“If the power all goes out, I still have a job": the growing popularity of Sure Hand Signs

Posted by: Necci – Sep 12, 2014


Y&H Mercantile, Harvest, and Portrait House are all Richmond small businesses, but that's not the only thing they have in common. Gracing the all-important space above their doors are unique pieces of art: hand-painted signs by Ross Trimmer, the artist behind Sure Hand Signs.

“I think signage has gotten really boring,” Trimmer says, sitting at a table in Anchor Studios, a space that he shares with several other artists. His workstation is covered in sketches, works in progress, paints, and brushes. He says, “If I wanted to make modern-day signs, I’d just buy a vinyl plotter and do what everybody else is doing... I have a lot more fun trying to do something different.”

Trimmer graduated from VCU’s Painting and Printmaking program in 2004, dabbled in graphic design in D.C. for a few years, and ultimately moved back to Richmond to return to tattooing, a craft he picked up while in school. It wasn’t until two years ago that Trimmer started seriously experimenting with painting signs by hand.

Most of the techniques that he taught himself are informed by old signs or learned from sign printers’ alphabets he found in old books. He says, “Most of the alphabets are old alphabets that I’m reworking, that started out very basic.” He emphasizes that the learning process wasn’t easy. He had to keep working at it, even though it was frustrating. “I spent a good six months turning out total crap,” he laughs. “It’s a lot easier now than it was at the beginning.”

Trimmer paints signs on brick, on wood, on paper, and also on glass. “Windows are a really easy service that most businesses aren’t utilizing,” he says. “It’s free space, it doesn’t require building a sign, it’s not out in the elements; it’s all painted backwards inside so it’s safe.”

He confesses he was terrified when he first started painting windows. Not only does the artist have to paint the design backwards, the glass surface is less forgiving of mistakes than others. But Trimmer persevered. When I ask him how he practices his techniques, he gestures to an old window propped in the corner of his studio. “The majority of my work over the past two years has been windows,” he says. “I paint backwards a whole lot.”

He’s reluctant to define his style, even as the demand for his signage grows. Trimmer has painted signs and windows for 59 Richmond small businesses to date, and also completed projects in Charlottesville, Lexington, Maryland, and D.C. “It seems like what I’m doing is very recognizable to people now, so I guess I have my own style at this point,” Trimmer says. “It doesn’t really make sense to me how I lay things out, I just do.” He shrugs and laughs, “But I guess it all looks similar.”

The sign painting community is bigger than one would think, according to Trimmer. He estimates that there is at least one serious sign painter in most major cities, and he has found a fair amount of like-minded artists online. “It’s really hard to say exactly how many [sign painters] there are,” he says. “I know there’s probably 100 or 200 super active sign painters on the Internet, but that probably cuts out a lot of the old-timers.”

Such a small group of professionals in Trimmer’s line of work has made troubleshooting tricky. He says, “If something goes wrong, I’ll send somebody that I’ve never met in Australia a picture and be like ‘Hey, why is this happening?’ But for the most part it’s self-taught, and a mountain of trial and error.”

Trimmer says pursuing this profession has enabled him to appreciate the beauty of letting go. “If I drew a word on paper today and looked back at it in six months, I’d want to redraw it,” he says. “With this stuff... I generally have things in my studio for a day after they’re finished, and then they’re out in the world. Then I see them like everybody else does, driving by at 35 miles an hour. So I get glimpses of what I did, and that’s enough.”

As of two months ago, Trimmer mans Sure Hand Signs full-time. He says it took a lot of courage to leave his primary job as a tattoo artist, particularly with a wife and a two-year-old at home. He’s grateful to be able to focus on the ever-growing sign painting business and to spend some time learning and perfecting techniques. He frequently runs into new and exciting challenges. “I’m still learning every time I do something,” he says, “It’s all just really aggravating, and I love it. It’s constantly driving me nuts.” Plus, he adds jokingly, “If the power all goes out, I still have a job.”

By Claire Donnelly