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