Getting Sketchy with Noel B. Weber
One of the many surprises at Letterheads 2018: London Calling was the preliminary release of Noel B. Weber‘s new book, ‘A Sign Painter’s Sketch Book‘. Following brisk business at the A.S. Handover shop, the project is being taken further with a kickstarter to make the book available more widely, including in America. See www.signpainterbook.com for full details.
Described by Brilliant Signs as “the new Atkinson” the book is driven by original letterhead Noel’s belief that “good design starts with a pencil”. Here we are pleased to reproduce some edited highlights from an extended interview that can be found inside the book, with particular focus on the Letterheads, and Noel’s design and sketching process…
Noel grew up in Chicago where he recalls being inspired by the enjoyment derived by local sign painter John Hunt and the work he did on the school buses. At the end of the 1960s he enrolled at the Institute of Lettering and Design in Chicago, after his time in the military where he painted names and insignias of battalions during his tour in Vietnam.
Under the guidance of instructor Sydney Borden, Noel recalls “the day it clicked. The day I felt my hand could do this without any hesitation. I still remember those strokes and how wonderful that felt.” While many of his fellow students went on to work in department stores and advertising agencies, Noel was more driven by “the independence of working on site and doing things outdoors”.
How did you start your apprenticeship?
I had been attending the lettering school longer than any of the other students. I called John Hunt, the sign painter who worked at my high school. John said, let me introduce you to the union business agent. The business agent came down to the Institute of Lettering and Design and later he wrote to me and said, I have a job interview for you painting billboards.
I drove out to that job three times before I started, making sure I had the easiest route. I walked in with all the brushes I thought I needed in a red tackle box. The shop foreman looked at me and said, going fishing, kid? After my first paycheck I went out and bought a real sign kit.
What was it like painting those billboards?
They assigned me to work with a Polish journeyman named Ernie Sokorski. We would go out and paint a 12’ x 48’ billboard in five hours. That’s big. Usually just text. No outlines, no drop shades or anything like that. He didn’t do pictorials. We would show up with a pounce pattern, lay it down and get after it. He’d cut it in and I’d fill it in.
We would paint two billboards a day, then go prime our next jobs. One time I knocked over a quart of paint on the stage and Ernie was so upset he told me to go sit in the truck, I felt like a little kid.
I started in June and worked there nine or ten months. Working outside that winter was brutal. The times when we left scaffolding out… I remember coming back the next day and breaking the ice off, just so we could walk on it.
One day we had to paint a billboard promoting a bank. The temperature with the windchill was six below zero. We were painting a huge check and the journeyman told me: hey, if you come out with me today I’ll let you sign the check!
Let’s talk about the Letterheads, especially those early days.
In 1974 we left Chicago and moved to Denver. The Letterheads started with get-togethers of sign painter apprentices in the late 70s. By that time, production was the key thing in our industry, and hardly anyone was thinking about art. As an apprentice, I could only do what I was assigned. With the Letterheads, I found my tribe. Our little group started researching and practicing traditional sign painting techniques, with a deeper emphasis on the art and the craft.
If someone did a cool job we we would meet up and check it out after work, and we would critique it, always in a positive way. We would talk about the techniques they used and how they could have done it differently. On Thursdays a few of us would get together in the evening and focus on a specific technique, like a small workshop. One time we all worked on gilding, another time we were practicing airbrush techniques. I remember one night where we worked on convex letters, and another where we just focused on pictorial illustration. We figured out how to work with smalt, which is finely crushed glass that sign painters sometimes used as a background texture.
Those evening workshops were really informal, and more than anything they were about camaraderie, but we also all felt strongly about bringing the art back to the trade.
So how did the Letterheads go from little get-togethers to the larger, international movement that it is today?
In 1980 each of us entered the annual sign competition sponsored by Signs of the Times magazine and we all wrote I’m a Letterhead on the entry form. We swept the competition that year and that caught the attention of the editor, Tod Swormstedt. The next year he did a cover story on us and that introduced the Letterheads to the rest of the world.
In 1982 we put on the first larger Letterheads gathering. We called it “The Boise BBQ” and we had about 35 people, including many who traveled from other cities. Some notable attendees: Sydney Borden, Carl Rohrs, Mark Oatis, Lee Littlewood, Pete McKearnan, Steven Parrish, Mike Jackson, Gary Volkman, Bobby Mitchell, and Walter Methner. Every one of them was in our studio and the backyard. The Letterheads just grew from there. When we hosted the 25th anniversary meeting in 2000 over two hundred sign artists attended.
Let’s talk about drawing. What are the tools you use now?
Thirty years ago I had a drafting light table built by a carpenter. I designed it with the drafting table on top and flat files below. I didn’t realize the flat files would keep me from being able to sit down, so I’ve been standing up ever since.
I use a sliding straight edge with a triangle or an adjustable triangle. The straight edge is for horizontal lines and the triangle runs over the straight edge for verticals. The adjustable triangle can hold an angle, and you can flip it for a perpendicular line.
I don’t use French curves. Any movement or curves I’ll draw by hand. For curved lines I do a skip technique, small close dashes. It lets you move the pencil a little more freely. I learned that from doing billboards–it’s how we would draw large letters. Sometimes it’s so faint you can barely see the pencil lift.
How do you approach a really fancy piece of lettering?
When I put letters together I look at the word, because it has to read as a word. But I look at each individual letter as a character and I look for opportunities to create and embellish each one. My work is ornate, and some people don’t like that. But if I was just a traditional sign painter I wouldn’t have a chance to draw and experiment as much as I do.
You incorporate a lot of scrollwork into your designs.
Scrolls have been used for a long time. I think they are a great way to fill space without making a pictorial illustration. I like to use scrolls to give a design more movement, but I don’t think scrollwork should compete with the design. It should just fall back, like a corner or a border. When people ask me how I draw them, I tell them to think about a falling leaf, swirling gracefully in the air.
Do you have any advice on modifying letterforms to fit a layout with some movement, even something as simple as making a word flow in an arc?
If it’s a word that has a lot of rounds, I’ll try to avoid any curvature, unless I can stabilize the letters. Your eye follows the flat horizontal parts of the letters. If a word has Os your eye will bounce. Sometimes you can make that work. It can help by slowing the eye down. But if it’s a sign, I usually don’t want that. I’ll even flatten the bottom of an O.
There’s a quote from Matthews, from his sign painter book. He talks about angularity, curvature, and radiation and he points out that a good design can handle more angularity than curvature, and more curvature than radiation.
Many years ago I had to meet with a group of architects. I memorized that Matthews quote before I went in. They asked me about something and I recited it, like I had just come up with it. They all stopped and turned to me and one of them said, Wow Noel, you really know your stuff!
What is your process for taking your sketches to color?
You think you have everything worked out as you look at the sketch, but that’s only thirty percent of it. You have to figure out colors and mediums, and sometimes you can’t figure that out until you start getting into it.
When you’re reverse painting on glass you can’t paint over your earlier strokes, you just have to keep going. Carl Rohrs called it “being in a color corner.” You’re in there, and now you’ve got to make the right decisions to get out.
I study other people’s work. I might go to an album cover or an Alphonse Mucha poster book and select a page that has a palette that would be appropriate. And I try not to stray too far from a reference if I know it works.
You can also use color to make the letters come forward or back. You can put an eight-inch letter next to a two-inch letter and you can make that two-inch letter read better, just with color.
How does screen printing affect your design process?
The advantage of screen printing is I can spend more time developing a design before I have to produce the work on glass. It’s also really useful when I have to produce multiples.
Back in the eighties when I was making a silk screen, I would ink the final sketch on a clear film acetate – or I would trace the sketch to velum, ink it, and get a clear film produced. I was still burning a lot of screens using sunlight.
By the 1990s there was a company in Boise called ArtCraft and they had a machine called a graphics modifier. That changed my process because they could take my design on clear film and put outlines and inlines at whatever width I wanted. That’s when I started getting into gilding with really fine lines – one hundredth of an inch and even smaller. It opened up a whole new set of opportunities.
Now, of course, we have vector software and our own clear film printer and I have continued to use those tools for gilding extremely fine lines.
Do you have a philosophy about when to bring technology into the process?
I like to use technology to take the tedious side out of it. I don’t want to take the art out of the process with a tool. I want to put the art back into the process with my hands. So I start with my hands and I finish with my hands. But I don’t mind using tools, whether that’s cutters or plotters or silk screening. I like to think of technology as a bridge that takes you from one step of your project to another. When I get close to the end of a project I can always get my hands back on it. Even with the CNC router, after the machine is finished I like to go in by hand to sharpen the radius left by a round bit.
Which books would you say have had the greatest effect on your career?
For lettering, the sign painting book by Frank Atkinson from 1915. I first saw the Atkinson book in ’75 or ’76. Earl Vehill, another one of the original Letterheads, had some photocopies. I said, man, this is all the reference I’ll need for the rest of my life! Back in 1994, Signs of the Times magazine published a book with colorized Atkinson plates. They asked the Letterheads to produce the work on glass and then they photographed those pieces. I gilded and painted the Farol Druggist design.
For color inspiration it would be Charles Strong’s Book of Designs because his palettes are beautiful. I often base my colors on pages from his book. The gilding book by Charles Wagner was very important for his technical explanations. The Speedball books and the Daniel Ames books for their alphabets. And other sign painting books by Matthews, Martin, Leyendecker.
Any other advice for sign painters just starting out?
I always tell people: design the work you want to produce. Decide what you want to do, how you want to do it, and just go for it. When we moved to Boise there wasn’t any gold leaf work being done, but pretty soon it was all over downtown. If it’s the kind of work you want to do, then just do it. Get a few jobs out there and stay on track. Also, some of our best jobs have come from clients who saw our name on other signs around town – so, sign your work!
And what’s next for you?
I’m sixty-nine. I work with my son on projects at the shop in Boise. And I’m also working on signs with my daughter Anna when we visit her family in Astoria, Oregon. I want to keep drawing. I feel like there is a level of artistic maturity that’s still ahead of me. The difference is I’m a lot more relaxed now. I don’t have the deadlines like I did for so many years.
I am more excited about drawing than I have ever been. I can’t tell you how much fun I had finishing the alphabet for the beginning of this book. When I look at a big project like this book’s cover, I don’t even remember doing it, because I’m in such a nice space. The work has changed, but my passion for lettering has only increased.
Thank you to Noel Weber and Sam Liberto for permission to republish the insights above. Head over to Kickstarter to back the next phase of Noel’s project, and grab a copy of the book, alongside heaps of other goodies among the rewards. Full details at www.signpainterbook.com.