The Vanishing Art of Hand-Painted Signs
Sign-painter Richard Brooks of Clinton, MO perseveres in a craft beset by technological competition
by Leigh Elmore
In the flow and ebb of American commerce one thing has remained constant: If you run a business you need a sign to let the world know that you are in business. But, of course, the form that sign can take has gone through a lot of changes, especially in the last 30 years, as computerized illustration techniques have become the rule in the world of advertising and promotion. Neon and plastic also took their toll even before Adobe Illustrator came into being.
Sign painter Richard Brooks displays the tool/brush box he inherited from his mentor Frank Hayden. (photos by Leigh Elmore)
The days of the individual artisan who crafted hand-painted signs for his customers seems to be fading fast, especially as more and more companies might not even have a brick and mortar building that a person can walk into, instead operating entirely on-line.
The sign-painting industry was once highly competitive and painted signs were commonly seen as billboards along highways and crowded into many cities' commercial areas in windows, over storefronts and spotted around the interiors of many stores.
And it was a trade distinguished by "old masters" that imparted the secrets of their crafts to apprentices, who sometimes worked for years in the tutelage of the more experienced professional.
Brooks and his painting of the Henry County Courthouse.
Richard Brooks of Clinton, MO, knows about the course of his profession all too well. He and his wife, Kaye, own and operate D&M Signs in Clinton. Kaye runs the business and Richard is the "talent" behind the company, which has been in business since 1957, originally founded by Chester Derringer and Claude Murphy (the D and the M). The couple has owned D&M Signs since 1978 choosing to keep the original name for public recognition. They have weathered the changes in the industry along the way. Brooks is the last of the "old school" of sign painters in western Missouri.
"There used to be sign painters everywhere," Richard Brooks said. "In the little town of Windsor alone there were three." Today, Brooks is well known in his community of Clinton. Most companies on the town square have signs that Brooks created. Many billboards and other signs around the area are products from his studio.
In order to stay in business, the Brookses have had to adopt some modern sign-making techniques such as using digital designs with lettering produced by die-cut vinyl plotters and inkjet printers. "It's a necessary evil," Brooks said, emphasizing that hand-lettered and hand-painted signs are still his passion, something that he trained to do for many years as an apprentice.
For Brooks it all started as a young motorhead in the early 1960s. "I had a 1953 Ford with an Oldsmobile motor in it. I painted the name 'Road Hog' on it." Soon he was helping to decorate other hot rods around Clinton. "Also, in those days every truck including pickups had to have the name and address of the owner on the side. It was easy to pick up an extra six bucks doing truck sides."
Examples of Brooks' work in Clinton include homage to the town's railroad past. Yes, he even painted the railroad crossing sign.
During that time a local sign-painter, Frank Hayden, began to notice Brooks' work. Hayden eventually took Brooks under his wing and began to teach him the craft. "I learned the job from Frank," Brooks said. "Frank had attended art school in Chicago and started working with cartoonists Al Capp (Li'l Abner) and Chester Gould (Dick Tracy). He saw some of my hot rods around town and asked me if I wanted to learn how to really do it right."
"Richard had a little bit of paint and a whole lot of talent," said his wife, Kaye. He did a short stint at Hallmark Cards, Inc. in Kansas City, but didn't like the corporate setting and soon returned to Clinton.
Brooks was happy to get any amount of work at the time, but soon landed a regular job as a sign-painter at Central Missouri State University in Warrensburg. "That gave me the time to really develop my lettering skills," he said.
An accomplished artist, Brooks stays true to his hot rod youth in this mural for a Clinton garage/museum.
Brooks thought he was a slow worker. "On my first day at the college they told me to go and letter a truck. I did it in an hour and a half. They said the last guy took eight hours to do the same job. I knew I was in then," he said.
Kaye recalled, "After five years there, he came home and told me 'I have more talent than to just paint No Parking signs'."
The space where the Clinton Elks Lodge collapses is a memorial park decorated with historic scenes of Clinton that Brooks painted.
His big break came soon when he was "discovered" and hired by Bill Boatman and Bill Findley, owners of Sedalia Neon. That was the job that catapulted Brooks into the really satisfying work of painting billboards and the sides of large work trucks.
"I loved doing billboards, but they are all gone now," he mused.
He was the chief painter at Sedalia Neon until 1977 when he came to D&M as a partner. Within a year he and Kaye were the owners and have continued the business ever since. They moved to their current location east of Clinton on Hwy. 7 in 1998 and then the buildings were destroyed by 90-mph winds. The Brookses are nothing if not tenacious. "We rebuilt it entirely," he said proudly.
His hand-lettered signs still appear all over the area. A company in Ava, MO has a fleet of propane trucks that have to be hand-lettered. "It lasts longer than vinyl," Richard said. "We manage to stay booked with jobs a couple of months in advance," he says, noting there is still a niche market for handcrafted signs such as his.
The Clinton city government hired Brooks to celebrate one of Clinton's Claims to fame.
(photos by Leigh Elmore)
"I have a reputation for quality," he said.
Brooks painted the sign for Welcome Home Realty in Lexington, Mo. (photos by Brant Neer)
That reputation served him well a few years
ago, when Brant and Michelle Neer, owners of
Welcome Home Realty in Lexington were
looking for someone to repaint the front of their 19th century building downtown. The couple specializes in the historic homes of Lexington
and wanted to keep their building's look in
keeping with its history.
"I began searching the region for a traditional
sign-painter and frankly I was having trouble
finding anyone," Brant Neer said.
"Richard Brooks' name finally came up.
I wasn't sure if he would be willing to make the
trip over here, but he was agreeable.
"Richard started early in the morning, stayed
over and finished it up the next day. It was an amazing process. After he took some very
basic measurements he just started in free
hand and went to it. It was an amazing process. I've never seen anything like it," Neer said.
It's in the lettering
Brooks painted the sign on the historic Lamy Manufacturing Co. building in Sedalia across from the train station.
"When I started in the 1960s there were sign-painters everywhere. I think I learned something from every one of them," he said. The real test of a painter was how he made an "S" or an "8".
"I am the only one in this area that hand-letters anymore," he said, noting that there is more to a good sign than perfect lettering. "Frank Hayden told me that he would rather see a good composition rather than perfect lettering. A lot of people can make good letters but they don't know how to lay it out.
"Frank would stand over me and examine my technique. If I didn't do it to his satisfaction, he would make me do it all over again," Brooks said. "Hayden did this all his life. Now there I was in the middle of my career and all of a sudden everything was different."
"I got to be good friends with one of my competitors, Ralph Bradley. He came to work for us at D&M, but he quit when I finally bought a computerized vinyl cutter," Brooks said. "All painters hate vinyl cutters. They stole all the work."
Kaye and Richard Brooks own and operate D&M Signs in Clinton, MO.
Kaye mentions that Richard is one of the few artisans in the region who can still do gold leaf work, which used to be common on window signage, such as on jewelry stores and banks. Brooks again is quick to credit another mentor, Harry Collins of Sedalia. "He was the master of gold leaf," Richard said.
The city of Clinton has employed Brooks to paint a number of murals and large art signs in town. Especially poignant are the images he created on the two brick walls that define the space where the Clinton Elks Lodge collapsed in 2006. The space now serves a memorial park and a showcase of Clinton's history as illustrated by Richard Brooks.
A niche for signs
Business trends cycle one way and then can cycle back. In the last few years the desire for hand-painted signs has grown in certain markets, especially the vintage trade. Plus, Kansas City has seen the practice of painting sides of buildings with large advertising signs grow more and more popular. Many vintage markets are now filled with purveyors of small hand-painted signs for home use.
An advertisement for a bygone cigar brand.
"A hand-painted sign suggests that a store has a personality, that its products aren't mainstream or mass-produced," said Jeffrey Sinich the S in J&S Signs of Portland, OR. "People want their business to be individual, to stand out," Sinich told The Atlantic in 2016. In the same article, Shelby Rodeffer, a sign-painter in Chicago said the country's renewed enthusiasm for unique, hand-painted signs is based primarily on young consumers' Etsy-type enthusiasm for distinctiveness and character, and has flourished via social media. Newer sign-painters have credited Instagram with helping them build their personal brands.
But Richard Brooks of Clinton is decidedly old school despite his bow to vinyl signs. He has no web site. There is no Facebook or Instagram page. But out on Hwy. 7, just west of Clinton, there is a wooden sign that reads "D&M Signs" along with an arrow pointing to the right. Better slow down.
Leigh Elmore can be contacted at email@example.com
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