Once it seemed a dying art but inside and out, as we revalue the handmade, the writing is on the wall. Vanessa Power, aka Signs of Power, sees her words writ large.
Hang on, isn’t writing on walls just graffiti?
Nope, we’re talking about the commissioned work that you’ll have seen up around the place. From Waterford Walls to the streets of Dublin, on gable ends, shopfronts and also indoors, signwriting makes lettering go large. More intricate takes might be picked out in gold on shop windows and more.
Gotcha. So it all starts at art college?
Not necessarily. Power never went to art college. “I wanted to but I dropped out of my portfolio course after secondary school because I thought I wasn’t good enough.” Instead she studied multimedia and worked in web design, but “I knew I wasn’t doing what I was meant to be doing. I craved something more creative.” On the advice of a wise friend, she looked for something she loved. An interest in signage, product labels and advertising led her to discover signwriting.
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And then it was plain sailing?
Not quite! Power applied to do the Ballyfermot signwriting course but it got cancelled, so she taught herself. “Through word of mouth, I got a signwriting job, then another, and it just naturally snowballed from there. I’ve been very lucky,” she says, proving that you make your own luck. Someone with a less positive disposition might have seen such setbacks as career-breaking instead of defining. Find the 26-week Ballyfermot signwriting course up and running at ballyfermottrainingcentre.ie, or look online for tips and a free introduction at lettering-daily.com.
What about materials and tools?
“I have heard before that a good signwriter can paint a sign with a toothbrush but I beg to differ,” says Power. “A proper brush makes all the difference.” You’ll find specialist signwriting brushes, including the excitingly named Chisel Writer, at corkartsupplies.com. Power also uses oil-based enamel paints for outdoor signs, although she says masonry paint will do for outdoor murals, and general household emulsion is fine for indoors.
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“I was told early on by an old-timer signwriter in Dublin that there’s no secret to signwriting, it’s just practice. I found that really encouraging, so all I had to do was put in the hours and I’d be able to signpaint.” And you can too. Some things are trickier. That beautiful gold script you might see on windows? That’s reverse glass gilding, using 23ct gold leaf, which Power says, “can be a bit of a learning curve”. Patience, she says, is the number one thing. Painting letters takes time. Also endurance, as standing outside all day in the cold and wet Irish weather can be a good test of one’s tolerance.
What about pitfalls?
Obviously being chased off a wall by the gardaí would rank pretty high. Power works to commission all around Ireland. “Permissions happen by approaching the council with the proposed wall and design. I’ve always found them really helpful to deal with and very supportive throughout the process,” Power says. “The easiest thing to make starting out is painting some letters on to a piece of wood. The hardest, I find, is signwriting on a pebbledash wall, a total nightmare.” And what about the wildest? “[I travelled] to India in 2019 for The Hope Foundation to paint some murals in their hospital and orphanage there. It was a wonderful experience.”
Vanessa Power’s work is part of the Scoop Foundation’s charity auction at the RHA on March 28th