Golden West Sign Arts

Derek McDonald

Derek McDonald

Derek McDonald has left his mark around the Oakland area in the form of crisp, hand-painted signs on local businesses such as Siegel’s Tuxedo Shop, Temescal Alley Barbershop, and many more. Further afield, he is possibly better known as ‘The Signpainter’ from the short video Jack Daniel’s Meets The Sign Painter. Coming from a background as a veterinary technician, Derek could almost be described as a ‘neo-luddite’ (in the best sense of the term) for his computer-free approach to sign-making:

‘The computer is a tool. It’s a useful tool, just like a hammer is, just like a paintbrush, but living in the world where everybody does that, why not not do it?’ – Derek McDonald

Showcard Lettering Derek MacDonald

Derek paints a showcard.

Here are a few of Derek’s thoughts about his own work, at his shop (Golden West Sign Arts) and the future of hand-lettered signs in general:

I got into sign painting through a general interest in car pinstriping. I soon found that often the two are closely related and the same paint is used, et cetera. My first sign person I looked up to was Jimmy The Saint of San Francisco, California. He had some work around my neighborhood in Oakland and I was – and still am – amazed at a really nice script he did on a transom. It really got me excited about learning to letter. That was in 2004.

Silver-Leafed Transom

A Silver-Leafed Transom Window, by Derek

How did ‘Jack Daniels meets the Sign Painter’ come about?

We got an email from the ad agency doing the ad campaign for them [Arnold Worldwide]. They simply asked if I would be interested in designing and painting some stuff and having a little short film made to show the process. Of course we felt – and still feel – extremely lucky to have had that opportunity and I can say that it was certainly a blast even though not something I was used to being involved in. It was a total coincidence but a friend of mine in Los Angeles who makes music for film [Neil Cleary] was the guy who got hired to compose this song playing in the background so that made it even more cool!


Derek’s little hand-lettered sign transformed into a billboard in Los Angeles

The shop here works just like any old school general sign shop, I suppose. I am happy to reproduce logos if they are within reason to be painted by hand or I’m happy to draw up my own patterns and layouts. If I lived in a dream world all the customers would let me make everything look a certain way but I know that that is not being realistic at all if you expect to pay the bills doing this full time.

Derek MacDonald

I think that’s a big difference with trying to be a ‘general’ or commercial sign painter versus using sign painting techniques in your art. If you’re doing it as a pure art then you get to do whatever you want, use whatever colors, do the craziest letter styles, et cetera, and in the sign painting in a commercial sense your main goal is to give the customer something that fits their business and most importantly it needs to read well. It’s art that is functional. But it needs to be functional before it’s art. If it’s just art and not functional (doesn’t read well) then we’re not doing our job. Luckily for the past couple years we’ve had a steady flow of jobs and haven’t needed to do any advertising other than posting pictures on our website etc. Although we have a street shop on a main avenue, the majority of our customers contact us via email and then we might meet later to go over designs, colors, et cetera.

Golden West Sign Arts

Inside & Outside the Shop (image courtesy of Christina Richards)

I enjoy so much of what I get to do. That’s not to say there isn’t any stress, haha! I think I just enjoy the fact that this craft is a constant lesson. As long as you have the ambition there is always plenty to improve upon. I like doing loose work like paper banners and show cards but I like the end result of a nicely done gilded window. I equally enjoy setting up my scaffolding and doing walls. So, it’s hard to say. I think I’m happy I don’t have to do the same thing over and over. It’s a variety of types of jobs and the techniques change a little with each one.

Hand-painted Paper Banner

A Freshly-painted Paper Banner

What’s in the shop right now?

Let’s see…I just finished a small showcard for a vintage clothing store in San Francisco. I just finished lettering a motorcycle tank for a guy in New York. It is engine-turned gold leaf, with black outline and shade. I’ll be starting six A-frame signs for a small chain of butcher shops called Belcampo Meat Co. We have quite a few little signs to make for a circus. Coming up shortly I will be gilding a large carved inscription in a mausoleum for the Family of the Borax Mining Company. There’s more, but those are the ones I need to get going on in the next week or so.

Belcampo Sign

Hand-Lettered Trampoline

It seems handcrafted signage is becoming more of a commonly known thing. It’s good that customers are more aware of it. I just wish we had mentor or apprenticeship programs here in the U.S., or more ways for younger people to learn the traditions and the written and unwritten rules. If we have a whole new generation of sign painters out there skipping the fundamentals it may not be such a pretty sight, haha! Seems like a lot of workshops are popping up here and there. Some are being offered by amazing professionals and some are being offered by people who just picked up a brush six months ago themselves…haha! Be careful out there!

Derek McDonald & Mike Meyer

Derek McDonald with veteran Sign-Painter Mike Meyer

My all time idol is E.C. Mathews. I look through his books and really try to soak in that era of layout and design. Of course, I don’t come close to his awesomeness in the least bit but I do go to him for inspiration. Also the letter styles of Alf Becker, his letters work well for show cards, board signs or gold leaf on a bank window – timeless.

E.C. Matthews

A Page from ‘The Sign Painting Course’ by E.C. Matthews (image courtesy of Public Collectors)

I just really love the 1930s, 1940s and the early 1950’s stuff. I love good classic storefront window layouts and good old classic truck door layouts! It’s the stuff I feel most connected to for some reason. Not the overly elaborate filigree, scroll filled stuff, even though its a nice look too, but I just love the simplicity and efficacy of the more streamlined stuff; a simple thick-and-thin letter style with a nice personalized loose script and some good shades and shadows in the right colors will blow most stuff away. I myself am no master and have a life’s work ahead of me, but I do try to stick close to the masters I look up to as far as how to approach a sign. I think Pierre Tardif in Canada is a living example of the previous guys I mentioned above. If you look at his work it is clean, simple, loose and professional all at the same time. It always does its job as a sign in that it reads well. He usually sticks with the basic four: Egyptian (block), Thick and Thin, Script and Casual….and it works beautifully! He is my favorite living sign painter by far. The work he does is what I wish my work would look like.

Pierre Tardif

Pierre Tardif (image courtesy of Pierre Tardif)

To end with, here’s a short video about Golden West:

7 thoughts on “Golden West Sign Arts

  1. I have not met Derek in person yet but I feel pretty lucky to have one of his panels he painted for me hanging in my studio. Derek is a prime example that hard work and detication pays off. Another fine article about another fine character of the hand painted sign world.
    Cheers Chris Dobell

  2. I keep discovering more characters like Derek and yourself, just quietly churning our fantastic hand-lettered signage from a workshop or garage somewhere.

  3. Another informative and inspiring article! I noticed that EC Mathews book has been scanned and re printed, always loved Golden West’s kerning and layout! Keep up the good work; hope to see some of their work first soon enough. For now their Instagram and blog will do….
    J Bocksel
    Hand Signs NY

  4. Hi John, Thanks for the heads-up about the book. Good kerning seems to separate the veteran sign-painters from the amateurs. Your signs are great too.

  5. Fantastic article, although i must admit to being one of the digital crew, and not a traditional sign writer, but i left school wanting to be one and 35 years later changed jobs and became a sign maker using digital and vinyl, i need to combine the too i think and learn the traditional ways, if not for profit just for my sanity!

  6. Hi Alan. If you’re interested in learning some of the traditional sign-writing techniques, I would recommend that you attend the 2014 UK Letterheads meet, in Kent: You’ll meet lots of traditional sign-writers who are keen to pass on skills. There are also a fair number of hand-lettering classes in the UK. If you’re interested in learning to carve signs, you’ll probably have to venture a little farther afield, since I don’t know of any sign-carving classes in your area. Dimitrios Klitsas (Hampden Massachussetts) teaches woodcarving courses several times a year.

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