Signs of Power
A young Dublin sign painter with a big reputation.
25th April 2016
The last 10 years have seen a huge rise in appreciation of well made things. Details matter and craft is cool with the public at large clicking, liking, Pinning and Instagramming the pretty things around them, creating awareness and demand.
Businesses reacted, tasking their designers to bring in a level of aesthetic detail that was previously only found in high end or niche areas.
One of the crafts that saw a resurgence was sign painting. Printed vinyl signage had all but killed off the whole industry decades ago but hand painted signs we’re getting much love online all of a sudden.
A hand made look started to appear in many businesses but take a closer look and you realise it’s a fake. The look of a hand painted signs could be cheaply replicated digitally.
Real sign painting is one area where you can’t cut corners, you have to put your money where your mouth is and a rising amount of businesses in Dublin are investing in it, realising how positively it reflects on them and their brand.
Vanessa Power is one of a rare breed of sign painters in Dublin. There’s not many of them, rarer again she’s in her early 30’s and a lady in what is/was predominantly a man’s world. She’s only been painting for a couple of years yet has built up a big reputation and large amount of clients.
She’s been on our hit list for a while and we finally caught up with her in her home studio to ask her how and why she got into the game.
I just knew then it was what I wanted to do
Vanessa Power photographed outside her house just off Cork Street and underneath a sign by another Dublin based signwriter Noel Browne
Tell us a bit about yourself
I’m Vanessa Power, 34, hailing from Deansgrange originally but now living off Cork Street.
What motivated you to start sign painting? What were you doing beforehand?
I was working in web design for 5 or 6 years and just wasn’t enjoying it any more, started to hate it actually so I knew I needed to change career. I had no idea what I wanted to change to though.
I always had an interest in type and I would draw out letters and words at my desk, and I was doing a bit of vector lettering at home, just playing around with type really. So I thought 'what is more type based design' and realised the answer was signage.
I started researching that I saw some of the work sign painters around the world were doing and was blown away. I just knew then it was what I wanted to do. So I applied for a course in Ballyfermot which subsequently got cancelled but I kept going with sign painting anyway. I’d been bitten by the bug!
He said that’s the secret
How did you start, what were the first steps
I contacted and met with a sign painter Peter Herbert in Dublin to ask him some questions about getting going with sign painting. He showed me some photos of his work, and gave me a few tips and just said to get practising. He said that’s the secret, just practice!
I got some planks of wood and paint I just started drawing and painting words.
I met him then a couple of weeks later to go through my work and he was really encouraging and just said to keep on practising and to start telling people I’m sign painting now to try get some jobs. So I told everyone I met I was sign painting and asked if they needed a sign. And through a friend telling another friend I got a job and it’s just snowballed from there.
I had to paint it on my bed
What was your first job and how did that feel?
My first job was a sign for a flea market. I was really excited about it actually. It was a big enough sign too at 6’x4’. And at the time I was living in a tiny studio flat so I had to paint it on my bed which was funny as I’d no space.
I can remember feeling really nervous dropping it off though, and I still get that a bit now. I guess it’s more nerves hoping they’ll be happy with it.
How long did it take you to become confident in your work?
Well I do I feel a lot more comfortable with a brush now. I feel I know what I’m doing when I arrive on a job or painting a board as opposed to when I first started a year and a half ago.
I’m always comparing myself to other sign painters there’s so much to improve on, which is good I guess, keeps me striving to create better work.
There’s nothing else I want to do
So, do you consider yourself a legit sign painter now or are you always learning?
Oh I definitely consider myself a sign painter now, there’s nothing else I want to do, I just love it.
However, I’m always learning, through different challenges on each job, trying out new techniques or from just making mistakes. You are constantly learning, that’s the great thing about it, and I’ve heard alot of other sign painters say the same.
What advice would you have for somebody who would like to get into Sign Painting? What's a good place to start?
The best advice I was given was to just practise and to keep practising.
The good thing is that the more you paint the more you can see how you are improving, that in itself is motivating.
A good place to start would be to get some brushes and 1shot sign painters enamel and just get cracking drawing and painting letters!
One of my favourite sign painters is Best Dresses Signs in Boston, they do a great article for aspiring sign painters which gives great pointers to get going and with some good resources, it helped me.
I’ve also had to really face my fear of heights
What challenges have you faced as a sign painter?
Painting in the rain is probably the most frequent challenge faced as a sign painter. And painting out in the cold, to the point where my hands are shivering, which doesn’t help with painting straight lines that’s for sure.
I faced some challenges in the past using a projector to project the outline of bigger jobs onto a surface. The projector would warp the images. Thankfully those challenges are no more since I invested in a plotter.
I’ve also had to really face my fear of heights to where I now feel quite comfortable up a ladder. Driving a scissor lift and cherry picker for the Fumbally Exchange job was probably my biggest challenge to date. I was as nervous as hell, but towards the end I got into it.
What are the essential tools of the trade and skills for a sign painter?
Oh good brushes are essential!
They make all the difference to the work I think. Definitely invest in brushes. And a mahl stick, it’s a long stick I rest my hand on whilst painting, keeping it steady. 1 Shot sign painters enamel too, It’s the best paint!
What sign painters do you admire, both at home and abroad?
Tom Collins is a sign painter in Limerick who I admire greatly. Starting out I travelled to Limerick to work with him on jobs or in his studio. I learnt a lot from Tom. He was very generous with his time and knowledge.
Peter McCullen is a sign painter in Dublin. He’s got a lot of gilding experience. He again has been very generous with his time and knowledge.
Syd Bluett is another Dublin based sign painter. He’s got great tips and insight. I’ve learnt a lot from Syd.
They’re probably the three sign painters I badger the most with my questions. They’ve been so kind and encouraging, I’m very grateful of their support.
As for sign painters further afield, Best Dressed Signs as I mentioned earlier, Frank and Mimi, Van Zee Sign Co, Caetano Calomino, Rotulacionamano, Monk Signs, New Bohemia Signs, Tristan Kerr, to name but a few.
It’s actually a great buzz leaving them somewhere in the hopes someone will pick them up
Tell us about your 'Love Letters to Dublin' project? Where did the idea come from, how is it going and what’s the plan with it.
My ‘Love Letters to Dublin’ project came about when I painted some of the small letters for the Show and Tell market in Smock Alley Theatre back in November last year.
I gave away 2 to my friends on the day and got more of a kick out of giving them away then selling them so I thought it would be nice to give them to the people of Dublin by leaving them in random spots around the city.
It’s actually a great buzz leaving them somewhere in the hopes someone will pick them up. It was the best feeling when a guy tweeted me a picture of himself with an S he found on the bench in St Patrick's Cathedral. His name began with S too, couldn’t get better than that!
I’m not systematically going through the alphabet, there's a couple of letters I’ve painted twice. It’s more if I see a type style I like that I think will work I’ll draw and paint it. I do love drawing and painting them though and I’m getting great feedback so I might just continue it!