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Sign Painting as Art or Commerce?

John Downer weighs in on the role of the trade

Before the advent of cheap vinyl lettering and the sign departments at FedEx Office, there were professional sign painters. Show cards, banners, window gilding, and giant advertisements on the sides of buildings were painted by craftspeople with an innate understanding of letters and letterforms. John Downer was, and still is, one of those people with decades of experience and hard-earned skills.

To try your own hand at the craft, Typographics is running two workshops with Downer this month: Sign Painting from Monday–Thursday, June 13–16, and then Half-Full-Bevel-Mock from Monday–Tuesday, June 20–21.

Hand-painted ad for tomatoes

Hand-painted grocery sign by John Downer

If you have ever met John Downer, you would likely remember him. He is opinionated, strong willed, and eager to share his thoughts on anything lettering-related. With a direct and candid style of delivery and critique, he cannot be accused of lacking passion for his craft. John has been a professional sign painter and type designer for more than 30 years, starting with a sign painting apprenticeship in 1969 after 3 years of brush lettering education in public school. He became a journeyman sign painter in 1973 and received his first commission to design a commercial text typeface in 1983. You may not have seen his signs advertising potatoes or meat, but you might know typefaces that he has designed including Brothers, Roxy, and Iowan Old Style.

John Downer’s hands at work

John Downer’s hands at work

Hand-painted signage shows the artistic skill of lettering but Downer is adamant that his skills are not art and are exercised only in the service of commerce. He states, “It is a production process. We are simply tradespeople doing our job — we are not ‘artistes’. It is distinct from purely academic pursuits in that it only serves business and not society. We are simply trying to sell goods”.

Downer compares the contrasting views of sign painting as commerce versus art like so:

It’s the difference between a lowbrow display ad in a newspaper and a Titian painting — there is a big difference. As sign painters, we are basically scribes. We are not part of a contrived, fanciful, imaginary Post-modern art movement. Andy Warhol tried to span the gap and turn product illustration into art. But, to me, a soup can is a soup can.

Hand-painted ad for tuna

Another hand-painted grocery sign by Downer

This is not to say that Downer’s work is without artistic measure or skill. His ability to render letterforms from memory without reference is impressive and shows his years of experience. He strongly believes that, “sign painters who learned in the 1970s or before are a different breed than those who did not. Today, self-taught sign painters tend to commit a lot of rookie errors. They are now middle-aged and cannot go back and fix the bad habits they picked up in their early years. As wannabe teachers, they are even worse because they unwittingly preach poor technique. Some of these people are frauds … like witch doctors pretending they have earned their MDs”.

Along with being a type designer, Downer keeps busy with sign painting and teaching sign painting workshops. Additionally, he spends a few weeks of the year in the Pacific Northwest, occasionally painting window signs for weekly specials at his family’s grocery store in Ocean Park, Washington. The store is considered the oldest continuously-running retail business in the state of Washington, which helps reinforce his opinion about sign painting: “Art?! No! It’s just an ad!”

Hand-painted ad for John Downer’s “Half-Full-Bevel-Mock” workshop

There is still time to sign up for John Downer’s Sign Painting or Half-Full-Bevel-Mock workshops (or both)! But act soon as space is limited.

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