Providence Painted Signs Truck

Today we meet up with Shawn Gilheeney, owner of Providence Painted Signs. Gilheeney and his team paint signs the old-fashioned way – by hand. Check out some insights about this vanishing trade.

How did you get into sign painting? Where did you learn?

I got into sign painting when I was matching colors at an offset print shop in Seattle was I was 21 in 2001. A guy named George who worked in the pre-press department had as much free time at work as I did. He was an old sign painter before the vinyl machines took over and in our off time he showed me how to do different sign-paint techniques and how to do linocuts. He even built me some silk screen frames and got me started on that. I was hand-painting skateboards and selling them to friends at the time, he was a huge help in giving me the knowledge of graphic arts that I carried over into college when I finally made it there.

Tell us about your shop, Providence Painted Signs. Is it just you or do you have other painters working with you as well?

Providence Painted Signs is comprised of Buck Hastings, Greg Pennisten and myself. Buck is a RISD grad who is an awesome all-around painter, so it was just natural that he found sign painting. After he painted [the] billboard for Max Formal it was obvious to me that we had to start something to make more things like that happen around here. Greg is a graphic design nerd who loves letters to an extent that few others can touch. With his ability to understand letter forms, kerning and leading instinctively makes him a prime candidate to wind up doing this. I’ve been the one to quit my day job and put all my energy into getting the company to the position where I can hopefully keep these guys busy enough to quit their day jobs and do this full time.

Buck Hastings w/ Max Formal Sign

Are there a lot of other sign painters out there?

From what I can tell from [Faythe Levine and Sam Macon’s] “Sign Painters” book and Instagram there are some pockets of people out there around the world. Although from how many signs that are vinyl there’s not nearly as many as the used to be. All those trucks used to be hand-painted, you rarely see vehicles hand-painted anymore. Just nasty vehicle wraps and sticker. Lifeless imitations of a design.

In the age of digital EVERYTHING, why is sign painting still important?

It adds a human element into the mix. It gives the design some life and makes it not flat anymore with some shine. It also brings in an element of texture and imperfections that only can happen that one time. The computer can spit out the same boring thing over and over but if you hand paint it, each one will be still be perfect but a little different each time, one of a kind.

Walk us through one of your signs, from start to finish. How do you come up with idea and how do you execute it?

A lot of time customers have been coming to us with designs that they have already had a graphic designer do up, so those jobs take less prep. But if you [were] a new customer and had no idea what you wanted I would have you come by the shop and look through the collection of old font books, sign-painting books, show-card displays etc., just to get the feel for what sort of aesthetic that the customer is looking for. I make a quick mock up, send a couple emails back and forth with revisions and then there is the discussion about what substrate the sign will be on and if it is exterior or interior. Then the sign is fabricated by us in-house or, if it is steel, I will sub it out to Old Bristol Line Fabrication. The image is transferred via a pounce pattern, projection or lining it out and drawing it up. Then the fun part – the painting.

Billboard painting

What was your favorite sign to paint? What was the hardest/worst?

The best was the Julian’s Restaurant Omnibus which is an old double-decker bus they were turning into a mobile restaurant. It was summer time and they had it parked out at this horse farm so the atmosphere was relaxing. The design was done by their art guy Josh Kemp who I really enjoy working with. It was my first big solo job and I barely knew that much about how to really use a brush and by the time I was done two weeks later I had undergone my first self-inflicted internship. The worst was this other bus I had to paint. It was a cold spring. I was in this icebox garage. The design was bad Photoshop. They wouldn’t pay me when I asked. Then I really learned it’s not about the money, it’s about the respect. Therefore, it’s about the money.

When I’m working I eat/drink/listen to…

Food-wise: It’s been rice Chex and bananas for breakfast, burritos for lunch and/or dinner. Drink-wise: Water. Lots of water [to] help flush out the chemicals I’m surrounded by all the time. And for listening pleasure it’s been NPR, Radiolab, and Julios’ party on iTunes radio.

Typeface that best describes me:

What I understand is that a typeface can include many different fonts – italic, bold, bold italic – all separate variations of one typeface. I don’t know if I could ever get behind and entire typeface. How about just a font? “Heavy Egyptian“, I like that one.

Gregg Pennisten painting

I feel most inspired when…

When the design is really great or challenging or if there is an upcoming deadline.

What would be your dream sign-painting project?

Anything outside when it’s nice out.

What advice do you have for people interested in getting into the sign-painting business?

I guess I will have to answer that correctly. Once I can get this business to actually float enough to stay alive and make a profit then I will be able to look back and give some better advice. But mine right now would be if you want to make money do something else. Nobody paints signs anymore.

Flan Window

PPS Door

All photos: Shawn Gilheeny

See Shawn Gilheeney in action. Check out this video of Shawn painting the Julian’s Restaurant Omnibus.