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Authentic by hand doesn’t automatically make it good!

November 5, 2016

Corona classic hand painted type.jpg

I love Roman lettering, retro USA casuals and London sans serif… when done right and taught correctly. That’s my job… it’s what I do and lay my reputation on.

London signwriting is at a crossroads. One way is rough USA copy, import casual … Bad shapes, newbie mismatch layout, roughly done… without a shread of the heartland and even industrial beauty that the original stuff had… the other way is real, solid signwriting, working hard at creating fabulous lettering.

To say London is eclectic and thrives on this mix is a cop out… if the emerging rash new casual poster gothics and casual handwriting styles were any good I would be the first to praise. Cities, Villages and outposts thrive on great workmanship. Most casuals being slapped up is cop out shit, borrowed USA styled without a glance at origins, local culture and roots. It’s like saying McDonalds is fine because it’s got it’s place… the bin. Don’t kid yourself – the tradition of great USA and UK writing is built on quality and depth.


Above: One weekend with NGS and Dawn is making really beautiful quality work around UK.

London Blocks Explained L002 250 dpi cJPEG

Casuals are a deft art. I remember arriving in Perth Western Australia and seeing window splashes being belted out – rough trade sales tagged up beautifully… those guys with dayglow rollers know their shit and painted fast as a lizard’s tongue, in 46 degrees, with tough coat water colours – in hellfire conditions they somehow still paint like a dream.

Guys like Downer, and Stevens shoot/shot out iconic doms as fast as a terrier’s eye. Slipped out the cup, all slick and ace high lettering. But you don’t learn that on day one or two, ask any pro.

There are, of course, some very talented signwriters today who can make sensational casual letters let’s be clear about that. Mike Meyer, Pierre Tardif and  James Cooper-Yourman’s (Dapper Signs Bristol) brilliance stand out and I love their astounding work. But what I am talking about is the rash of new SWs who start out learning this stuff from the up and go, thinking it’s the dogs nuts. Learn that stuff from a master – when you have the basics nailed.

So I’m not here to snipe – I’m here to push people to go hard and not accept mediocrity. Mediocrity often comes from graduating yourself too quickly.

Often I set a task and there’ll be one or two in the class that will get bored and jump ahead… I pull them back because otherwise they will start thinking they have the ability to run when they need to polish their boots first… before they even walk.

A half hour of tough boring stuff really strengthen the mind and self discipline.

They also need to trust my judgement and get into the moment which is sitting there waiting at the tip of the brush.

Hendrix was an incredibly technical master of his instrument…say no more.


Painted letters day with Nick Garrett

Casual writing is secondary text… but don’t be fooled – it’s the most difficult too

I learnt my trade from one of the great casual writers, Andy Whitmore but there was no way I could do what he could do in the first year of training… so I adapted over the years. Yet his technique entered my bones and brush… so too did his relentless standards.

Casual cursive is an art… probably one of the most difficult aspects of writing. It comes from a tradition of poster or ticket writing. Those guys were working on hundreds of tickets a day and were literally paper sign autopilots, turning out beautifully executed work… cheap, effective and volume production.

It was never about quality in the same breath that a signwriter would approach a letter but about quality in the breathless sense of fast, spontaneous execution. As a form I personally love it… but to teach it off bat is misguided.

To teach Day One based on this style is frankly a joke. Yet we see Mike Meyer and Better letters doing just this. Look I love what the big man can do… but it’s not focused enough for newbies to grasp in day one or two. It’s not the best way to get young writers started up.

Yep this is a square roundhouse article criticising the way signwriting is being taught and how that import culture, when done on the fly, is fucking up designs, artists and identities. A really good casual letter is the most difficult thing to do… walk first.

Painted letters day with Nick Garrett

Too much – too hard

Definitely not saying you need to do a 5 year apprenticeship either. But the cart goes behind the horse and over graduating yourself can waste a lot of time in the medium term.

I have students lapping up the nuggets of info and lettering skills I teach… a few complaining from time to time that I teach too much info on the day. Chloe Tickner stated just that the other week, only to go out the studio and succeed on the basis of what I had laid down as key principles.

”But people just can’t remember all that info!” She retorted.

”Well write it down on the free pads I supply!”

You can’t cut corners. But don’t complain to the teach about forgetting crucial gems during the weekend. Bring a journal, create your story.

Above: Chloe Tickner after Day 2 in Signsmiths – 1 month later she’s gone pro – 7 months later she’s solo.

This is not a game. This is a craft. The bottom line is the top line and first line. Learn the detail and apply this detail to everything you do.

I just want a fun weekend though – Don’t you want to be a signwriter?

You cannot be a recreational sign writer in this industry because too many people are going to rip you down. It will be done occasionally to your face on Facebook and constantly behind your back. Jealousy is rife. I have it all the time… a few years ago it devastated me – today I know the score.

But if you want spend 3-400 quid for a weekend of dabbling with the brush it won’t happen in my studio. The first thing you will discover is it will cost a lot less than that, in an NGS Signsmith weekend, passion and absolute love for the brush and craft hits you and strengthens your practice. You will be inspired. Exhausted and yet empowered.

It will happen elsewhere though – not in an NGS weekender. Dabbling… a bit of guru heroism and nice guy fun.  But that really isn’t going to be a game changer for you. Because it’s lightweight.

I want it to develop your professional capacity and make London or wherever more beautiful with fabulous lettering.

Newbie Signwriting has to step up right now. Not by overdressing lettering but but crafting and becoming genuinely discerning. Historical knowledge enriches shape.

The art is not about having fun it’s about exhilaration and craftsWmanship.

in house

But London is eclectic now

London can be eclectic on the basis of great design, applying USA culture of lettering across the city in a way that works – most of the stuff going up isn’t so much brutal/industrial but pig assed ugly. But be aware of what happened when the hamburger joints did that saturation blitz during a period of 70s and 80s ignorance… today Subway and Maccas are trash outlets painted green, struggling to gain a foothold in a more genuine health based, fast food landscape.

But the past will always haunt KFC and co. It will haunt a lot of small businesses too if they opt for crass design and rough painting.

Do we really want risk the inflow of junk type?

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Say it

I remember Pete Hardwick at the first showing of Signpainters the movie turning to me saying ”This isn’t signwriting Nick… it’s poster writing”. A few writers shuffled a bit standing alongside in earshot.  I agreed with Pete.

Never a truer letter written, nor word spoken for quality.

Recently I ran it by Jack Hollands who said he feels London is the better for USA CAZ  (…rough?) letters and shared his genuinely open mindedness about the new type look about town. Shaking the place down it is.

Actually it’s not.

It’s shaking down people’s businesses because once you commit to that casual look and your neighbour competitor opts for something more tasty, you’re going to have to renew your vows as you watch sharp style clean up the Tee shirt fashion sign identities.

Casual is a style made for temporary, low budget delivery.

It’s got no legs.

And great looking cities are built on these four pillars:

Culture – Design – Power – Strategy


Some type can look cheap as chips yet remain very tasty over time.




Above x4: Pop culture artworks exude real style. Design has to be top notch to recreate such iconics.


The role of good, genuine teachers

When faced with a weekend studio full of mixed aptitudes the application of a common denominator principle of teaching what looks like an easy typeface, falls apart by the following Tuesday afternoon for the learner, as the student ponders what did they really get from it all.

A great teacher builds principles that all students can understand and address in their own way and uses examples that clarify all stages of development. Block letters are tough but ideal for that role. No place to hide with a sans serif, it keeps it all honest.

Casual letters are really difficult to master because they are often built around weaves and loops – different to every hand and dependent on ‘The Hand’. A bad casual offers no clarity for a student to easily identify root problems and causes and thereby fix.

A block letter does show exactly where the student is weak and needs to focus – it shows them where they are strong too.


But teaching blocks and Romans is hard work. Tough going on the teacher and the student. But if it’s done in a kinetic way, showing links to both historical and dynamic contemporary contexts, it’s nothing short of mesmerising what a student can achieve.  It’s the stuff that stays with an artist forever. It’s so pure, unrivalled and clear it renders everything else pale.

That’s why it is an addiction that is good for you.

Below: My first block and script Brewery sign in 1982 for Watneys

Flemming Pub written 1981 Nick Garrett

Young master Tobias Newbigin below worked with me for a year making great letters By Eye, By Hand , By Heart.



Above: NGS Soho Bold with blended drop shade. Solid, modern and beautiful… learn it with us.

And then you can dress it. Just as Daisy Emerson does.

I remember Daisy coming into my studio in the morning and leaving a signwriter by the evening. She proved it by her own excellence and taking a job off me the next day going pro.

I took a look at that job the other day – Clarendon bold. She did good.

So if you wanna have fun – have fun. But paint the right letters… the right way and don’t get caught up in the BS.

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