Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Wade what?

Some signs don't want you to have any fun 

City Life

Here are two city scenes I painted on sheets of plywood for a circus set last Spring.

 The person who commissioned them requested the inclusion of a burning building with someone crying for help. I obliged and added in a few unicyclists as well. These were fun to paint.


Put some serifs on that

Monday, September 14, 2015


Pizza and dancing in the heart of Maryville, Tennessee.

Compass Heating & Air

Some great brushwork on Central & Heiskell Ave.

Recently Buffed

The TV & VCR Repair biz ain't what it used to be and this building on Broadway has sat dormant for a few years now. Only recently however did the outside get a facelift from a spray gun and now this sweet specimen of text is gone under the buff. 

¡El Girasol!

The Sunflower in Bearden.

Vintage Sign Craft

Here's a cool trick via the internet via a magazine via Tom Rose in Sarasota some years ago.

Handpainted Harvest

 Here's a good business with a sign to match. Second Harvest food bank in Maryville with a nice hand painted piece in their warehouse.

Shout out to the artist, Alex Franklin, on a job well done.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Jim Donahue: Local Sign Painter Extraordinaire

Last summer Knox Flair had the privilege to catch up with and interview one of Knoxville's most professional and prolific sign painters in the city, the one and only Jim Donahue. You may not be familiar with the name but whether you know it or not you've likely seen his signs somewhere in Knoxville. His window splashes (bold fluorescent lettering on the exterior windows of businesses) covers this town in all directions and it was this work that originally got our attention. Fortuitously enough Jim signs his windows with all his contact information as well. So it was that K. Flair was able to track him down and asked to pick his brain. He kindly accepted and we met up at Locke's plumbing on Broadway where he talked shop for close to a couple of hours as he repainted the sign on the side of their building. It was a rare treat to talk such an seasoned professional and learn a thing or two. We'd like to thank Jim once again for sharing his time and knowledge and for being extra patient in waiting for this interview to drop. Below is a selection of some of his work and the condensed interview as it was published in the latest Knox Flair zine. Please enjoy and be sure to check out Jim's websites where he can be reached for any and all sign work you might need done.

On Window Splashes: 

"When I moved out here about 22 years ago that's all I did pretty much full time in California was what they call 'window splash.' Fluorescent window advertising. And I had assumed they'd be doing it everywhere. They didn't do it at all here- zip, nada, nothing. Once in a while in West Knoxville you'd see somebody, like a chain store.  A big tire chain or something where they'd have somebody do the whole region. And they'd come into Knoxville. You could tell they just came in and they didn't do any other windows. And so I've been trying ever since to promote it but it just hasn't really caught on as a referral sort of thing. Once in a while you get a "Hey I saw your thing there." But out there it was just you could work as many hours as you wanted. We lived in our car. I was single and we pretty much lived in our car and just drove around. Had paint in the back, painted all the time."

"We were subcontracted for a gal and we could work as few hours as we wanted or as many hours as we wanted. We could choose our own hours and we could choose our own route around town. It was kind of like "Well you got a job down there. Do you want these other three jobs in that part of town?" And Sacramento was huge. It was like the Los Angeles of the North. So if you were going that way anyway you might as well pick up these other ones."


"I often ended up working with the the Asian immigrants. There's a huge Vietnamese section out there in South Sacramento. And I'd pick those up because I lived in Japan as a boy and I'm kind of fascinated with Asian culture. And some of the sales negotiations your making your little sketches and doing hand gestures because their english isn't great and my Vietnamese is nonexistent. Its fun to interact with these people, you know. And they can tell when you like them and you're trying to give them a straight deal. They referred all their friends and then they started calling the lady I subcontracted under saying "Oh we want Dr. Neon!"

"She had this requirement that we dress in white like painters. And i was like "You're kidding? You want me to look like a baker?! Somebody who makes donuts?"  I was like this young guy who was working all the time and I had a little spending cash and so I went to the Doctor supply store. And I got a white doctor's smock. It was white! She didn't say what to wear. She just said "wear white." And then I went to the badge place and I got this red badge made. It was plastic with white letters engraved in it that said 'Dr. Neon.' And I had some fluorescent colored sunglasses. And, Oh! And I went to the western store and got alligator skinned western boots. So I had the white pants and the alligator skinned boots and the doctor's smock and the badge. And of course in that part of town they knew me as "Dr. Neon!" And one time I was washing my getup, my outfit, and I had country clothes on: plaid shirts and jeans and whatnot. And I showed up to a job site and the guy looks at me and goes "Uhhh…you? You Dr. Neon?" and I said "Yes I am he." He was like "Okaaay. You do window." (laughs) That was classic."

"You're able to do this big popping, fresh looking thing on their window for whatever it is- 250 bucks instead of twice that price because its about speed. And that's another way I was able to earn a living because you show up at a job site, you have this little sketch pad, and since the customer knows it temporary advertising they're not too worried about the exact way its gonna look. Its not like a truck they're going to have to drive around for next five years or something. And you make a quick pencil sketch, you get approval from the manager or the owner, they say OK, you get out your paints, you paint the window, you go and you get a check, and you go to the next job site. A lot of times you can only do one a day or one job might take a day and a half. But you don't have to show up, measure it, make sketches, get approval, go buy paint. The paints already in the back of your truck. We know what kind of paint were dealing with and all that. So its a faster process. Even though the selling price is lower, in the end you make a little better wage because its so predictable. Whereas this regular sign work is really unpredictable. Its my job to make it as predictable as possible."

Other Works

The old Locke sign and the new one in process after the building had been repainted

(That's real gold leaf on the top)

Jim's Truck

The Interview

Roughly speaking I started when I was 21. And I’m 54 now so I guess its more than 30 years. I wasn’t doing a lot back then- just a truck here and there. My Mother had speedball calligraphy pens. She had them around for years but I wasn't interested in them until I was in high school. Then I started messing with them and absolutely fell in love with them. And it was a hobby, ok?

But then I went into concrete labor. A guy across the street had a concrete business and I was living in California. And we would work sun up to sundown in the summertime in California where 110 degrees is a regular thing in the summertime. And I thought "I'm not gonna make it. I gotta do something else." I thought "Sign painting! That'll be easy!" So I started sign painting, you know. I didn't realize how involved it was but I thought it would be easy. It's definitely less physically demanding than concrete labor.

I really like working with glass because it has so many possibilities. From formal gold leaf all the way to window splash which is this real fun, party-looking, fluorescent, big popping, informal style usually used for sales and temporary events. That's all I did pretty much full time in California was what they call 'window splash.' Fluorescent window ad- vertising. And I had assumed they'd be doing it everywhere.

When I moved out here about 22 years ago they didn't do it at all here- zip, nada, nothing. And so I've been trying ever since to promote it. But out there you could work as many hours as you wanted. We pretty much lived in our cars and just drove around. Had paint in the back and painted all the time. You're able to do this big popping, fresh looking thing on their window and its about speed. You make a quick pencil sketch, you get approval from the manager or the owner, they say OK, you get out your paints, you paint the window, you go and you get a check, and you go to the next job site.

Sign work may be the most diverse work on the planet and that’s not hyperbole. Sign work is so extreme. The only thing I haven’t done is bend neon tubes. But I have a forge at home and I bend my own steel scroll work. So it involves a bit of blacksmithing work. Welding. You’re working with plastic, steel, aluminum, wood. You can do some real wood carving. Illustration. There are some pictorials that verge on the side of realism. So you have to study illustration and all the color mixing that goes along with it. Gold leaf. Electrical signs you have to build cabinets that meet UL specifications- underwriter laboratories. Spray painting, that goes along with it. So it really involves a whole ton of different skills.

Each one- the woodworking, the illustration, calligraphy- you’d could spend a lifetime doing that alone. And now its opened up into computers. You have to learn all about computer graphics. Some of these sign people, since the machines are taking over the production end, they’re going into building websites. So everything from blacksmithing to building websites. I don’t know that there’s a single more diverse trade out there- if you want it to be. You have to be careful you’re not doing the jack-of-all-trades and the master of none. But good lettering skills is the core. 

The sign trade has been around for thousands of years. Of course, 2,000 years ago lettering would have been smaller because only a small percentage of the population was literate. If it was a place that sold drink, you would’ve had a big cluster of grapes or a picture of a glass with wine in it. So you know way back it was pictorial. But with the advent of public education & widespread literacy, lettering has become the dominant thing. The weird thing is if there was such a thing as time travel, I could go back to pretty much any period in time and work. If I knew what I was writing I could back to most places in the world and earn a living. Its interesting. Like I said things are changing all the time. You gotta be on your toes. 

Check out more of his work online 
and be sure to give him a call for your next sign