Painting BIG – My Life as a Outdoor Advertising Billboard Artist

I painted outdoor advertising billboards in the 1980s. This is a paper board; 24' long, 12' tall ©Cristina Acosta

Painting for a paycheck as a outdoor advertising billboard artist during the 1980’s taught me to paint fluidly, fast and to be elegantly precise in the relaxed way that only completing miles of painting can engender.

Only twenty years ago, a young artist could find paid employment painting pictures. Fresh out of art school or with a good portfolio an artist could find a job that increased their skills at the same time they made a living. Sign painting shops, billboard companies and printing shops used hands-on techniques and tools to make their products. That reality is now a thing of the past in all of those businesses. In 1988 I was one of those young painters. I knew when I got the job of being a billboard painter in 1988 that the field was quickly being extinguished by computers, I didn’t know that it would happen as fast as it did. On that note, I am sharing with you my piece of the history of outdoor advertising in the years 1988 until Jan. of 1991.

Vintage Bend, OR, Randy Barna ski sign billboard by Cristina Acosta

 Randy Barna Ski Shop ad 1989, Poster Paints on Paper, Brush & Airbrush

In 1988 in Bend, Oregon, I took the job as the lead and only (it was a small town of 17,000, though the largest town in the region) billboard painter for Carlson Sign. Carlson Sign, owned by Dick Carlson and his family was the dominant sign company in the entire Central Oregon region. They owned leases for billboards as far north as Madras, Oregon, south into Crescent and Chemult and east into Prineville. This meant that on the billboard business alone, Carlson Sign was well financed. Though billboards today are far less numerous than they were years ago, on that foundation, Carlson Sign company continues to be the largest sign shop in the region (and Bend has grown to almost 90,000).

So how did a 28 year old woman, afraid of heights get the job? Not because I had a

Toyota 1988 billboard by Cristina Acosta
Toyota 1988 vintage billboard sign by Cristina Acosta

newly-minted university degree in Painting, but because I’d been painting merchant’s windows with sales promos for 5 years throughout the region and become the go-to-painter for this type of work. College degrees were a bit suspect in a painting shop, but my boss put aside his doubts to offer me a temporary job until they could get a real billboard painter from a big city. Their only billboard sign painter had quit the job to move to another state. She stayed long enough to teach me how to fill and clean auto sized airbrush guns and how to hang paper.

Here’s what the billboard shop looked like. It was a very large garage about 40 feet long and 60 feet wide. On the east side the room had a huge roll-up garage door to let in the big trucks (they parked them inside the garage at night). On the south wall 2 large rolls of billboard painting paper were vertically mounted. The surface of the wall was smooth board.  A long rope was horizontally suspended in front of the board about 8 or 9 feet off the ground and secured by eye-bolts in each of the adjoining walls.  A 6 foot tall wood staircase and platform with wooden wheels was positioned in front of the wall and behind the rope. On the North side in the back of the room was a wall of bookcases with shelves of quart to gallon sized cans of oil based alkyd, poster and fine art oil paints.  Roller covers, airbrush (or airgun) parts and other assorted ephemera shared those shelves. A wood table about 15′ x 8′ near the bookcases served as a mixing and planning area. A large opaque projector on casters was near the table and usually under the open-flame gas heater in the ceiling of the garage.  On the west side of the room there was a metal locker to store my respirator and other personal gear. Next to that were rows of steel sheet metal “sections”. These sections were 2′ wide, 12 foot tall substrates, cradled in the back with a steel framework.  A air hose hooked to a compressor  (for my auto-painting sized airbrush) completed the set-up.1980s billboard painted by Cristina Acosta

My First Pictorial Billboard, Alkyds, Artist Oils on Metal

Billboards were then of three basic types:  Wood, Metal or Paper. Wood was old-fashioned by then and there was only one wood board left in the region. Everything else was  Paper or Metal. If you’ve ever noticed billboards that look like open steel frameworks you were looking at a Metal board. Steel sections were hung on the framework. To repaint the board the sections were taken down and brought to my shop. A young worker would have the job of re-coating the board with a white primer and stacking them for the next image. All of the boards in Central Oregon were 12′ x 24′ except for one  48′ long board.

The Paper boards were paper that was mounted on  a smooth wood backing on a steel billboard.   In the shop the paper rolls were mounted on the east side of the easel wall. I would unroll a strip of paper across the bottom half of my easel wall and  tape down the side edges and a few of the center edges of the bottom piece. I’d repeat the process with the top strip. To do this I had to climb of the rolling stair scaffold and pull myself (and the scaffold) across the plane of the easel wall with my right arm while grasping the paper with my left. It was tricky, especially because I don’t like heights and the scaffolding was over 600 pounds with Fred-Flintstone style wood wheels that only reluctantly rolled.

Hand painted fashion billboard by Cristina Acosta 1990
Hand painted fashion billboard by Cristina Acosta 1990

When I was finished with the image I’d cut the paper into 2′ wide strips, number them and then fold them for the Paper-Hanger. The Paper Hanger guy would go on-site to a board then paste the paper up onto the smooth wood backing, piecing the image back together.

Painting on Metal boards I used Bulletin Colors. Bulletin Colors were oil based alkyd high-gloss enamels developed for the sign painting industry.  If the image on the board was a complex Pictorial (or mural), I often finished the details with a layer of artist oil paints. The only wood board I had was painted with this procedure.

Painting on Paper boards I used Poster Paints. These were matte finish oil based paints specific to the sign industry. They were impervious to weather and were fine enough to be shot through a airbrush.

The “level” of finish that a image on a board got was based on the price of the board. Three days was the maximum. Images or “art” for the boards came from either the in-house designer or advertising agencies. The art included both lettering and the Pictorial (illustration or photo).

The first step in the process was to take a line drawing of the art and project it using my opaque projector in 12′ increment. I’d turn the big lights off and in the glow of the projector there was enough light to quickly trace the lines with a staggered pencil line. On a paper board I’d use a #2 pencil, on a metal board I’d use a wax pencil called a Stabilo.

Cristina Acosta painted 1990 outdoor advertising billboard
12′ x 24″ paper billboard 1990, by Cristina Acosta
Paper Board of a truck created with Brush, Roller AirBrush.

Opaque projectors project most strongly in an ellipse, so the edges of my drawing would be wonky. I’d turn on the lights and after putting the art in a plastic sleeve I’d hold it in my left hand and re-draw the image with my right hand. I’d use a right-angle and snap lines to make sure my vertical and horizontal lines of any lettering was accurate.

Then, based on my interpretation of the Pictorial and the price the client paid for the art, I’d plan how to paint it. The time line for a 12′ x 24′  boards was 1 to 3 days, with a 3 day board being the most expensive photo-realist style finish.

Keeping the art in plastic, I’d look at it and paint the billboard. The largest art I ever used was 8.5″ x 11″, so there was quite a bit of mental work required to expand that image into a 12′ x 24′ billboard.

The good news is that I was a natural. Three weeks on the job and my first complex pictorial board was the image from a national beer ad of a cowboy roping a beer bottle. I was done under budget and the quality was excellent. My boss canceled his ads in the big cities and I kept this job for over 2 years, leaving when I got a offer to teach art classes at Central Oregon Community College.

Randy Barna’s paper board. Note use of the then new florescent paints.
Lift Truck used to hoist Paper Hanger to install this Fashion Board.
Jakes Truck Stop, Metal board.