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289. Meet James Chastain, Signpainter. 

Recently, I had the benefit of meeting James Chastain, a sign painter from Royston, Georgia. Now when I say meet, what I really mean is exchange emails across 8,500 miles a few times during the last couple of months. We talked a little about art and his craft and his experiences, and below is some of that conversation which James was willing to share publically on our humble blog. The images were taken or acquired by James per my request, which you will appreciate more after reading the post. If you are living in the SE you might want to consider heading over the Royston, GA and taking a lesson or two. (The interview below is pretty much just how James answered my questions, and like anyone using email — it's not meant to be a grammatically precise. And I like his wording better anyway.) Enjoy.

James, can you first introduce yourself?       
I am a 64 year old sign painter, residing in north Georgia where I have lived all my life. I have been painting signs since I was 15 and have roughly 49 years experience. I run a new website and small business that teach the basics of sign painting and layout to anyone willing to learn.

How did you get started painting signs?
I wasted more notebook paper in school drawing than I did for school work; any form of art was the core of my existence. My dad was a trucker in the 50s and 60s and one day he employed a local sign painter to letter his truck doors. I watched every move he made, fascinated was an under-statement. A few weeks later, dad asked me what would I like to be when I grew up and I answered quickly.  A sign painter. He then asked me if I thought I could do this. I hesitated for a moment and replied no. Then I said, I know I can! So at the age of about 12 I had made my career choice. Then the question was how. I painted a few little signs for family and friends and they would give me a dollar or so. But I needed someone to teach me the fundamentals of the trade. That was a problem, because there was no one available for this task. So I played around with it till I was 15 yr old, quitting school and determined to be a sign painter.

Then one day I was in a neighboring town and was introduced to the gentleman that became my tutor and life long friend. His name was Oscar Truelove, he seen my potential and decided he would teach me. My starting salary was a whopping $30 for a 40 hr. week. Finally I had what I wanted for a long time a teacher.  I had also found one of the best freehand sign artist in the south. I was on a journey that would last my entire life.

Ah, an internship—that’s also a dying art. What was being an apprentice like?
When I started in a real live sign shop, I was on top of the world, to have found a real gentleman like Oscar Truelove....He had the patience of Job. He asked me to draw a few things for him. He looked at my drawings and said I think you can do this. Many years later he told me I was good as any he had seen in his own painting career. The way he started teaching me was really simple, but very affective. He would hand draw the letters on a sign for layout and let me paint them or any art if the sign required it. He also taught me how to hold a brush and gently twist it when making curves to keep the stroke uniform. Also in how to apply pressure to widen the stroke etc. He taught me compatible color combinations and how to blend and mix paints for different affects. Gee there is no end to this topic really, there is so much!


Probably my favorite sign James sent me. Love the folk feel of this. Perfect.


Can you talk about your creative process when starting a project?
When I am in the process of designing a sign, there are several steps I take gathering info for the sign, such as size, which is determined by location for application and state or county laws governing the size. Then I choose a stock material, such as metal or signboard or even coraplast (plastic pasteboard) for the sign. They are numerous materials available to choose from. Next unless they have a definite format they want to use, I will rough sketch it to give them a general idea and suggest type of lettering and color combinations that are in contrast with background colors. I would also show them pics of some of my work, if they didn't know me. But through the years my reputation preceded me and a lot of the jobs I got were referrals. And I never used a PC for doing a layout, because I could see in my minds eye exactly what the sign or art would look like, before I even started.

Does the computer play a part at all?
Far as computers, I had heard of them, but they played no part in my sign painting training and still I do not use them for that. A computer can do things it is programmed to do, but has no imagination or creativity about it. I will not use one for my art and then say I did it, Bah! One of my sons has been helping me along as he grew up and was getting real good till he started a family, which tied him down to a 9-5 job. As of late, he has the time now to proceed with it and carry on. I have just started the online training  basics and it is hard to get the amount of traffic needed, get a good page position and a few backlinks, but no alexa page rank thus far.


James has painted section signs for grocery stores. House Industries would be proud.


In your opinion, what is the state of the art of sign painting?
The way I see it, the art of actually painting a sign has definitely taken a downward turn since vinyl lettering came into the picture. They teach computer tech in school, thus any one with a computer and plotter can make a sign. It takes years to develop the true skill of sign painting, and that is if you are gifted in art. The greater the God given gift, the faster you possibly learn. I painted for 25 years before I considered myself pro and still saw a lifetime of learning ahead of me. There is so much to making signage. because it covers so many different aspects of the field. So the younger generation of artist doesn't have patience for it or some old  sign pro to teach them. Again the art is truly dying, but hopefully not completely.

Do you have a favorite piece you’ve painted or a favorite type of project?
As Far as favorite piece of work, hmmm. I have painted so many over a 50 year span, let me see. I hand drew and cut out a large cartoon type covered wagon, painted just like a real one, then lettered it for a mobile home park. It was an eye catcher for sure and still standing looking good for its age. I have painted Old locomotives, antique cars, about everything one could imagine. I have duplicated Coca Cola signs on old country stores. Shucks I liked them all I reckon. I have lettered marquis, racecars, commercial trucks, billboards, store fronts, boats and even mailboxes and not excluding everything in between. And yes I always loved doing and still do, is Christmas windows, you can turn loose and have a blast doing those.


Bold color choices for a Butcher Shop.


During our initial email-exchange you mentioned a bit of tragedy. Care to elaborate for the readers?
In the mid nineties I hand built a real log cabin out of pine logs off of my property, it was the talk of the neighborhood. I also had a small building to one side of it for knocking around in and was actually in it painting a 4x8 sign when I heard a strange noise. I went out the door and saw smoke rolling out of the top. I ran to the door and my son grabbed me and wouldn't let me go in. He was with the local fire dept. and trained for such as this.  I struggled to be free from him, but couldn't manage. I lost everything I owned, as you know things that were irreplaceable. I had a several portfolios with pictures of work I had done through the years. After that I practically quit taking photos. But a slew of signs I have painted still remain throughout the southeast.

You obviously have yet to retire. Why have you stuck with it for so long?  
I will be 64 May 12, 2010, the reason I have stayed with it so long is I love art. With signs each new customer is a new challenge to make it outstanding and different from run of the mill. The procedure is basically the same but the art and copy is always different, unless you are making duplicates. Normally if I have a number of duplicates, I would silk screen them. And that leads you into another interesting part of the art field. To stand aside and have your client gasp in awe and comment, I don't see how in the world you do this, is almost as grandeur as the payment itself. I always assure them that it is God given and without his help, I could do nothing.


James at work. Not just a painter, an installer too.


Anything else you’d like to share?
There is no one training for freehand lettering now days , I think mainly because a lot of the old timers, such as myself have moved on to the happy hunting ground and there is not anyone to teach them all the basics and fundamentals of the art. Not only that the younger generation is in the fast lane and don’t won’t to take the time necessary to learn, even though they have God given talents just going to waste.

I have designed a basic sign training package, that would help anyone who is inspired and would like to get involved in this dying art form. After 50 years in the biz, I pretty well covered all aspects for the beginners to get started. Even if you do not use my training lessons, please get help if you are new and want to learn. Don’t let your talent fade with the fading out sign artist.

If you need my help, Please check out my website at To Your Future Success,

Royston, Ga. USA


This dialogue with James over the last few months has me thinking about a lot of things. The cheapness of computer-driven graphic design. Authethicity, which graphic-design often lacks. The irreplaceable human touch in art. How due to a lack of time or money or just ignorance, we all forget that we can do things unplugged that might be better suited for the task. And all the masters of design/type that plied their trade before it became digital. Much respect.

(Top image courtesy of streetart.)

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Reader Comments (2)

awesome post. I read an article the other day about freehand lettering.
March 1, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterA-N-D
Very nice page James. You are above and beyond the technology my friend! Keep up the good work!
April 9, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterThe MLM Jedi

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