The Lost Art Of Sign Painting

I had the afternoon off, so I wandered down to the bike shop and set up camp on one of the car seat couches out front. Halfway through my copy of “Carry on, Jeeves” on a sunny afternoon, I was not bored.

But Ryan said, “Hey Shannon, can I give you a job?” So far in my life I’ve never said no to that sort of question. “I think we need a new sign for the shop.”

I looked at the current one. It’s mounted on the roof of the building, a red, yellow and blue announcement of “Recyclistas Bike Shop”, brown and mouldy from ten years of weather. “Sure,” I said. “It’ll be fun.”

There's the sign in the top left corner.
There’s the sign in the top left corner.

Ryan pulled a ladder out of somewhere. I scampered up to the roof to measure the sign, taking a few minutes to appreciate the view, the rusty hulks of antique bikes scattered around, and the plastic laundry basket that was caught in chicken wire around the edge of the roof. “The wind blew it up there,” Ryan called. “Toss it down.”

With measurements in hand, I went off to buy paint and canvas. First I went to Cloverdale Paints. “May I have a 6 by 12 piece of canvas, a pint of red One-Shot and a pint of black One-Shot?” I asked.

One-Shot, for the uninitiated, is the stuff professional sign-painters use for lettering. Ryan thought it would be $13 per can, and gave me $60 for it and the canvas.

One-Shot Paint. Illegal in Canada.

I guess canvas is a pretty crazy thing to ask for at a paint shop. They were startled. “But we can get the paint for you, for sure!”, the young lady assured me.

“Okay, red One-Shot first?” I said.

“Oh, we don’t have One-Shot.” About halfway through her list of every other paint shop in town, I said “Thanks, I’ll figure it out,” and ran for the door.

Industrial Paints and Plastics was the next stop. They had no One-Shot, but were able to sell me a massive white tarp for 12 dollars. Cool. On to Michaels, the craft shop. They had never heard of One-Shot.

I’d been tramping around town on foot for over an hour at this point. Time to toddle back to the bike shop and ask Ryan what the hell is up with this One-Shot stuff.

Ryan was busy. I got on the phone and started calling places. Dulux Paint explained the mystery – “One-Shot isn’t sold in Canada anyone, actually.” What. “Yes, I’m afraid so. There was an environmental concern, and it’s illegal now.” What. “Sorry about that!”

As I sat there stunned, Ryan came in and said, “This is the wrong stuff. You need cotton canvas.”

“Did you know One-Shot is illegal in Canada now?”

Ryan didn’t believe me. He’s seen it in a shop, he swears. Lee, the other mechanic, claimed he saw it at Lordco recently. I called Lordco, and O Miracle! they have it. “Don’t sell any, I’ll be right there!” I say.

I hop on my bike this time. Back to IP&P, get rid of the canvas. On to Lordco for the paint. “Put Rocketships on the bill,” I say smoothly. Yeah, I’m so rad I have an account at Lordco. The total is $42.50. Whoa.

On the way back I pass Dulux, and figure I might as well try them for the canvas.

“Canvas?” the young lady stares at me quizzically.

I need to get a job in a paint shop. I’m the master of staring quizzically, and that seems to be the main qualification.

“OHH you mean drop cloths! Sure, we have those!” She sells me one for $25, now Ryan owes me money.

And finally, 3 hours after the silly adventure began, I’m ready to start painting. And stop, 30 minutes later, because the half a pint of primer that Ryan had left over turns out to be enough for only 2 square feet of canvas. I call Dulux again.

This time I have to give the young lady credit, because she kept the shop open after 5 waiting for me. Quite nice. But I didn’t manage to do any more painting that day.

I guess this is why people always want you to have experience when you apply for jobs. Wasting your time running around town looking for paint isn’t something any boss wants to pay for. But then again, professional sign painters are in short supply. Well. Maybe this week at least I’ll be able to finish the sign, and put that on my resume. Hurrah!


Update: the sign eventually completed on July 5th of the same year.


Blank Walls Stare Back At You

Have you ever looked at a blank wall and thought, there needs to be a punk rock elephant there?

The first page of google images gave me exactly what I was after.


Colour choice was probably the toughest part. Hot pink and lime green were considered, and black with blood red. I settled on the same theme as my bike, Kindergarten Style – blue and yellow.

The exact shade is worth noting. Colours are defined by their hue and saturation. If you’re a web designer, this is something you deal with constantly. If not, think back to middle school art class when you had to make a colour wheel, showing the primary colours, red, blue, yellow, and all the intermediate colours that you get when you mix them up (lots of different types of brown, as I recall). The background of this website, for example, is #424242 – equal parts red, green and blue, fairly saturated, chosen mainly because the number is easy to remember.



You can have blue with red overtones or yellow overtones, and it’ll end up looking either a bit purple or a bit green in bright light. Or you can have a yellow with no overtones at all, and no subtlety either.

Saturation is the other thing – intensity of colour. A lightly saturated (20%) pale pink is good for a baby’s bedroom. An unthreatening, cool shade of blue (50%) for a website header, to promote a feeling of trust from your users.

I chose 100% saturated yellow, and 100% saturated blue, cause I feel that you should do it hard or don’t bother.


  • Paint, 40 bucks
  • Paint tray, found in a cupboard
  • Rollers, 9 bucks
  • Masking tape, 4 bucks
  • Poster printing, 15 bucks



First step: wash the wall. How many years of bacon grease have baked into this paint?

Then, masking tape and three coats of yellow.


The next step took a while. How to get the image onto the wall? My first idea was steal an overhead projector from school for a day and use it to make pencil outlines. That was scrapped when my boyfriend sold his car.

The next idea was to print the image, all 5 by 7 feet of it, on many sheets of 8×11 paper. Then… I don’t know… I guess the plan broke down at that point.

Luckily I have a friend at the Camosun print shop. She pointed out that they have a large format printer. That meant I could print 4 big sheets of paper instead of 56 small ones.

So then it was a matter of getting the file to the printer. For some reason I had the idea in my head that I should Photoshop a massive, 5×7 foot .png version of the drawing. Since my laptop has an excessive 16gb of ram, I could do that.But every other computer I tried choked on it, including the printer’s.

Eventually I made it a .pdf and learned to my shock that .pdf file sizes are way, way smaller. So we’re talking about 2 weeks of hum and haw for me to figure this out. Finally I had these 4 huge chunks of paper that I rolled up and left in the corner of my dining room for a couple months.

I was blocked. I had gone as far as I could on my own and was terrified to take the next step, in case I screwed it up. So I called a friend to come over and help me – at least that way I would be forced to actually work on it.


The friend was more talented than I. We cut the stencils in half an hour. Arranging oddly-shaped ribbons of paper to lie flat on a wall is the sort of task that brings me to tears of frustration. But Suzanne managed it without much trouble – I just passed tape as we placed and replaced the stencils about 4 times.


Then we traced them in pencil, which also took a surprisingly short time. I didn’t expect to do any painting that day. I thought there were months of work still ahead. But no, we finished tracing and wandered up to Home Depot for sponge brushes (93 cents each), and finished painting in another hour. Shocking.

Here’s the result. Better than I imagined I was capable of. You can see that it’s adjacent to another mural – my brother’s work, from a couple years ago. Now I’ve left my mark in the house as well. When I move out in a few months, some more students will move in and marvel at living in a house where you can paint any silly thing you want on the walls.


I Would Have Sold The Land Years Ago

The landlady will probably sell the place and knock it down pretty soon, but I don’t mind too much.