Veteran sign painter Dave Gunning is a master of letterforms and the man behind our hand-painted Surplus Sale artwork. From his studio in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, Dave paints bold and colorful window advertisements for supermarkets and storefronts. He also keeps an impressive back catalogue on the Dad’s Paper Signs Facebook page. We spoke with him about his craft.
How did you get your start in sign painting?
Back in the 70’s, I had a second cousin named Pete. He had a custom painting business and did a lot of murals on vans and show cars. As a young kid (about 10), it was like being in a candy store, surrounded by old Corvettes and ’55 Chevys, etc. On occasion a car needed pinstriping (the old ’50 type) and a sign painter named Pat Conte would show up. Pat did all the hand lettering on the ROADWAY tractor trailers in the Boston area. Then at a career day at my high school, I came into contact with Butera School of Art on Beacon Street. They had a sign painting course, which I took for two years. At the same time, I swept floors and learned “the ways of a sign shop” in a small shop called The Sign Hut in Malden, Massachusetts. The owner, Ed Spinney, spent a lot of time teaching me to brush letters and learn layout. This, you could say, was my apprenticeship.
What is your process like?
In this phase of my career, I only use “paint, brush and a little imagination.” I take sign requests that are e-mailed to me. Using a marker, the layout is made. Then I place a clean sheet of paper on top to hand paint the sign. The finished sign has no pencil marks on it. Folks have said my signs look screen printed — no way. All hand lettered, each and every one. (Watch a video of Dave’s method here)
How has technology impacted your work?
In the early 80’s, I was invited to a company called Gerber Scientific in Connecticut to view a prototype sign making computer. Everyone who attended was astounded at what this plotter technology could accomplish — cutting vinyl letters for various situations. Using computers was going to speed up production. At the same time, I bought a first-generation Macintosh computer from the Lechmere department store at The Woburn Mall ($799.00!). Software got better and better. Soon everybody and their mother’s brother started opening up sign shops in their garages. It didn’t matter if you had any sign experience, you just had to be computer savvy. The cruel reality was that many talented pictorial billboard & lettering artists were losing their jobs, slowly replaced by this incredible “new way” of making signs.
Do you have a favorite letter?
No favorite letter, but I appreciate simpler type styles that were used “back in the day.” Hand-brushed block and script alphabets capture the unique character of the painter. There were so many neat embellishments the way old sign painters executed the craft. Today, in my opinion, there are way too many type styles. I keep things as basic as I can.
What is the strangest message you’ve ever been asked to paint?
I think it would be when I painted a capital “H” in red on the top of a turtle (Western Painted Turtle). My boss at the time, Rick, wanted to find out where the turtles’ migration pattern was heading. So I lettered it…sigh…let it go to the river.
Is it important to you that younger generations learn and uphold the craft?
As with other traditional crafts and trades, we need to continue teaching so the fundamentals can be appreciated. True sign painters at the turn of the century, into the 40’s & 50’s, were incredible craftsmen, making a living with the simplest of tools. All I can do is hopefully show the creative efforts of the human hand. As I always say, “It’s Different! — When it’s Hand Painted”.
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