A Conversation with Canadian Sign Painter Pierre TardifFebruary 22nd, 2019
We are just one week away from the class selection deadline, and this year, we have the pleasure of offering two classes in traditional sign painting! This exciting subject has only been offered five or six times since the conference’s inception in 1981, so if you’re interested in signs, showcards and slinging paint, we encourage you to take advantage of this opportunity. Pierre Tardif will be joining us from Québec City, with over thirty years of experience in the sign painting business. Pierre teaches classes out of his workshop, created an instructional set of sign painting DVDs and organized the 2018 Letterheads meetup in Québec. This summer, he will join us at Rendez-vous, teaching two bilingual sign painting classes. Read on to learn more about Pierre’s craft and how a childhood love of racing cars sparked a lifelong passion and career!
Where did you grow up and what first sparked your interest in letters?
I grew up in Val-Bélair, a small suburb of Quebec City. There was a stock-car race track about two miles from our family home and I would go there most weekends to see the races. It was when the sponsors and numbers on the racing cars were hand painted, and it really caught my attention. At the end of the races, we were allowed to go in the pits to meet the drivers. I was probably the only kid that was going there to see the lettering on the cars up-close more than to meet the drivers!
When did you begin to learn sign painting, and which style did you learn first?
When I was around 10-11 years old, I was inspired by the lettering on the racing cars and would try to reproduce them on my soapbox at home. I would also paint my little Matchbox cars. Then as a teenager I would paint signs and posters for convenience stores and a butcher shop.
Which sign painters have made the deepest impact on you and your work and why?
I would say most of the sign painters in and around Quebec City at that time had an influence on me. I was surrounded by very talented ones, but as I developed my skill with the brush, I would say Alain Tondreau had the most impact on my style. He just had the best script and block lettering around. He also had a style of his own and influenced the entire lettering community around with his half-shaded letters and shadows. My casual is definitely influenced by Jean-Louis Tremblay who I worked with for a few years. I would even say that I almost copied my casual from his.
Where do you create, and how have you organized your space? What is your best time of day, and do you prefer to work with music or in silence?
I work from home, in a 24’ by 24’ garage I use as my workshop. As a sign painter, I work half the time on location. My workshop can only fit cars, so I go on location for trucks and most hot-rods as they don’t travel far. There’s not really a best time of the day for me; sometimes it flows better early in the morning, and late at night at other times. When I am in the workshop painting signs, I like to listen to talk radio, documentaries (thanks to Netflix and Youtube) and, of course, music. Depending on the mood and how rushed the work is, the style of music differs. I can easily listen to Charles Aznavour on an easy day, then switch to Slayer (when work needs to be out the door quick) or the Glenn Miller Orchestra. Any music does the job but no electronic new hip hop for sure!
What are three of the most essential tools of your practice and why?
Brushes, brushes and brushes... Once you know the structure of the alphabet you can do pretty much any style with a good lettering brush. My favourite one is a 3/8’’ flat. I feel like I could do anything with just that one.
You work on a wide variety of surfaces, including classic cars, hot rods and commercial vehicles. What appeals to you most about working with cars, and what must one take into consideration when lettering on a vehicle?
It’s going to sound silly but what I like most about working on cars is that the surface is always smooth. (Recently I painted a wall and the wood was over 125 years old - now that’s a rough surface!) And there’s not much preparation to it, just a good cleaning and wipe down with alcohol. Depending on the vehicle, what I take into consideration is different.
If it’s a new commercial truck, I put the emphasis on the legibility and impact. It has to be easy to read while being pleasant to the eye. Good contrast and good size letters. If it’s an antique vehicle, I mostly rely on old lettering styles. It is very important to me that the lettering fits the era of the vehicle. For this purpose, I have a full library of old books and magazines for inspiration.
What has been one of your most meaningful commissions or projects, and why? What made it particularly special, challenging and/or rewarding?
It would surely be the gold leaf decoration on the St-Jean-sur-Richelieu steam fire engine, even though there’s no lettering on it. It dates from 1876, and they hired me to reproduce the gold leaf ornaments. The challenge was to do the job as well as the decorators from that era. And believe me, they were amazing. I don’t think we will see that kind of craftsmanship anymore nowadays with all the distractions our era has to offer! After studying those decorations from books and with help from Ken Soderbeck, Peter Achorn and Pete Payne, I practiced the techniques for months before starting on the project. It took about 200 hours on location at the fire station and I am very proud of the result. The steam fire engine can be seen on the website of the Registre du patrimoine culturel du Québec.
You will be teaching two sign painting classes at Rendez-vous - “Block Letters” and “Casual and Script Lettering”. What knowledge and skills will students gain from these classes and how would you describe your style of teaching?
I should expect the students are mostly coming from calligraphy, so they will learn a totally different technique for making alphabets. Working with a soft hair sign painting brush is very different than with a stiff calligraphy brush or a nib. I am sure it will help as much as doing calligraphy helped my sign painting skills. These are two different techniques but the goal is the same: creating beautiful letters.
How would you describe the sign painting community in Québec and beyond? What does community mean to you, in the context of the lettering arts?
It’s hard to talk about a sign painting community in Quebec, because there’s very few of us left doing it the traditional way. Sometimes I feel very lonely. Globally, there is a resurrection of what we call the ‘Letterheads’; a bunch of sign painting aficionados. It’s an unofficial organisation around the globe, united by the love of the lettering brush strokes. We meet a few times every year at Letterheads, where we can be from 20 to 300 slinging paint, teaching and exchanging tricks of the trade for a weekend. I hosted a Letterheads meet in Quebec City last winter (and one in 2003) and we had so much fun!
Outside of sign painting, what are some of your other interests and hobbies? What is something about you that people might be surprised to learn?
My girlfriend would tell you that I have no other interests than painting signs because I am very passionate about it, but I do. I like carpentry and woodworking. I have built two (and a half) houses plus I have built two of my workshops. I like working with wood, whether it’s building a shed or just a small table. I like improving my work and living space. Anything that is done around the house I like to do. But not shovelling snow. Period. I do like to do sign painting as a hobby as well. I wish I had more time to do signs just for fun, no strings attached.