Runs Mon., Aug. 19–Thurs., Aug. 22 at Northwest Film Forum. Not rated. 80 minutes.
The more I type, the worse my handwriting gets. And forget about drawing something. Even architects have mostly traded pencil for computer. Yet this new documentary by Faythe Levine and Sam Macon celebrates a pre-digital enclave of the design trade: commercial sign painters. Their handiwork is what you see revealed on a brick wall when an old building is torn down, or at antique markets and yard sales. Yet a few practitioners continue their craft today. “It’s not fine art,” says one (the doc is terrible about identifying its sources). “Be decorative and informative at the same time.”
Once a union trade, we learn, sign painting has eroded to something more like day labor or an artisanal sideline for graphic artists. (We watch one woman hand-painting elegant address numbers on expensive L.A. houses.) Old-timers speak nostalgically about their boar’s-hair brush bristles and the intricacies of hand-lettering back in an era when fonts weren’t carefully copyrighted by Adobe. The drying time of paint is considered, as is the use of a maulstick. Then there’s the lost art of gold leaf (and you thought toner was expensive).
A few younger sign painters claim to have graduated from graffiti, but neither seems a viable career path these days. For better or worse, the cursor has replaced the brush. Most of the graying experts here are too old to be working on their feet all day, outside in the elements. The doc ought to have been screened during NWFF’s ByDesign festival last month, when desk-bound design professionals would’ve marveled at their forebears ability to keep a steady hand while standing on a ladder.
Levine and Macon have also published a companion book that makes it easier to study and appreciate these fading craftsmen and their legacy. And here’s one last bit of professional wisdom, which probably also applies to other fields: “Never use pink without asking the customer first.” (Note: The directors will appear at Monday’s screenings.)