In a world dominated by digital design and sleek vinyl lettering, the art of sign painting continues to thrive, thanks to passionate artists like Taylor Nagel. Taylor’s journey into the realm of sign painting began at a young age, intertwined with the sights and sounds of carnivals and the allure of hand-painted creations that captivated his imagination. Now, as the founder of Top Shelf Signs, Taylor shares his insights and experiences in this timeless craft.
“I was first introduced to sign painting at a very young age,” Taylor reminisces, “I was born into my family’s concession business and grew up traveling carnivals all over Michigan.” The vibrant trailers adorned with hand-painted signs caught Taylor’s attention early on. He fondly recalls being pushed around in a stroller, absorbing the visual feast of bright colors, clowns, and captivating artwork that defined the midway.
The transition from consuming signs to creating them wasn’t without its challenges. Taylor’s initial foray into sign painting was met with frustration as he grappled with the wrong materials and techniques. But as he watched sign painters transform his dad’s trailers into mesmerizing works of art, he found himself drawn to the profession’s creative freedom and the prospect of making a living through artistry.
Taylor’s journey was marked by perseverance and a commitment to learning. His initial attempts with inadequate brushes and paint led him to seek guidance from an experienced painter at Pioneer Signs in Ohio. “Once I spent a day with him learning about the materials, I started painting everyday,” he explains. However, the challenges persisted. Sticky paint, imperfect letters, and a lack of finesse were constants, but Taylor’s resolve remained unshaken.
“The only way to figure anything out was to paint every day,” Taylor affirms, highlighting the value of hands-on experience in overcoming obstacles. Despite the setbacks, he delved into the intricacies of letterforms and layout, honing his skills over years of practice. By 2016, Taylor was tackling serious projects, a testament to his dedication and growth as a sign painter.
In a world that increasingly embraces digital design, the question arises: what sets hand-painted signs apart? Taylor’s response underscores the uniqueness of the human touch. “Having that one-off sign made by a human hand with wobbly inconsistencies will never be beat,” he asserts. Unlike the passivity evoked by LED signs and posters, hand-painted signs command attention through their imperfections and character.
Taylor’s philosophy aligns with the idea that humans have an innate appreciation for the authenticity of hand-crafted creations. He humorously adds, “There will always be people willing to pay someone to make stuff by hand because that’s what humans have done since the beginning of time. That is until these aliens come down and take over… but hey, they might want some cool shit hand-painted on their spaceships.”
Taylor’s creative process is an intricate dance between innovation and tradition. “BRIGHT AND BOLD!” he exclaims, describing his guiding principle. He seeks to make his work pop through contrasting colors and dynamic lettering that ensures readability from both up close and afar. Taylor’s approach is fluid, often foregoing extensive sketches in favor of direct layouts, a technique that fosters rapid growth.
Taylor’s journey has also been marked by collaboration. Working with tattoo artists and fellow painters, he’s experienced the synergy of creative minds. He recounts working on a sprawling project for Built 4 Speed tattoo shop, where his sign painting seamlessly blended with Loo Pimble’s iconic flash designs. The camaraderie and shared visions within the artistic community have been instrumental in Taylor’s evolution as a sign painter.
Taylor’s path hasn’t been without its challenges. One memorable instance was when he painted the Grave Digger monster truck for the first time, using an airbrush, an unfamiliar tool for him. The pressure of handling an iconic design was daunting, yet Taylor’s resilience and willingness to learn led him to successfully complete over two dozen Grave Digger bodies, earning him a stamp of approval from seasoned painters.
Adapting to diverse surfaces and environments is another hallmark of Taylor’s work. From wonky glass panes to gnarly brick surfaces, Taylor faces these challenges head-on, using the best brushes and techniques to navigate each unique canvas. “You gotta just suck it up and deal with it,” he says with a laugh, acknowledging that these situations, though frustrating, contribute to his growth as an artist.
For Taylor, the culmination of each project is more than just a finished sign; it’s a testament to his journey, his growth, and his commitment to the craft. The gratification of stepping back and admiring the hand-painted creation, warts and all, is a feeling that drives him. “That feeling of accomplishment is my favorite thing about painting signs,” he concludes.
As the world rushes toward digitization, Taylor Nagel’s dedication to hand-painted signs serves as a reminder that the human touch, the imperfections, and the vivid creativity of artisans continue to have an irreplaceable place in our aesthetic landscape. In Taylor’s hands, sign painting thrives, captivating audiences with its timeless allure and resounding authenticity.
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