Derek McDonald makes a fluid black line with his paintbrush. Following the stroke with a swing of his hand, he flicks the tip of the hog-haired brush at the end of each glossy letter.
Despite not attending art school, McDonald’s art has permeated much of the local visual landscape, from gold leafed yacht names in the Emeryville Marina to local bar placards to the vintage signs at Oakland’s Fairyland park for children. At his West Berkeley studio, Golden West Sign Arts, McDonald stays true to the tradition of sign painting without any digital assistance.
Despite decades of decline and widespread replacement by less-expensive computer graphics in the 1980s and 90s, the meticulous work of traditional sign painters like McDonald is far from dying out. As the sole proprietor of Golden West Sign Arts on San Pablo Avenue, McDonald paints seven days a week working on a roster of about 15 projects. The work keeps him busy even while he continues to rely primarily on word of mouth advertising.
But learning a traditional craft wasn’t a smooth journey for McDonald. Traditionally, becoming a sign painter took four to five years of strict apprenticeship, and journeyman sign painters often worked in union shops. “I called around to see if I could find an apprenticeship, but they laughed at me,” he says. Eight years ago he started transitioning from veterinarian tech work in Oakland to sign painting. But at the time, sign painting was not being taught anymore (except for one trade school in Los Angeles) and the few traditional painters continuing the craft were scattered across the United States.
McDonald turned to books and constant practice as his initial teachers. Tucked away out of the reach of stray paint splatters, stacks of vintage books containing fonts, layouts, and examples of various sign treatments line his studio’s bookshelves. He still regularly refers to this “morgue,” a collection of visual references he uses for inspiration.
While his hand lettering is imbued with a nostalgic sensibility, newer Oakland businesses like The Temescal Alley Barbershop, Mind’s Eye Vintage, and Honor Bar in Emeryville all display his handiwork. His hand lettering can also be seen throughout Lanesplitter and on the windows and wall of Sacred Rose Tattoo. Other people are also taking notice of both older signs fading away on urban brick walls and the newer ones painted on local shops windows. Entire Flickr pools, documentary films, art magazine spreads, and blogs are dedicated to showcasing images of sign art. McDonald notes that perhaps his trade’s recent surge in popularity could be a backlash from the 80s and 90s, when most signs were made from cheap materials like vinyl. “Maybe it’s time for a change,” he says.
Today, McDonald’s customers search for a unique image that represents their business, a sign with lasting aesthetics and letters that contain character and rhythm. “It means something to people when it’s made by someone,” he says. While his product admittedly might require a higher initial investment then digitally printed signs (a sign painted onto a glass window often costs $350-$450), he argues that hand painted signs “age with grace and dignity” as opposed to their vinyl counterparts.
He gestures to the wooden 40+ year old Siegel’s Tuxedo Shop sign sitting in his shop as a prime example of traditional signs’ lasting power. Stretching at least six feet across, the refurbished sign will adorn the entrance of a classic suit and men’s clothing shop on Grand Avenue in Oakland. The faded text carries a certain warmth, like the debonair grace of a Roger Moore, rather than the cheapness of a Burt Reynolds pixelated vinyl imitation. “This is going to be a pleasure to paint,” McDonald says, nodding his head in anticipation.
But he is also quick to point out that sign painting is not “all fun with a paintbrush.” Aside from treating the entire wood panel, prepping the surface with primer, and making an intricate tracing of the original sign, the actual painting of letters follows certain rules. Brush strokes and lettering directions have to be memorized.
Despite the formulaic intricacy of letter forms, there is still an individuality imbued in each sign-painter’s style. Every painter has his or her own “casual stroke”—a single brushstroke font used for quick script. McDonald takes a break from the Siegel sign and demonstrates a letter, showing his characteristic “swing” and the brisk tempo of the slightly slanted font.
Returning to the Siegel sign, he dips a long-handled paintbrush into a little cup of black enamel. Each of the block letters require several brushstrokes to fill. He starts each letter with dipping the brush in a Dixie cup of paint, the tip squared off to give a precise edge. He then smoothly works on a letter, painting from the thick sections to the thin, flaring out the brush at the end. Each letter is meticulously completed as his brush moves quickly from right to left along the signboard.
The resurgence of sign painting has placed the skill at an interesting crossroads; the blurry divider between the art world and the craftsman’s shop, between commercial design and creative expression, are parts of the business that McDonald intimately understands. Recently his hand painted signs made their way from the streets into an exhibition at the Guerrero Gallery in San Francisco and at a Sony PlayStation event being held in the historic San Francisco Mint building.
But it is the preservation of a traditional craft that keeps McDonald painting, not promise of gallery shows or magazine spreads. Amid neon arrows, vinyl banners, and digitally printed decals, he is quietly re-establishing hand lettered signs as a vital part of Oakland’s visual landscape.