The relationship between the painting of murals and signage is very close. It’s possible to trace murals back to the dawning of mankind, to a time when cave dwellers used pigment from berries and crushed beetles to portray relevant and historical events on the otherwise barren rock walls of their homes. The art of sign painting for advertising purposes is almost as ancient as these events. While the Chinese and Japenese used complex logographic characters and Egyptians had used hieroglyphics as far back as 4,000 years ago, hand lettering only had it’s origins near the time that the Roman alphabet was first created.
The Long History of Sign Painting
Much like in previous times, the art form known as sign painting is still a learned craft. In previous years, painters with natural talents were often self-taught, and others were set to complete apprenticeships working under highly skilled masters of the craft. In our modern times, those who have the heart to pursue sign painting professionally generally attend art college of some form and may luck out finding work while completing their study. There is some fairly heated debate amongst artistic circles as to whether the standard of sign painting, in our modern days, is as high-quality as it may have been in earlier years. While this is the case, there is still a fairly broad acceptance that overall the majority of sign painters simply don’t possess the same skills and talents that were common-place in yester years.
Signs of Paleolithic Times
In paleolithic periods, signage was used to advertise good resting spots for nomadic people, dangers of rival tribes, and the presence of good hunting. During this period, life in North America largely depended upon finding shelter and food. In an effort to aid each other, people would paint signs providing aid to those who might find these signs and be in need. Generally, these signs were pictorial showcasing scenes the painters had witnessed.
In July of 2001, the Hanover, New Hampshire Hood Museum of Art hosted an exhibition detailing a collection of early American inn and tavern signs. During this event, the museum showcased 24 of the most eye-catching 18th and 19th century signage, primarily these signs were colourful wooden signboards featuring patriotic eagles and proud lions to show travelers designed to show travelers where to go and provide them with pertinent information.
The Technological Age
In our modern day world, with the advent of computers and powerful graphics software, both hand lettering and sign painting have become a dying artform. Computer software programs can generate pixel perfect signage in the tiniest fraction of time that was required of even the most skilled artists. This has significantly reduced the cost of signage and thus pushed out a large portion of the need for sign painters. It is paradoxical that this might be a good thing for sign painting, marking a rebirth of sign painting and hand lettering as forms of art rather than put to use for commercial purposes. When artists are free to produce signage that does not conform to strict advertising requirements, perhaps they will be able to go back to producing information creative works of art, allowing our cities to be filled with colourful, eye-catching paintings.