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  • Work in progress

Work in progress: signwriter Tobias Newbigin


For our next instalment of ‘work in progress’, we spoke to signwriter Tobias Newbigin. Tobias found traditional signwriting in 2013 after studying Fine Art and Sculpture at Camberwell. ‘I wanted to make art for the masses, something universally understood.’ he told The Peep. 

Shortly after graduating, Tobias collaborated with a friend on a sign for a shop in Brixton. ‘It was this that reawakened my love for letters. I had previously dabbled in chalkboards while being a waiter and graffiti in my teens, but I had no idea the extent of the lettering craft as a career and skill until I saw a trailer for the documentary film “Sign Painters.” It revealed the trade, tools and paints and I was hooked instantly. I proceeded to seek out tuition and information and came across Nick Garrett (NGS London). I sent him a cover letter and my practice, and a few weeks later I was in training alongside him all over London. I am very grateful to have had that opportunity.

Tobias’ loves studying signwriting as it encompasses many trades, materials and disciplines, ‘it has led me to study the likes of glass manufacture, the molecular structure of animal skin glue, the chemistry of paint and much more. Everyday is a school day in traditional signwriting.’ he tells The Peep.

As a commercial signwriter, Tobias; process is mainly based on trying to serve the needs and wants of his clients. ‘Every job is different, sometimes I am employed because of my style and sometimes it will be completely the opposite. This requires me to research and get into character to be able to produce an authentic feeling for the job the best I can. In the background I read old books, photograph signs, draw, paint, and learn new techniques to use. Projects start with a meeting and site survey, where I try to understand the clients and their brand. I take notes, study the local architecture and existing signage, gauging reading distance, surface and audience as best I can. From there I create rough drawings, with a bit of back and forth we edge closer to a final scale design. The final design is then either rendered in full scale or drawn in situ, depending on time scale, weather, location etc. I like drawing in situ, it’s an extra challenge and gives me flexibility for last minute changes in size, content or sometimes an unforeseen installation of a burglar alarm will change everything! There is a balance to be found between pre prepared design and freehand sign writing which I am still discovering.’

Tobias’ currently works from a large warehouse on an industrial estate between Bath and Bristol. ‘I share it with an antique dealer, metal worker, taxidermist and seamstress, so I feel very much at home around crafts people.’ he adds. Tobias is naturally influenced by the vernacular of lettering in his hometown Bath, as well as old stone carvings, calligraphy and signs,’most of my inspiration comes from the past, when everything was hand crafted. The standards of craftsmanship were so high then, and I’m still striving to even come close to the skill they had.’

In the future, Tobias hopes to see his work move from commercial towards a collaborative positive social change. ‘Ultimately, like most of us, I hope somehow that my efforts help create a slightly better or more beautiful world. I was inspired by signwriting not to sell things for other people or make money for myself but to have an influence on the visual landscape of the city. Like a portrait, a letter possess character, and they have an influence on our visual life, whether noticed or not. I hope to continue creating and see where it takes me.

To see more of Tobias’ work, visit his website here.

Film by Gary Young.
All photos by Matthew Nixon.

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