Traditional sign painting

You remember those hand painted signs from the good old days when quality was still non-negotiable and honest men made a living from the skill of their hands and the sweat of their brow? Well, before you get too nostalgic, here’s some good news: sign painting is alive and well thanks to a handful of diehards who refuse to let the traditional ways fade away.

One such man is Dan Madsen from Minneapolis, Minnesota who practices his craft under the moniker Dusty Signs. He is the third generation sign painter in his family. According to Xheight LA, it all started when Dan inherited his grandfather’s collection of drawings and photographs, and his great grandfather’s sign painting books. He went on to receive training in his home town as well as in California by influential sign painters such as, Derek McDonald and Tina Vines.

Take a look at this short video of Dan doing his thing:

If you can’t see the video, click here to view it on Vimeo.

Here are a few more examples from the portfolio of Dusty Signs:

Traditional Sign Painting by Dan Madsen

Traditional Sign Painting by Dan Madsen

Traditional Sign Painting by Dan Madsen

Traditional Sign Painting by Dan Madsen

Traditional Sign Painting by Dan Madsen

Traditional Sign Painting by Dan Madsen

Traditional Sign Painting by Dan Madsen

Traditional Sign Painting by Dan Madsen

Traditional Sign Painting by Dan Madsen

Traditional Sign Painting by Dan Madsen

Traditional Sign Painting by Dan Madsen

Traditional Sign Painting by Dan Madsen

See more on Flickr.

In related news, a documentary called The Sign Painter Movie is currently in production.

Directors Faythe Levine & Sam Macon are traveling around the United States to gather stories from the American Sign Painter. We are interviewing those who have and still continue to work in the industry and have shaped the way our urban landscape looks with their hand lettering and painting skills on walls, windows, cars, building, menus, etc. around us.

I look forward to seeing this film when it gets released, but I think focusing on the USA alone will offer a limited window on the subject. Although sign painting is somewhat of a novelty in advanced countries, it is still the standard in many developing parts of the world, so comparing approaches to this craft across vastly different economical environments could be even more fascinating! Maybe part two?

Author: Imar

Imar Krige is a professional graphic designer and typography enthusiast from Cape Town, South Africa.

14 thoughts on “Traditional sign painting”

  1. I am a traditional sign painter with almost 18 years experience. I have done almost all of the painted signs at Bass Pro Shops for the last 5 years. I also do vehicle lettering, gold leaf, window splashes, very large roof signs, water tower, etc. You can also see my work at artistswanted.org under derek eckels. I would love to assist with a movie about sign painters in any way. I love the trade and realize that this is a bygone craft that still has a niche in America and Canada.

  2. I’ve been hand lettering for 26 years now, and it’s good to see I’m not alone, even though it feels like it. I just wish the sign buying public would quit being so enamoured with all the digital stuff, would turn their back on it, and desire hand lettered signs and murals.

    1. I have noticed a definite shift towards the desire for hand-made stuff recently. I think you may be in luck!

  3. Hello
    I am from down under in Australia. I am one of a few Traditional signwriters left down here. i have been on the brush for about 25 years.Hope we get to see your movie.
    Thanks for Flair for Signs.

  4. I grew up in a graphic design household — both of my parents were typographers and my dad was also a commercial artist, working in airbrush, mostly. This was back in the 50s & 60s. I have been a digital graphic designer and typesetter for about 4 decades now (ouch!) but recently I have become interested in returning to the old ways, before there were computers. I am trying to teach myself hand lettering and sign painting, but resources are very hard to come by. Especially since I live on a little island off the coast of northern Washington state. Any suggestions/ideas/direction would be most sincerely and deeply appreciated. Cheers to you all for carrying on a human tradition and art form!

  5. Hi I am a retired Sign Painter from Newfoundland, practiced my art for 31 yrs till I got sick from respitory prob. loved every min of it wish I could go back in time.

    Peter Kelsey
    Newfoundland, Canada

  6. I appreciate this site. I started painting billboards in 1972 for Baird Advertising In Little Rock Arkansas. I apprenticed under a lot of great Sign painters. Kenny Russell, Bob Adair, Walter Herzog, Dick Davini, Sam Peters, Jack Thomas. I had to mention all of them. Most have passed on. These boys knew their business. My best lessons were painting the Labels on Wild Turkey billboards. Took about 3 years to top pay. I’m still learning. Old Wall Dog lives on.

  7. Sometimes I feel all alone as well but find that even though some people today don’t “get it”, most still seem to like my hand painted signs & I usually stay busy. I have been at it since 1976 & was told that the handwriting was on the wall 30 years ago & that I had better go high tech or be left behind. Well you just have to believe in yourself & stick with it. I don’t regret it yet.

  8. After 30+ years of screen printing I am getting out those brushes, rollers, and spray guns once again. It’s time we show how traditional sign painting can help display a message. Sign painting is a creative task and I hope to show how modern tools can help bring this art back to life!

  9. Had a little email chat with Dan a while ago. Great to see younger folks keeping the craft alive. Here in Australia, we have Brett Piva, of Pocket Design teaching courses on hand-lettering. I’m sure there are others too. Definite interest.

  10. We publish Pinstriping & Kustom Graphics Magazine out of UK and are always looking for traditional sign painters to feature. to help keep interest alive. In UK we have noticed a lot of pinstripers particularly looking for help to get started in sign painting to aid them in producing vehicle names etc for bikes and hot rods. after years of zero tuition here I can see exciting times around, OK we will probably never go back to hand painted shop signs in other than conservation areas, but with a new growing younger painter coming through we need to find the tutors and keep this interest alive. If any sign painters would like me to feature their work do please get in touch
    Lynda

  11. I have been painting for about 15 years but just started hand lettering and making traditional signs. This is an amazing art and I believe right now we are in the era of it being reborn again to its original glory.

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