The Papersmith Series: Ged Palmer

Posted by Rebecca Lee on

Ged Palmer is a lettering artist, sign painter and typographic designer, whose work is a triumphant celebration of the hand-done. Ged learnt his craft here in Bristol (working for Poco and The Gallimaufry to name a few) and now lives in Bethnal Green, London. When he’s not hunting down East End facades to paint, he’s at his shop, The Luminor Sign Co. working on bespoke commissions for a number of discerning clients.

Having drawn letterforms for over fifteen years, we were eager to find out about Ged’s intricate process. We chatted to him about his knack for calligraphy, working with the big shots in California, and the importance of the right brush tool.

Hello Ged! Tell us about your background and how you learnt your craft.

Hey guys. Alright, so taking it way back, my old man is a photographer so I’ve been doing creative stuff ever since I was a kid. My painting and drawing somehow got channelled into drawing letters and from the age of about fifteen I was totally hooked.

Fast forward to 2010 and I was finishing up studying Graphic Design in Bristol. I then made the decision to go full time and pursue lettering as a freelancer. I’d done internships at a few publishing houses and an advertising agency before I graduated and I didn’t feel it was for me. I met my first mentor Tom Lane aka Ginger Monkey in Bristol and spent a couple of years working in his basement, learning the ropes of his illustration and lettering freelance business.

Tom taught me a huge amount about technique, business and life. Around that time I was back and forth to NYC trying to find work out there. I knocked on three studio doors a day for a month and through luck and youthful tenacity managed to meet with a lot of my design heroes like Jon Contino and Louise Fili. Everyone I met focused on the lettering in my portfolio and their encouragement still keeps me going today.

The other light bulb moment came when I had a job doing the branding and stationery for a great restaurant in Bristol called The Gallimaufry. I somehow convinced the owner to let me take care of the 13 meter fascia signs but I promptly called local sign painter James Cooper aka Dapper Signs to ask for his help, explaining I was in way over my head. He liked the design and schooled me on how to paint signs in the correct way.

The first line I painted with Coops up the scaffold was a line I had been trying to paint for about eight years, but I was always using the wrong tools. I was blown away and decided I had to work with a brush if I was to focus on my lettering career.

The next big game changer was in 2012 when I went to work with Derek McDonald of Golden West Signs in Berkeley, California. Derek and Tina run the shop with Duncan, their assistant, and focus completely on hand painted signs and gold leaf work. I spent about a month with those guys, sleeping in the shop for about two weeks and generally making a nuisance out of myself. It was incredible. I learnt so much about the craft and again, about life. I think of those guys and their generosity often.

Hand-lettering and an interest in calligraphy have really been enjoying a resurgence over the last few years. Why do you think this is?

I think it’s in reaction to mass-production and computers. We are so glued to screens these days that actually making something with your hands seems like some voodoo black magic or something. Moreover, the 1980s and 1990s basically took graphic design out the back and shot it dead. Years of typesetting knowledge, printing perfection, 100% analogue in-house art departments, calligraphy, lettering, excellent illustration, book covers, 12 inch record sleeves etc etc got replaced by incredibly rudimentary computer graphics software. Vinyl plotters replaced hand painted signs. Basically everything looked really really shit for a while.  

These days, handmade work stands out against the uniformity of digital design, customers are aware of the difference and young folks are keen to work with analogue techniques. It’s a really interesting time in the world of calligraphy, lettering, typography and the wider field of graphic design.

Can you tell us about some of the techniques you’ve had to master? How does stationery and paper play a part in your creative process?

I certainly wouldn’t say I’ve mastered anything yet. The wonderful thing about learning these kind of skills is that as soon as you think you’ve got it something or someone comes along and reminds you that you are only just getting started. It’s heartening to hear that even some of the greatest I know are still saying that in their 60s!

I’ve been drawing letters for about fifteen years so I feel most confident with that. The newer techniques to me cover various styles of broad and pointed nib calligraphy, brush lettering, gold leaf work and some basic carpentry. More techniques include glue chipping, blending gold, surface gilding, reverse glass work, lettering effect, logotype design, book cover design, typographic layouts, screen printing, letterpress and stone carving. The list goes on!

Stationery and paper play a big part in this. I work with Pilot parallel pens, speedball nibs, Gillott 303 nibs, oblique holders, comic wide pens, Montana markers, handmade papers, embossing plates and stamps. Oh man, just so many wonderful materials.

I’ve been a stationery addict since primary school. What I came to realise through studying calligraphy is that the tool (writing implement) actually dictates the look and feel of the writing. Sanskrit, for example, looks the way it does because it is written with a reed cut in a certain way. A different type of brush pen will produce the certain look of the handwritten.  

You lived in Bristol before moving to London. How influential was it being a part of the creative community of designers, illustrators and print aficionados in Bristol? What brought on the relocation?

Yes indeed. Love Bristol. Apart from Tom and Coops who I mentioned earlier, there are a whole host of super talented artists in the Bristol community that inspired me to push my work and were all active and supportive of each other.

Moving up to London was partly for a change of scenery and partly because I wanted to focus my efforts on sign writing. It turns out there are a lot of shops to paint in London Town!

Congrats on the recent opening of your shop, The Luminor Sign Co. We love the idea that the public can saunter in and see your work in progress. When we started up we had a tiny two person design studio on the other side of our shop counter! What was it that made you want to open a shop space?

About two years ago I discovered the work of the British artist Eric Ravilious. He illustrated a book called ‘High Street’ which had an illustration of ‘The Luminor Sign Co’ amongst other shops in London. I originally thought it was fictional but after doing some more research I found that it was a real shop on the corner of Old Street and City Road and had closed in 1938.

As work has been getting busier for me I had the idea in my head that I wanted to move from working independently to having a small team of talented folks helping with the design, lettering and painting. I’d been looking for a shop space since I moved to London but it seemed like a very distant possibility. In the end an opportunity came along and I made the choice to go for it.  It’s been a great move and has opened up the work to a whole new community of people.

Tell us about your neighbourhood in East London. Bethnal Green Road has such a mix of places - from the post office to hardware shop to concept lifestyle store. Have you any favourite haunts?

Yep, I’ve lived in the neighbourhood for about four years. There’s a real mix of the old school East End and a lot of hip new joints as well. Absolute favourites are E. Pellicci and The Palm Tree.

It must be fascinating to learn about the lettering and signage history of other cities, as well as how differently they approach design. Have you had any inspirational trips or projects abroad?

There is an annual sign painting and lettering meet called The Letterheads. It was founded in 1975 in the USA. The 40th anniversary was in Cincinnati, the following year was Amsterdam and this year Oslo. Next year is London so if you’re interested in lettering and sign painting then it’s not to be missed!

I really wanted to visit the Buchstaben Museum the last time I was in Berlin, but it was sadly closed for renovation! Where do you look for inspiration?

I have a library of old lettering books. It’s kinda like an addiction. Even if I can find it somewhere as a PDF it’s just not the same. I once set an alarm for 4am to enter a bidding war on a sign book from 1909. I didn’t get it that time but I have it now!

What’s the most exciting job you’ve enjoyed working on?

Painting the Lion Enclosure at London Zoo last year was pretty insane. We actually had a zoo employee to tell us to turn down the Elvis because they were training the tapirs. You have to ask yourself on days like that how on earth you end up in this line of work.

Thank you Ged!

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Images © Ged Palmer 2017