Shaking hands with Larry Oliverson is like shaking hands with a wooden paint brush: sturdy, gentle and unassumingly capable of creating artwork that exceeds expectation. Oliverson stands in the doorway of Signs Plus, his old stomping grounds, with an unlidded box containing the history of his work as a hand-painted sign artist.
Each artist, designer and creator at Signs Plus that spots Oliverson breaks into a smile and greets him from across the room. Oliverson returns the recognition with his own vibrantly booming voice, filled with more colorful tones than any painting.
“One of my quotes throughout the years is, ‘I didn’t want to be a starving artist. A sign painter is an artist that eats!’” Oliverson, now retired, says with a laugh as he places pictures of his painted signs on the table.
Hand-painted signs are a rarity in today’s technological world. Today’s signage needs to be fast and easy to replicate. This is convenient, but hand-painted signs are one-of-a-kind. They take special skills to create and a plethora of knowledge to craft well. “Proper lettering takes tedious hand-eye coordination to be able to have that many alphabets – or fonts, as they call them – in your head and do them right,” Oliverson says.
Try and picture a font you’ve used on the computer: Helvetica, Times New Roman, Comic Sans, Chiller. Now draw out the alphabet in that font from A to Z. Oh, don’t forget to be on a ladder two stories high while writing it out on uneven bricks with a deadline. Not only does creating hand-painted signs require remembering fonts, it requires the mind of a problem solver because you’re never just painting on paper. Oliverson has painted on sides of barns, buildings, windows, steel, wood and windows.
“On glass windows when you do the highlights on, say, the buns and lettuce, you have to do those first; it’s completely backwards,” Oliverson says. “You do reverse work. You really have to have this in your head.”
Through years of practice, Oliverson has elevated signage and pictorial work to a new level. But he started out like any other artist, painting backgrounds and cleaning out the brushes.
At Meadowdale Highschool in Lynnwood, he was often called upon when painting skills were needed for school plays. He was the art editor for the yearbook and went to work at a sign shop as a shop boy. From there, his artistic genius grew. In college, he and his dormmates painted a three-story tall image of a Wildcat, their university’s mascot, for a campus competition. They won.
In his early 20s, he and a partner created the Sundance Sign Company in Seattle. The year was 1971 and the sign world was changing – embracing artistic looks and vintage styles. Oliverson taught himself lettering and gold leaf. He learned how to give the customer what they want. Artisans commonly acquired the craft through an apprenticeship, but Oliverson took a different route.
“‘This guy never went to an apprentice class?’ That raised some eyebrows,” Oliverson says. “I was competing with the big guys now, so they ratted me out to the union. I joined the union and the guy says, ‘We’re going to make you a Journeyman on the body of your work.’” Oliverson was handed his Journeyman’s card in 1976.
Since then, he’s painted one sign after another across the country. His advice for creating signs is to find inspiration everywhere. “Go to a grocery store, go through the can aisles and look at what caught your eye as far as design and colors. I might not like the canned beans, but I sure liked the label,” Oliverson says with a laugh.
“I had an advantage over some of my peers because I could imagine this finished product right from the beginning,” he says. “It makes it so much easier if you can visualize it.”
Unless artwork is in a museum, it’s hard to know how long it will last. For hand-painted signs, the longevity is in the viewer’s memory. They aren’t meant to last forever.
“One thing in the sign biz, you don’t get attached to this stuff more than briefly,” Oliverson explains. “You appreciate it at the time, take a picture and learn from it, but you move on. Signs change all the time. Your work leaves all the time. You can’t get attached to it. Businesses change and names change.”
A hand-painted sign that has been weathered, forgotten or showcases a defunct business is known as a ghost sign. Ghost signs can be found all across the world with several living right in downtown Bellingham.
Even if all it took was a new coat of paint to revamp a hand-painted sign, the craft has been set aside. Vinyl and digital graphics have taken the lead because of their limitless possibilities. Concepts that would have cost a fortune to hand-paint can be printed out and put together in a few hours. Technology brought changes to the world of signs, along with complications.
“You went from hand-painted – a quality product and look,” says Signs Plus President Jim Sutterfield. “Vinyl started happening in the computer age and you had inexperienced people infiltrating the business.”
But some companies grew more organically. “Signs Plus is one of the four leading sign companies in the state of Washington and a lot of it came from Larry,” says Sutterfield. “Larry had the training on how to properly use the right letter style on the sign. There are a lot of things these young guys with computers don’t know.”
Oliverson shrugs and adds, “I didn’t even have to think about it anymore.”
Sutterfield finishes, “Making signs was like second nature to Larry!”
Oliverson is living the retired life and the paint brush returns to his palm every once in a while. As he reflects on his life’s work – displayed through the photographs which now cover the table – he says his career’s best work was through Jim Sutterfield and Signs Plus. After all, a sign painter doesn’t paint signs until there’s a job to do.
“I retired out to the country as a wizened old sign-fart and it don’t bother me,” Oliverson says. “I have the best job in the world. That’s how I look at it.”