Creative Lives — “I wanted to learn something I could spend a lifetime mastering” – sign painter Archie Proudfoot
You might not think that yoga would be an essential skill for a young creative, but if you’re up ladders for hours at a time like London-based sign painter Archie Proudfoot, being in top physical shape is of the utmost importance. An English grad, Archie’s route into the creative industries hasn’t been typical, but renting a studio, learning from the masters and endless practice has won him a huge client base, from small-scale commissions like door numbers and shop signs, to rebranding V Festival earlier this year with design studio Form.
Sign Painter and Artist
V Festival, Peanut, Creature of London, 58 Gin, Ogilvy & Mather UK, Aldworth James & Bond
“No real highlights! Just various part-time jobs”
Fine Art Foundation, Byam Shaw (2007)
BA English Literature, Manchester University (2008–2011)
Archie in his studio
How would you describe what you do?
I’m an artist and sign painter. I make my own artwork and work for hire for business or private clients as well. The work involves painting signage, logos or murals. My clients range quite dramatically from small shops or individuals doing like door numbers or things like that, right up to advertising agencies and large branding projects.
What does a typical working day look like?
They vary quite a lot but I tend to arrive at around 9am and leave about 6pm, fairly rigidly. I’m either designing or preparing a pattern for a commercial job. If I’m working on my own work I’ll look at the next stages of a piece or continue to sketch out ideas. I try to minimise my time in front of the computer because it’s not really where the fun stuff happens.
Where does the majority of your work take place?
A lot takes place on site, usually where the work needs to be painted. I think that’s quite an interesting way of working; you become very adaptable.
“You need to be quite a calm person; it doesn’t help to get stressed when something is going wrong.”
How do projects usually come about?
A lot of it comes to me now. People find me on Google, follow me on Instagram or have seen me in the press.
How collaborative is your work?
Sometimes I collaborate directly with another design agency. They’ll produce a design and I’ll respond to it. Or sometimes a client comes to you with a logo and clear artwork and it’s clear that they want you to paint the job.
What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of your job?
The most enjoyable is probably when you finish. There is the satisfaction of standing back and seeing a piece of work. Seeing the change that it has created for that space is always very nice. The least enjoyable parts are probably the middle stage of the prep work. Prepping patterns can be a bit repetitive and arduous. You get bored.
What has been the most exciting project of the last twelve months?
Probably a project with Form design studio rebranding Virgin V Festival. They created an entire custom alphabet as the basis for the new identity and wanted me to work with them on that. It was a really nice process because I felt I could be quite honest with them in terms of my inexperience dealing with this level of project. They reassured me that they were there for me and had my best interest at heart as well as wanting to get a really good result.
What skills are essential to your job?
Adaptability and resilience. You also need to be in fairly decent physical shape to be outside painting. Even just on a ladder, you’re holding yourself on a stress position for hours. I’ve gotten into yoga over the last couple of years; that’s helped a lot. You need to be quite a calm person as it doesn’t help to get stressed when something is going wrong.
What tools do you use most for your work?
I use a lot of simple things like pencils, brushes, rulers an rubbers and then more specialist sign painting equipment like gilding equipment, gilding tips and lettering brushes. I use a paint called One Shot, it has a nice yellow tint and some rich enamels. I use a computer every now and then to mock up and up-scale size patterns in Illustrator and Photoshop.
“I first found out what sign painting was around 21 or 22 and fell in love with its mixture of craft and artistry. Once I painted the first couple of signs, I was hooked.”
A large-scale mural for Ogilvy & Mather’s new Southbank offices
How I Got Here
What did you want to be growing up?
In my teenage years I let go of the dream of being a footballer and wanted to be an artist. Both of my parents went to art school and run their own creative business. That’s obviously been very formative to know that it was feasible.
How (if at all) is the subject you studied useful to your current role?
I did a foundation year but I didn’t really feel like the style of teaching and the peer were right for me. And then I had the grace to go and do English as I thought a more classic university experience was what I needed. I really, really enjoyed my degree. English lit makes you a good communicator. It’s helped being able to clearly communicate to a client why you believe something is the correct approach.
I first found out what sign painting was around 21 or 22. I started to research it and fell in love with its mixture of craft and artistry. I felt like I wanted to learn something I could spend a lifetime mastering and sign painting certainly is that. Once I started getting involved with paint and brushes and painted the first couple of signs, I just knew I was hooked.
What were your first jobs?
I graduated really soon after the financial crash and a lot of people were doing internships. I felt that it was not a good culture and I didn’t want to be part of it. I did a lot of odd jobs, worked in catering, markets, things like that. The last full-time job I had was working as a teaching assistant at a primary school, which was really fun. It got to the point where I had to decide whether to do a PGCE and learn how to be a teacher or commit full-time to sign painting and art.
Was there anything in particular that helped you at the start of your career?
The decision to rent a studio space. Once I had that space, even though it was small, it was somewhere I could go every day. There was a mixture of creative people there making a living from their work. The work mattered and it felt professional. It built momentum and kick-started what I’m doing now.
Also I went on a five-day course with Joby Carter of Carters Steam Fair. It was really good. He was very clear that it would take time to feel comfortable in these skills and he put that figure around two years. I was intimidated. At school you take assessments and you reach targets but you’re not really taught to self-teach. And so, it was a long time before I decided to get down to repetitive alphabet painting and working through those brush strokes until they were in my muscle memory solidly. Then you can build from there and starting being more expressive.
“At first I didn’t believe making a career as a sign painter was possible and that held me back for quite a while.”
Was there an early project you worked on that helped your development?
A family friend saw a sign I’d painted for a party and when he opened an antique shop in Herne Hill, he wanted me to paint the sign. It was freezing cold couple of days in January. It was really tough but I knew after that the work satisfaction and the kind of pride that I felt, this was obviously something that I wanted more of. I hadn’t felt like that before.
What skills have you learnt along the way?
I’ve learned to compromise. When I first started, I did absolutely everything by hand in terms of drawing everything scale-size for each job. I still draw letter forms for whenever people commission me personally but as I’ve become busier when someone gets in touch and has a specific font in mind, I use a computer first then paint it by hand. There’s a change in the next generation of sign painters that are coming through in how much technology we use in our work. It depends how purist you want to be.
What’s been your biggest challenge?
The courage to do my first ever self-initiated project. I got three T-shirts printed and sold them on an online shop. I wanted to prove to employers that I had creative skills and that they could hire me. The initial fear barrier of putting something out there that might get laughed at or where you might lose money was the hardest thing I can remember.
Is the job what you thought it would be?
At first I didn’t believe making a career as a sign painter was possible and that held me back for quite a while. It’s an interesting step doing your own thing and realising you can mould your job to how you want it to be.
Sign for Acme in Shoreditch
Sign for Brahms & Liszt in London
What would you like to do next?
I’m trying to develop as an artist and give myself more time to do that. The goal at the moment is trying to do more varied work and collaborate more. I want the freedom to really explore some ideas in terms of the border between commercial sign painting and artwork.
Could you do this job forever?
I think so. I think things get stuck when you stop taking risks or stop taking on interesting work. I’ve seen other sign painters get tired and fed up and I’m conscious of avoiding that.
What is the natural career progression for someone in your current role?
I think it’s probably not dissimilar to the career progression you see in some commercial illustrators that then basically live off their personal work. Once you spend a number of years cutting your teeth, you hopefully begin to learn a lot about yourself and really how you want to mould the latter part of your career.
Words of Wisdom
What advice would you give to a young creative wanting to become a sign painter?
Practice. Make sure you’re doing it as close to daily as you can; you’ll notice a big difference very quickly. Don’t be disheartened by early difficulties. You have to trust yourself – things just click after a period of time. Get out there as much as possible. When I was first starting I just went around with business cards to every shop I saw that didn’t have a sign and awkwardly offered my services. It worked a few times! Do whatever you can to get the momentum going.