9th April 2020

Craft / Signs by Umberto

Lessons on Precision by Sign Writer Umberto

13 7 min 4

RRobert Walker a.k.a Signs by Umberto is obsessed with precision, a trait that is particularly needed for a sign writer. He combines meticulous techniques with his own contemporary methods to create his signature style. His intention is to inspire and to keep the tradition alive. But it’s his love for the process which makes him an exceptional designer. From the music he plays, to the tools he chooses, Umberto reflects on his practise and past.

I began painting lettering 28 years ago at the age of 14. Back then, my fascination was large, complex lettering on walls – graffiti. I grew up in Halifax, in West Yorkshire, the town had a large creative scene and the areas known locally as West Vale Park and The Hall of Fame provided walls to paint on legally. These areas are still thriving today with artists blasting new colours onto the iconic walls on a regular basis. 

Burdock Way, the Brutalist concrete flyover, spans across the valley linking commuters to Bradford and Leeds. The structure provided a huge canvas for graf writers, and as a teenager I passed those bridges almost daily. I would stare at the lettering painted on the upright support columns and try my best to gage how the graffiti got there. 

I became fascinated, knowing the brands of spray paint used by the local ‘crews’, how the outlines of the letters -back then- would be sprayed with hammerite and the inner colour would be car plan. I was obsessed with how a person could manipulate the effects of the spray paint, even by how close they stood to the wall. Although I wasn’t aware of this at the time, these informative years were the building blocks for my love of process. The knowledge of materials underpins my creativity. 

I wasn’t great at graffiti back then. What drove my obsession was the life that surrounded it. A vocabulary existed around the subject of painting lettering on walls that is unique to that art form. I made a group of friends through Halifax art college that were ’writers and my love for typography carried on growing. These were the pre internet days; I found my inspiration by collecting images of graffiti that I had either taken myself on a 35mm film camera, or through photographs I had swapped with other ’writers

I shared this love for letter drawing with a close friend at the time, Stuart Brown. We would sit in Stuart’s bedroom, listening to De La Soul and draw lettering in the iconic style from New York ’70s and ’80s, trying to perfect layout. Back then we were unaware of just how much effect typography was having on us. Stuart now designs for Dalton Maag and I run Signs by Umberto. 

The influences of the past run throughout the studio practice of a sign writer. It’s inescapable. I draft my lettering by hand -using a pencil and ruler- remembering some of the techniques taught to Stuart and me back at school. I would draw logos and branding, but it was technical drawing that really fascinated me. Our teacher, Mr Thomas, would give no praise, no matter how accurate my drawing was, unless I had taken care to keep my drawing clean as well as accurate

Those years still resonate today, as I clean rulers with lighter fluid and keep my studio as tidy as I can. A clean studio which has a place for everything and everything in its place, allows my head to focus entirely on a creative output. It enables a methodical approach to painting and a keen eye for detail and precision. 

A typical day in the studio will always start with me switching on my amp and turntable. I nearly always select a record from the 1950s to play. I can remember doing the same before I went to school and college, just different genres. I couldn’t start a day without playing a record. I’m setting myself up for a good day; if I feel good and the space I work in feels good, then the work I make will hopefully be good, hopefully. 

I only get out the amount of equipment needed for that particular task, not overcrowding the bench and allowing myself space to move and think. As I start to paint, I become aware of the rockabilly playing and feel inspired as I move the brush and the mahl stick to try and get the best from the paint. This method gives me endless joy. The process of gilding glass, painting a shop fascia is fascinating. The materials dictate what can and cannot be achieved and I -as the sign maker- must respect the materials in order to achieve the most from them. The feeling of paint flowing from a brush to a point finish is beautiful and the design of typography lends itself to this process, painting through the anatomy of lettering is a very satisfying feeling of flow. It’s equally pleasing to know that a lot of the techniques used by a sign maker date back through history and signs have been at the heart of major changes within society. 

Sign making has changed my life. I resigned as a senior lecturer in graphic design Ba [Hons] Leeds College of Art, in 2017 to focus 100% on my own wellbeing after a period of stress, and as a designer and painter I focused all my attention to my love of lettering.

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Robert Walker, aka Umberto, is a sign-writer as well as an educator, specialising in reverse glass sign making based in Huddersfield. He began sign writing in 1991 at the age of 14 and quickly fell in love with typography and painting. Umberto specialises in hand crafted sign making known as Verre Églomisé, a process of applying both a design and gilding onto the rear face of glass as well as hand painted sign writing and large scale typographic murals.

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