Billboard painters make pictures big enough to put on billboards, with brushes and oil paint.
“We’re probably the fresco painters of the modern era. In the Renaissance, the Church had the money; now it’s the ad agencies. Our stuff isn’t as creative as other art, but it’s real craftsmanship that goes into these signs,” says billboard painter George Martin.
To make the truly huge billboard ads of the kind you see on the ultramodern highways and beltways of our major cities, the ones that show a sparkling gin and tonic with a lime peel floating in it and beads of condensation glistening on the glass, requires the services of a team of hardy painters willing to climb 50 foot scaffolds in 100 degree heat or subzero cold and splash on photographic looking images in oil paint. Photography and lithography are too expensive or inadequate to produce the colorful brilliance of these signs (called spectaculars) on such a Gargantuan scale 35 by 100 feet.
The first step in making a “spectacular” takes place at an advertising agency: the art department photographs the product and lays out the ad, including any headline, just as it wants the billboard to appear, on a normal size piece of paper.
The ad is then given to a graphics company that specializes in “outdoor advertising.” Along with the scale drawing, the agency specifies the shades of color it wants. “Bulletin painters,” as the billboard artists call themselves, have a repertoire of six reds, four yellows, three greens, and two blues, plus one each of orange, brown, and black. They use real oil paint instead of acrylics, because acrylics are dull and dry too quickly. They tend not to mix colors on a billboard, since the colors would lose the intensity essential for maximum effect.
With the sketch in hand, the painters can proceed in one of two ways. The more mechanized approach is to put the ad into an opaque projector and beam it onto huge sheets of paper on the wall of a large room. A painter walks up to the image and pokes little holes in the paper along all the important lines.
Then a team of painters takes the hole tracing of the ad, which is divided into several sections, and mounts each section on an area of board. The tracing is then pounded with a bag of charcoal; the charcoal leaks through the bag and through the holes in the paper to leave guidelines on the board. This is called a pounce pattern. Checking against the photograph for color and details, the painters fill in the finished ad in sections, and the sections are put together at the roadside.
There is another common method which is very close to what the old fresco painters used, which George Martin refers to as simply a pattern. The painter works from a desk size image of the ad, but instead of projecting it, he draws a 1/4 inch square grid over it.
With nothing but the sketch, a brush, and a yardstick in hand, and his buckets of paint by his side, the artist can now climb the scaffold and lay out a perfectly proportioned oil painting 60 feet long or more. Each 1/4 inch square on the sketch corresponds to a 1 foot square on the finished sign. Using his yardstick, Martin marks reference points in charcoal and paints his oeuvre in manageable 1 foot squares. So practiced is Martin that he paints the curves of his 3 foot letters freehand.
“Everybody thinks Michelangelo just lay on his back and painted the Sistine Chapel. He didn’t; he worked from a pattern, same as we do.
What are the subjects of the modern bulletin painter’s artistry? “There’s no imagination in ’em,” George Martin laments. “Now it’s just cigarettes and booze. Mind rot stuff. You used to get a face now and then, a bathing beauty, something with a challenge to it. But since the cigarette companies got kicked off TV, they’ve been pouring all their money into billboards and drove the price of an ad up.
Now they’re the only ones who can afford it. Too bad, really, but what can you do?”