thought signage. Then from researching jobs in that I came across sign painting and had that eureka moment of ‘that’s what I want to do!’ – and I haven’t looked back since.
What was your first job as a sign painter?
My first job was a sign for a flea market. And it was big enough for my first sign at 6’x4′. So big in fact it took up my tiny studio flat at the time so I had to paint it on my bed which was funny. I can remember feeling really nervous dropping it off hoping he’d be happy with it. I can still get that a bit today, just hoping they’ll be happy with the work.
What restaurants, bar and cafés have you worked with?
I’ve been lucky to paint a few nice cafés and restaurants recently. Among the great places are:
– Two Boys Brew, Phibsborough
– Proper Order Coffee, Smithfield
– Baxter & Green Café, Ilac Centre
– Meet Me in the Morning, Camden Street
– Fia café, Rathgar
– 1837 Bar & Brasserie, Arthur’s Bar, Cooperage café and Brewers Dining Hall, Guinness Storehouse
– Fishbone restaurant, Clontarf
– Sprout café, Mount street and Dawson street
– Scoop ice-cream parlour, Rathgar
– Offbeat Donut Co.,Pearse street
– Java Republic, Molesworth Street
I’ve yet to paint a pub fascia which I’d love to paint in the old sign painting style.
Have you seen a revived interested in traditional hand painted signs?
Most definitely. It’s great! People are really appreciating the hand painted aesthetic today. It’s so evident in how well my business is doing. So many cafés and restaurants want hand painted signage which is fantastic.
How does a having a hand painted shop front benefit a business?
I think a hand painted sign reflects really well on a business. I think it shows they take pride in their business, that they appreciate things that are crafted, that take time to complete. It says that they take care and put time and value into the products they’re selling.
Can you talk us through the steps involved in creating one of your signs?
Well my process depends on the job really. Sometimes I will draw it out and transfer it on to the board, or draw directly on to a board or wall. However, the majority of the time the artwork is supplied so I would use my plotter (sign making software). The plotter helps me transfer the artwork quickly on to the wall or fascia for painting in. I used to play around with projectors before but the plotter saves me a lot of time now.
How involved in the shop owner/client in the design process?
Well for most of the jobs I get the artwork is supplied. Business owners generally have their logo designed already. I have designed for clients too, and I really like that part. I got to design and paint recently a fascia for Dunnes Hardware on Wexford Street. He had an image of a vintage sign he liked so taking that as inspiration I worked up a design for him that fitted his shop dimensions. It was a really nice project to work on.
What sign painters inspire you and what else inspires your work?
Best Dressed Signs in Boston were the first sign painters work I saw that blew me away, and really made me want to get into it. His drawings, style and clean lines are incredible. Frank and Mimi in New Zealand, I love the large-scale pieces they do too. Mo Signs in Paris; Tristan Kerr in Australia; Van Zee Sign Co in New York; to name but a few.
Packaging also inspires me; vintage and even what’s out today. I’m always on the look out for nice colour combinations as well. I spotted a lovely colour combination on a tin doing my grocery shopping the other day, so I took a photo of it. I also get a lot of inspiration from books. Louise Fili has some fantastic books with a couple of favourites being on 3D type and old Parisian signs.
Were there many other Irish female sign painters before you started?
There’s an amazing female sign painter named Pat Hendrick, but she quit the scene a few years ago. Her work is still standing strong in the city and it’s incredible. I’ve yet to meet her. I did meet one other female sign painter and she doesn’t put her name on her business card as she feels being a woman deters her from getting work. I haven’t had any such experience. I’ve had nothing but encouragement and work coming in. I actually couldn’t have planned it to go any better.
With the Irish weather, sign painting must be challenging at times?
Yes! The weather is certainly my biggest challenge as a sign painter in Ireland. I must admit, some days I don’t mind getting rained off a job, it feels like a free class from school. And there’s always stuff to be doing in studio when that happens. The only time it’s a real nuisance is if I’m in the middle of painting. I’ll keep going if it’s drizzling, but if it starts to lash it starts effecting the paint so I have to stop. One job I was getting in and out of the car every half an hour as the rain started and stopped,. That’s how it goes with our psycho Irish weather.
What other challenges have you had to deal with?
Working at heights! I was afraid of heights starting off as a sign painter but now I’m fine up a ladder. The first time I was painting on scaffolding my family were so surprised to hear I got up it as they knew how scared of heights I was. But from just continually facing it the fear just disappeared. Once I start painting I forget how high I’m up anyway, so that definitely helps.
Versus web-based design, is there a lot less room for mistakes with hand painted signs?
Yeah, there’s no Control+Z in sign painting unfortunately. However, sign painting is just as easy to correct, a dab of white spirits on a rag and you can wipe the paint away very easily. If it’s already dry sure just paint over it! There’s a saying amongst sign painters… ‘It’s only a f*cking sign’. So there’s really no need to panic when anything does go wrong.
How do you advertise your business?
To be honest I don’t do any advertising. The good thing about sign painting is that every job you do is a free ad for your business, which was told to me by another sign painter when I first started. So that makes me put that extra bit of effort into every job I do. I’ve gotten a lot of work through social media, which has been great, and Dublin is small so a lot of it is word of mouth.
Is there competition amongst sign painters? Is there room for any new painters?
I don’t think It’s a competitive scene, and there’s definitely room for more sign painters. My friend Cormac Dillion (@mack_sign_painting) has quit his job to go sign painting full-time, which is great. I’ve also been asked to do a workshop, so hopefully more sign painters come out of that. I think the more people doing it the better. The more hand painted signs about the city the more people will see the work and think ‘hey, I want that for my business!’
Tell us about your ‘Love Letters to Dublin’ project?
My ‘Love Letters to Dublin’ project came about when I painted some small letters on plywood for the Show and Tell market in Smock Alley Theatre back in November last year. I gave away 2 to my friends on the day and got more of a kick out of giving them away then selling them so I thought it would be nice to give them to the people of Dublin by leaving them in random spots around the city.
It felt great leaving them somewhere in the hopes someone will pick them up. It was the best feeling when a guy tweeted me a picture of himself with an S he found on the bench in St Patrick’s Cathedral. His name began with S too, couldn’t get better than that! I’m not systematically going through the alphabet, there’s a couple of letters I’ve painted twice. It’s more if I see a type style I like that I think will work I’ll draw and paint it. I do love drawing and painting them though and I’m getting great feedback so I might just continue it!
Can you share the details of any new restaurant openings or upcoming projects you will be working on?
I’m actually not taking on any more work at the moment so no upcoming restaurants or café projects in the pipeline. I’m going into Facebook for ten weeks under their ‘Artist in Residence’ program. So I’ll be working on a couple of murals and whatever else they want sign painted whilst I’m in there, so I’m really looking forward to that. I hope to have some nice projects lined up for when I finish up there though.
Erica grew up with a baker and confectioner for a father, and a mother with an instinct and love for good food. It is little wonder then that, after a brief dalliance with law, she completed a Masters degree in Food Business at UCC. With a consuming passion for all things food, nutrition and wellness, working with TheTaste is a perfect fit for Erica; allowing her to learn and experience every aspect of the food world meeting its characters and influencers along the way.