Traditional Signwriting: The Art, The Craft
If you’ve ever spotted some of the more unique and traditional style of shop front signage around Newcastle and wondered who did them, chances are it might have been Ash Willerton. We had a chat with Ash about how he got into it and to discover the artistry and craftsmanship that goes into traditional signwriting.
How long have you been a traditional signwriter?
Almost two years. It was back in August 2014 when I quit my job as web designer. I knew that I wanted to do something in the field of hand lettering but I wasn’t 100% fixated on being a sign writer, I just loved the history of the trade and I was following the work of a few other sign writers and loved what they were doing. I hadn’t had any training or previous experience, it was just through a passion for it.
How did you get into traditional signwriting?
It was more hand lettering that got me into it. I discovered an article on a web design blog about the work of Seb Lester and Jessica Hische, who are both well known in the field. I had never seen something like that where everything was customised. Obviously I knew fonts had to be drawn to start with but I never knew that people could actually make a living on typographic illustrations for a certain context or purpose, without having to do a full alphabet. Their process really intrigued me.
Tell us a bit about your passion for typography.
I started experimenting and buying lots of books on hand lettering and then I got the opportunity to do a shop window for Ninety Nine, who did gourmet fast food in Newcastle. When the owner started he just had something like ‘best beef burgers’ written across the bottom corner of the window. I was sketching loads in the evening at the time and I thought this could be the perfect opportunity to go and ask him if he wouldn’t mind me putting something somewhere in his shop. Fortunately said he would love for me to do it, and then he said: “how about the main window?” That was my first time sign writing but I used pens instead of brushes.
How does it work – and what happens if you make a mistake?
I sketch everything out small scale, then print it out the size I want it to be, put it on a window, then basically you are tracing from your sketch, but now I use brushes instead of pens. With mistakes you can either wait for it to dry and scrape it off, which can take a long time, or you can get methylated spirits and wipe it off, but yeah there’s not a lot of room for error! It’s easier to get off if you’re working on glass, but if you’re working on wood or any other surface, there’s virtually no room for error – unless you’re going to paint over it and start again.
Why do you favour traditional over contemporary signwriting?
A lot of my work will involve a client coming to me with a logo that’s been done on a computer. However, your sign writer back in the day was also your logo designer; they designed your whole shop front – that was your identity. Now, when a logo has been designed on a computer it’s a bit weird trying to replicate a digital product with a brush, because you’re trying to be overly neat and you don’t really see the personality of the sign writer coming through.
Part of the beauty of seeing old signs for me is that no two letters are going to be the same because they’ve been drawn by a hand, they’ve not been created on a computer so when you’re trying to replicate something that’s been done digitally it takes away the essence of what makes sign writing really interesting and eye catching. That’s why I prefer the creative, traditional methods of allowing the sign writer to draw things first because then you can actually see it had a foundation of craft right at the beginning.
I’d say that’s more my interest now; understanding how best to paint letters and going back to turn of the century sort of style of typography where everything is very extravagant and ornate and overly embellished and it’s all of those little details inside that really amaze me.
What do you love most about your job?
It’s difficult to pin out down to one thing but I’d say there are three main things. Firstly, being able to draw my own designs – I love sketching! Sketching for me is always going to be my favourite part of any job because that’s when I’m allowing my ideas to spill out on to paper instantaneously – it’s the very start of the project, but it’s exciting!
Secondly, getting to meet so many people. Seeing someone’s reaction to what I do now is amazing because I know that’s their business and they’ve done their research and they’ve thought hard about what they want their business to look and feel like – plus the fact that they’ve chosen to work with me! That genuine feedback from people is really refreshing.
Finally, getting to paint. I love painting, just being up on a ladder and being able to use a brush the right way and knowing how to construct letters from a brush is just really such a nice feeling, to get off a computer and use those old fashioned materials and tools.
What do you think about traditional signwriting as an industry or career?
If Instagram is anything to go by I think it’s going to be huge! I’m looking forward to seeing how it is going to develop in the next couple of years. I don’t want it to be just me being the only young person doing it though, I want Newcastle to be full of traditional signs and I think it would be amazing – a better place for everyone.
No one gets anything from vinyl, it’s just noise and it doesn’t resonate with people. As soon as you see someone hand painting a sign, that elevates your consciousness to all signs around you and makes you think, “if he’s doing that I wonder if there’s any other signs in Newcastle that have been hand written?” I just think it gives a place so much more personality and distinguishes it from every other shop on the high street.
You’ve worked with some great businesses, what have been some of your favourites?
I had a ridiculous opportunity to go down to London at the end of last year to do some signs for Fortnum & Mason. It was hand painting and gilding the ‘please pay here’ signs directly on to a wall. Then The Independent came just after Fortnum & Mason, when I didn’t think it could get any better that year!
At that point I was winding down for Christmas and I had been working a little bit too much and not doing anything else apart form working. I got an email through saying, “Ashley, this is the art director of The Independent and we are wanting to go ahead with a front cover of the Boxing Day magazine”. So I just stayed in the studio for three days solid and got it done. The brief was for it to look like a pub chalk board. I wanted to do it geared towards my style so ornate, intricate and overly detailed. I had complete creative freedom on that. I sent it over and he said: “yeh, just go ahead with it” – they didn’t want any changes, and I was like, “WOAH”. I don’t know how its going to get bigger for me and that was in my first year I was doing sign writing, so it was a bit of a pinch yourself moment.
What signs do you admire or wish you had done?
There are two signs in Newcastle that I never get bored of going to see. One is the Marks and Spencer Penny Bazaar in the Grainger Market, which is a huge glass gilded fascia. It has all been hand gilded and hand painted. The craft and the time that has gone into that just blows me away. It was done by a guy from Middlesbrough – J. H. Hill. Another one is in the Queen’s Arcade in the centre of town where there is another gilded sign for a shoe makers. That looks like it was done years ago as well. It’s got a couple of different methods of gold leaf and just all hand painted and it’s such a nice design as well – and it’s huge! You can really see the mark of the craftsman in that because you can tell it’s been done at speed. I just look at it and think he will have been doing this on a daily basis so he will have had to turn around projects a lot quicker. So it is a sign of its time, which is what really interests me about it. You can almost see the type of equipment he had and the van he might of been driving around in. Unfortunately he hasn’t signed his work.
What would be a dream job?
I would really like to do an entire tattoo shop front – the door, the A board, the windows, the fascia… just go to town on it! I’d use loads of different methods – paints, gold leaf and just go crazy on it! I did Blind Tiger’s windows which was a really fun project, but I would just love to do a full shop front!
Get in touch with Ash and see more of his traditional signwriting work here:
See some of Ash’s Inspiration: