Signs lead to long career

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RAY Whitaker credits an inspirational art teacher for his decision to begin a lifetime career as a signwriter.
Mr Whitaker, who began as an apprentice in 1965, has operated his own business since 1971.
At the end of last year he sold his clients to Creation Signs and will work for them part›time.
Mr Whitaker (67) said he decided to scale back his workload after suffering heart problems in May last year.
‘‘I was thinking about chucking it in anyway and being able to [sell to] Creation Signs hastened the decision.
‘‘Working a few days a week for them will be ideal. I have actually trained a couple of their guys and get on well with them.’’
His interest in signwriting began in a Southland Technical College art class taught by Roy Dickison. Mr Dickison, who died in 2012, taught and painted for 30 years before becoming a full›time painter in 1982.
‘‘He was inspirational, and a very good teacher,’’ Mr Whitaker said.
‘‘Roy wasn’t only an artist, he was very good with lettering and design and teaching us that… Every guy that came out of the class I was in ended up running his own business. There were eight of us. Some went overseas and the rest of us stayed in New Zealand.’’
In pre›computer days, signwriting was all done by hand, Mr Whitaker said.
Signwriters made the sign frontages and their framed timber backing, designed the wording, and painted the lettering and other images with the help of a mahlstick — astick with a soft leather or padded head to support the paintbrush hand.
In the 1970s the introduction of Letraset’s dry rub›down instant letter› ing revolutionised signwriting and Mr Whitaker taught himself to apply it. In the mid 1990s he learnt another skill — designing and producing computerised lettering.
But he said even with all the advances in the trade, it was still important to have an artist’s eye.
‘‘The computer is only a tool. You still have to have the eye and the knowledge… to see that the sign is going to look right.’’
Over the years Mr Whitaker has produced signs for businesses ‘‘all over the place’’ including country pubs, shop verandas and frontages, and billboards for cigarette companies and other clients. Much of his work in the earlier years was for service stations, vehicle parts companies and transport com› panies, and he remembers painting the iconic ‘‘Tiger Tea’’ tiger on many a dairy wall.
His work was part of Southland’s history, he said.
‘‘I’ve got a lot of art work at home which I have kept… because it is history.’’
For the past 21 years Mr Whitaker worked from a building in Jed St and has leased that to Presbyterian Support Southland.
Steve Watt, who has operated his Character Engraving business from Mr Whitaker’s building for 20 years, has relocated to the Status Guns and Engineering building in Yarrow St.

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