Brush Strokes and Billy Karts: Brett Piva

graphic designer Brett Piva

Brett Piva at Work

Before the advent of the computer, novice sign-painters learned their trade at technical colleges and by apprenticing to more experienced practitioners. But for today’s enthusiasts, the first option isn’t available, and the second is mighty rare. Thankfully, though, there are a few artists, such as Brett Piva (of Pocket Design, in Newcastle), who are filling the gap – holding classes and teaching the art of sign-painting to those who are keen to learn.

I’ve always loved drawing, comics and cartoons. I remember my title pages in my text books during High School were better than any other work achieved throughout each year. I guess a mixture of illustration and creative art would have been the very beginnings until I started my trade and studied traditional signwriting.

Lettering was the second element of design I was introduced to after colour. When I was 15 I approached a local sign shop in my home town for some work experience for high school. I never knew what I really wanted as a career back in 1995 but I thought it would just fill in the forms and get it over with. I was more interested in music and just drawing. That’s all I wanted to do.

I had never really used paint before but I liked it. I liked it’s vibrance and the challenges it produced. It was like drawing but with your own unique colours.

Paint and Brushes

Tins of paint and brushes fill a table at Pocket Design

After the first week of work experience they offered me a part time job so I took it. It was the lowest minimum wage, long evenings and long weekends. Not the easiest or more common position for a high school student but it was different. Back then I liked doing things differently so it worked out. It was just good timing and pure luck that I fell into a creative career.

Hand-painted signs

From there I started studying traditional sign painting and letterforms through my apprenticeship and kept going until the introduction of vinyl lettering removed the creative processes from that life.

I do offer a hand made aesthetic through most of my projects. Yes, I produce digital work but whenever possible I use many hand made elements within this. One example is as simple as painting brush strokes,  scanning them in and using them as overlays in Photoshop to cover solid colours. It’s about going back to the beginnings and using original techniques then adapting it to digital work.

I believe there’s always been a passion for something hand made but right now it’s really at the forefront of design. People appreciate something that is not so straight, blocky and doesn’t look like everything or everyone else. Consumers are going back to admiring originality and their key difference to the next consumer.

sign for Regal Cinema

Brett paints a sign at Newcastle’s Regal Cinema

I believe it’s growing. Having a human element in a piece of work weather it be a design, a product, a piece of art, clothing or even an item of food will be more engaging than something produced from a production line or machine. People are starting to see a difference where it was recently once so generic, common and in all honesty… boring.


A Lettering Concept for ‘Maudie Macs’ Food Van

Designing with a hand made aesthetic in mind gives me the opportunity to try different things every week. Most importantly, standing up and getting away from my desk. It’s hard to say where it may go from here. Some may find it to be a fashionable thing that’s happening in design at the moment but it’s more about creating an emotional response which means a whole lot more than creating just a pretty picture. I feel comfortable with what I’m creating in my studio and feel I’ll still be creating it for many years to come.

Maudie Macs Sign

The finished sign turned out quite different.

I’m always trying to find time to seek inspiration and discover designers and sign painters. The first designers that come to mind would be the great Saul Bass, Neville Brody and Milton Glaser. Bass for his unique simplicity, Brody for his intensity and Glaser for his inspiring collection of work including the iconic  I ❤ NY logo, and his work with Columbia Records. There’s many modern designers that stand out to me but not as much as these guys have.

Milton Glaser Portrait

Milton Glaser (image courtesy of Milton Glaser)

Signwriters that inspire me more recently would be James Cooper from Dapper Signs in the UK. Just extraordinary work in his traditional methods of sign painting. TJ Guzzardi in Melbourne for the same reason. Beautiful letter and striping work. I’ve always followed Steve “Espo” Powers. Maybe because of the whole skateboarding and art combinations back in the day. Colt Bowden would have to be another modern sign painter in the states doing great things for the craft.

sign-painter at work

TJ Guzzardi letters an antique vehicle in Melbourne. (image courtesy of TJ Guzzardi)

Last year I was in San Francisco and literally filled my camera with images of incredible hand painted signs. Once I discovered it,  The Mission area  was where I ended up each day looking for new and inventive styles of typography. Turns out most of the signs were by a studio named New Bohemia Signs. Their work is really nice and clean. They seem to follow every given sign rule in the book and you can see why it works.

sign in San Francisco

A Sign by New Bohemia Signs (image courtesy of New Bohemia Signs)

I also follow a tonne of typographers and letterers. Jessica Hische, Gemma O’Brien, Jon Contino, Jeff Canham (also a sign painter) and Wayne Thompson (local Novocastrian) to name a few. They all have a beautiful portfolio of work and you can see there is some sort of controlled freedom throughout most of it. Jaw dropping stuff.

Jon Contino Painting

Jon Contino at work (image courtesy of Jon Contino)

Teaching classes first came to mind after lecturing at Newcastle University at the beginning of the year. It was my first time and I discovered I loved sharing knowledge. This soon lead me to teach a couple of designers I know some basic tricks using a brush. They valued my input so I thought why not share with more.

Brett Piva signwriting class

Brett Piva give some tips to a lettering student

The classes run for a full day and are a fun but intense overview of sign painting at a beginners level. Basic equipment, traditional techniques and different Sign Paints are first discussed and inspected by the attendees. We then move on to some quick pressure testing with a brush and acrylic paint followed by painting a 3 inch alphabet of Egyptian Lettering. Each attendee then creates their own plywood sign with a word, phrase or number of their choice throughout the afternoon using Viponds acrylics and Oneshot enamels.

sign-painting class

Brett’s sign-writing class at work

All colours are mixed by the attendees using traditional colour theory. The idea is to get each person out of their comfort zone and get their hands dirty. They are a fun day where you can just mess around with colour and dive right into it. Attendees are never questioned about mistakes and they move at their own pace.

Sign-Painting Poster

Brett is planning more workshops in the new year, so stay tuned!

A broad range of people got involved also. We had a doctor, an engineer, a clothing store owner, a youth worker and lot of young designers wanting to try it out. It was very refreshing to see so many people taking an interest in traditional signwriting.

sign shop

The workshop after a lettering class

Where does the name ‘Pocket Design’ come from?

Ha ha! I get asked this a lot and usually leave it a bit unexplained as it’s not the most exciting story. But, here it is in full:
In 2006 I was heading to London to broaden my career as a mid-weight graphic and web designer. I needed to quickly come up with a freelance business name. I wanted something that was easy to remember, was reliable, didn’t really hold too much meaning and sounded good to me. I went through around forty names and settled on one I wrote on a piece of paper really late one evening/early morning and placed it in my pocket.

I searched for hours for this piece of paper the next day. After finding it in my jeans later that evening I read it out and thought it was terrible. I then settled for the most reliable place I’d keep my ideas. My Pocket. No hidden meaning, no direct message, no common and clever theme or phrase. Just… Pocket.

I was skateboarding a lot back then and it always reminded me of the sound of the trick ‘Pop Shove It’. So I liked it even more.
It worked in my favour in London. A few large creative agencies soon recognised me and referred to me as ‘The Pocket Rocket’ and kept me freelancing with them for many incredible months. I was quick, assertive and produced work without a complaint. I really enjoyed those creative and knowledgeable years in London.

design t-shirts

Along with work through Pocket, I look for avenues to get involved in creative arts by submitting work in to group show exhibitions. I’m trying to put together a body of work based on the signage that I saw in San Francisco and New York. it really inspired me to keep up my brush skills. The work will involve new and old painted signage while representing modern culture in those cities.
I’m looking to host some type based exhibitions in the studio in early 2014. I’ll be inviting people from Newcastle to submit along with other national and international creatives. I co-directed a gallery space in my spare time in early 2012 and learned a lot about curating and organising an event. Newcastle thrives on this kind of activity and I feel it’s a great opportunity to share what I love with the community.

I’ll soon be setting up a bridging course to help design students get ready for the industry. The design industry can be very tricky to find your feet in the beginning.  These courses will cover basic stuff that you can only learn in the industry. Basic practices that may not have been taught to them or common processes that they may have forgotten about.
Other than that, I seem to always have something on the go. Billy Kart racing, record collecting, sketching, planning exhibitions and workshops, overseas trips etc. Not enough time in the day really!

Billy Cart

The Emporium Newcastle

Some of Brett’s hand-lettering at The Emporium in Newcastle (image courtesy of Hannah Rose)

Hand-Lettered Wall

More of the same (image courtesy of Hannah Rose)

A recent interview on ABC

Some painting at Regal Cinema