Glass gilding means applying gold leaf to glass. It is part of the bigger field of sign painting. The historical peak of gilding was the late 19th / early 20th century, and part of a process of creating beautiful and striking signs and adverts. Combined with hand-painted and screen-printed lettering, as well as a few other tricks, gilding achieves the kind of vivid signage we would associate with British pubs, Italian restaurants, French smokehouses or American breweries.
I got interested in gilding when I saw a couple of videos featuring UK based glass artist, Dave Smith. These can still be found on Vimeo and anyone with even a passing interest should check them out. When I discovered these videos Dave has doing some very British-style traditional Victorian pieces of artwork for Jameson whiskey, singer/songwriter John Mayer, the Kings of Leon, plus many others. I had also seen the Sign Writers documentary (also well worth a watch for those interested), which celebrates the resurgence of the techniques and rallies agains the poor quality and sheer fuck-ugliness of plastic vinyl signage.
Prior to seeing these videos and documentaries, in my role as a graphic designer, I was drawn to the idea of hand-done things (not an uncommon trend in the past few years), but was struggling to really understand how to turn a sketch into a viable piece of design without resorting to the ‘scan—Adobe everything—digital print—never see again’, loop. And then, seeing how a hand-done sketch could come to life with gold and paint, I was enthralled.
I went to visit Dave Smith in Torquay and spent a day and half with him. We made replica of an old sign, covering a range of techniques and styles. He showed me all the finished pieces in his studio and he answered every question I had for him.
I came back to Tallinn and started practising. Now, in every spare moment I am painting, drawing and gilding. And, much to my girlfriend’s annoyance our apartment has turned into a workshop full of paint and chemicals, with glass leaning up against every wall and the lingering smell of white spirit in every room.
With regular practice I’ve come to learn a few tricks and am hopefully getting better by the week. Simply painting a straight line with a long-haired chisel signwriting brush takes some time to master.
And this is something I really enjoy about signwriting and gilding. The connection between the physicality of it and the creative outcome. There really isn’t a cut and paste, or a delete and re-do option. 1-Shot signwriting paint will dry to the point where it marks glass (also metal and wood) within 10-15 minutes. Screen printing ink in an even shorter time. Acid will irreparably change the surface of glass within seconds. The glass I use is usually ‘reclaimed’ – found on waste lands and railway tracks, then taken home and thoroughly cleaned.
Sign painting and gilding is a corporeal form of design. It is physical and not digital, real and not boundless. To use a metaphor, it’s the difference between playing football and playing a football computer game. That is to say, in the realm of digital design, one can create a thousand swatches in minutes. When painting a sign, you can make as many swatches as you can afford the paint with as many brushes you be bothered to clean. It requires definitive decision making and very physical processes. And it has reinvigorated my love of lettering and design.
In July this year, I finished my first piece of outdoors signage, for a cocktail bar called Frank, in Tallinn vanalinn. It took six hours to paint five 30cm tall letters in their window. The gilding took about an hour and the other steps maybe about two hours. And it was worth every second because not only do the owners of that bar now have something totally unique, it will last generations and it looks great too. Far better than a computer-made, digitally printed plastic vinyl sign ever could.
And now, as I keep practising and developing, I’m looking forward to doing more signs here in Tallinn and covering the city in gold!
Lewis McGuffie, Brand Manual designer and sign painter