A Gilded Type    

Archie Proudfoot on the process, pains and perils involved in the life of a sign painter


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How did you become a sign painter?
Creativity is at the heart of what I do, but it was a slow process finding out that it could become a way to make a living. At first I made t-shirts but I found this was more a marketing exercise than design itself. I never thought sign painting could be a job, but producing the t-shirts by hand got me over the initial fear of making and made me realise that I could do more ambitious things. It taught me that if you stick your neck out everything will be ok from there! 

Tell us about sign painting? 
The sign painting itself can be incredibly physical, you have to hold yourself in a tricky position and concentrate for long periods of time and you get really tight calves from being up the ladder so long! Also people kick the ladder all the time, and I’ve had to do work four metres up, they just don’t care! Getting a knock when you are that high up is pretty unnerving…

Where did you learn your sign painting skills?
The sign-painting techniques that I use were first learnt on a weeklong workshop from Joby Carter of Carter Steam Fairs. The Steam Fairs still have original Victorian rides with their original signs so it's such great inspiration. The course was amazing, but also very intimidating. It hammered home that it’s a real skill that requires a lot of practice. Once you break that muscle memory barrier though, it becomes more enjoyable and that’s when you begin to refine your practice. At first you feel really wobbly, but it’s a process of repetition. I don’t play a musical instrument, but I always describe the process as being like learning one. Once it becomes automatic you can really get into it. Other than that I am completely self-taught, through old books and YouTube videos.

Does the process change when painting on glass?
For my gilded and painted pieces on glass, the process consists of first sketching the pattern, which is drawn on the same pattern paper used in fashion design, and then traced onto a piece of glass with a chinagraph pencil. The areas to be gold are blocked out with the gold leaf. It’s 23ct gold – an expensive material that you have to use generously! A small capsule of warm gelatin is diluted in distilled water and applied to the reverse side of the glass. Rather than ‘grease from your cheek’ as gilders as sign painters in the past may have used, I prefer the more modern method of Vaseline on your arm. You brush the tips of the squirrel hair gilder’s brush against it and this helps the gold to stick to the brush, just enough to transfer it to the glass, where it adheres to the water and gelatin. It’s all about having as few impurities as possible for a good finish. Once the gold leaf has dried, you burnish it with cotton wool. The thrill of seeing this mirror-shine golden finish appear never gets old. After this, comes the process of cutting the gilding and the painting. You are painting on the reverse of the glass, so there’s no painting over what you’ve done if you aren’t happy with the colour. You have to be patient - the stages involved mean that every time you have to wait for a step to fully dry before continuing.

What drew you to gilding?
I fell for gilding because, as far as sign-painting goes, it is the highest form of the art. Back in the day, it was the biggest, most opulent way to display lettering before backlit signs came into play. I love the look and feel, taking the letters from being purely functional into something decorative and beautiful. 

How has your work developed?
I started to make my own welded frames after attending a two-day course at Blackhorse Workshop in Walthamstow and I'm exploring taking this skill further. It's about seeing where I can go really, it’s nice to have my hand in a totally finished piece from the beginning to the end, but it’s good to evolve at a slow pace and not rush it. I guess because I didn’t go to art school I didn’t have that period of pure experimentation and so I am developing my processes and skills on the job.

Do you think there’s resurgence in sign painting?
I think it might be because of the rise in indie stores and shops wanting to convey their individuality I see big brands trying to emulate the look too. Also people love to watch it happen. Whenever I am out painting a sign, someone always asks for my card. There’s a network of younger sign-painters who are quite open with each other in terms of advice and job referrals that creates a friendly community, albeit a small one – I’ll pass on a job to another guy if I don’t have the time to do it.


Interview Sian Tomlinson
Photographs Oliver Douglas