Are you an artist, illustrator or designer who is interested in the art of sign painting?
Sign painting has grown in popularity over the past few years, and this is the best time to launch your business.
Don’t believe me? Check out what The Atlantic had to say about the revival of America’s hand-painted sign industry.
Even in an age of emoji, when people revel in communicating online using a shared set of colorful icons, it makes sense that there are still those who are able to make a living painting signs for businesses by hand. What is more surprising is that many people do — all over the country, from Utah to New York. Indeed, an art form that seemed moribund as big-box stores and chain restaurants multiplied is relevant again, and lucrative. — The Atlantic
Meet Kurt McRobert. Kurt is a professional designer and the founder of Very Fine Signs, a New York based sign painting business where he draws and paints custom murals and hand lettering for commercial clients.
We sat down with Kurt to learn more about how he started his hand painting business.
We hosted this interview in celebration of our upcoming online workshop, Monetizing Your Handlettering Skills.
How long have you been a professional illustrator?
I snagged my first professional freelance editorial gig during my senior year at School of Visual Arts so it’s been a little over 8 years now.
When did you become interested in handlettering?
During my time at SVA I started really incorporating hand-lettering into my sketchbooks and illustrations to inject more meaning into them. But it was never a formal exploration of type, which in a lot of ways, I miss that ignorance of lettering.
What inspired you to do so?
I’m not sure what inspired me to get serious about hand lettering. It was sort of a few different things. In 2014, I lost my day job and was disillusioned about the illustration world. At that time I had discovered that sign painting was a thing and I just became obsessed with it. My illustration work had become more and more digital throughout the years and it felt so amazing to be using a real brush with real paint to make things that were actually useful.
How did you begin to develop your hand lettering skills?
Lots of practice and lots of reading. Not having a graphic design or typography background, I had to educate myself about correct letterforms, etc. I watched a ton of videos on vimeo and joined the sign painting groups on facebook. Any video of a sign painter who looked like they knew what they were doing, I would just study how their hand was moving and then copy that. A few months into starting sign painting I took Mike Myer’s beginner sign painting workshop and it was really inspiring. Just watching his hand for 2 days was worth more than all the videos online.
What are some of the ways you have monetized your hand lettering skills?
What ways haven’t I monetized my hand lettering is the real question, haha. Mostly I’ve painted signage for all kinds of local businesses around New York City. Restaurants, bars, bagel shops, institutions, retail stores, the list goes on. I’ve done some more graphic design-y stuff too; logos, advertising and editorial work. If you can paint a letter with a brush there’s a ton of different jobs out there, big and small.
Are you interested in starting a sign painting business? You won’t want to miss Kurt’s new online workshop, Monetizing Your Handlettering Skills.
How have your hand lettering skills helped you grow your illustration business?
Actually I think it’s more the other way around. My illustration background has helped my sign painting business immensely because I can provide clients with pictorial and illustrative work. Right now a very good client of mine is having me paint him a bunch of Coca-Cola and other vintage signs that are heavily illustrated for his new restaurant.
What first interested you in sign painting?
I’m not really sure when the exact moment was. I think maybe it was combination of me discovering ghost signs and contemporary sign painting around my old neighborhood in Bushwick. Then the Sign Painters documentary came out and that just cemented everything for me. There was also the “instant gratification” aspect of doing a job in a couple hours and getting paid for it when you finished that was addictive. My first job was a really small sign that took me maybe 2 hours to paint and I got paid $100 cash. Considering that I was collecting unemployment at the time, that really hooked me as well.
How did you find your first customers?
I literally hit the streets. Because I was unemployed at the time, I would pick a neighborhood and just walk around for day handing out business cards. Mostly I would go into places that were under construction and ask what they were doing and if they needed a sign. Many of these clients are still hiring me to do stuff for them. I would also approach places with damaged vinyl signs and try to convince them to replace them with paint.
What are some of your favorite projects?
Most recently, my fave was the Ox Tavern mural I painted. It’s right in my neighborhood and I love eating there. They had this hideous photoshopped vinyl sign on the side of the restaurant for years and I’ve been dying to paint over it ever since I first saw it. I had worked with the Ox Tavern owner on some of his other restaurants and he finally wanted a new sign. I basically rebranded the entire restaurant and he gave me almost complete artistic freedom. Hands off clients are the best. Another recent favorite was painting 2 holiday market booths for Raaka Chocolate. It was really cool to go behind the scenes of one of those huge, outdoor Christmas markets. And it was really peaceful and cozy painting alone in a booth at 7am in Bryant Park and Central Park during the Christmas season. I just grabbed a coffee and a bagel from a street cart, popped in my headphones and got to work. A very pleasant time.
What advice do you have for people who are interested in starting a sign painting business?
My main advice would be to be self critical and properly educate yourself. Always be striving to make better letters and layouts. There’s a ton of people out there who are painting signs who have absolutely no clue. Yes you can get away with doing a shoddy job because a lot of clients don’t know the difference, but it’s really not ethical to put out a bad product. Practice the craft, paint stuff for your friends and family and if you’re going to learn on the job, be smart about it.
Kurt is teaching an hour-long live session to discuss his sign painting business on March 1st. Sign up for his live online workshop, Monetizing Your Handlettering Skills to join the program and start building your hand Lettering busienss.
Who are three handlettering artist that inspire you?
There’re tons of sign painters that inspire me everyday but as far as pure information I’ve received from one source it’d have to be John Downer and the Sign Painting Support Group on facebook. Although I don’t always agree with them (the group does devolve into trolling sometimes), Downer and the group as a whole are an encyclopedia of sign painting knowledge. Also, the stuff that Brush & Leaf, Best Dressed Signs, Alan Signs and Providence Painted Signs put out always blows me away and makes me wanna do better. There’s so many more sign painters all over the world who are doing great work, keeping the craft alive while at the same time keeping it fresh and new. All those guys and gals in the UK, the dudes in Australia and the Netherlands all do amazing stuff. Go find em and follow them on instagram!