Leysdown-on-Sea

In 2011 I was commissioned by Swale Council to design and make a landmark sign for Leysdown-on-Sea. For the first time I was able to design the structure of my artwork as well as the enamel panels themselves, giving Leysdown a unique sign. Sturdy, vandal and weatherproof, the artwork is a mix of hand painting and silkscreen and was installed in 2012.

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This commission for Leysdown was a very exciting one for me because it has allowed me to work with a commercial signage product, vitreous enamel, in a completely unique way. The sign is made from vitreous enamel and was produced at AJ Wells and Sons on the Isle of Wight. I have worked with the factory before, they are the leading enamel company in the UK and mostly produce signage for clients such as London Transport (the iconic enamel underground signs etc). Commercial signage is produced from designs using silk screen printing and most of the front of the Leysdown sign was produced from my designs by the factory’s printers. However what makes this sign truly unique is the hand painting. I use the enamel inks as fine art paint and have used the reverse of the sign as a canvas to paint a seascape representing Leysdown, an original painting for the town which is tough enough to withstand the elements.

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The start of the sign was the shape. There was no way I wanted to give a town as individual as Leysdown a rectangular sign so I came up with the idea of four curving panels which fit together to make one sign. The front divides up to give information about different aspects of the town. The reverse is treated as one giant canvas. The tall panel is to echo the oak sculptures based on razor clams in the Spinney behind the sign.

Preliminary drawing showing my initial ideas on the shape of the sign.

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The basics of enamel signage: first panels are made in sheet steel. These panels are then sprayed with enamel and fired to give a basic white coat (the blank canvas). Inks are then either printed on with silk screen or painted on by me - inks consist of ground glass suspended in pine oil and are about the consistency of emulsion paint. I use glossing rollers for my painting. Once the ink is applied it is dried in a heated cabinet. After that it goes to the furnace where it is fired so that the pine oil is driven off and the glass fuses into a smooth impenetrable sheet. The clever bit is knowing the colours - wet enamel looks very different to fired enamel and when I paint, I have to think how the painting will look when it is fired, not how it looks while I am painting it.

One of the hand painted back panels during painting.

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For me as an artist, the sign has been a real opportunity to work freehand on a large scale - as my knowledge of enamel becomes more sophisticated, so I look to push the boundaries of what is possible. In this case it was to work freehand along with silk screen and to make the two blend together. Painting the seascape was an absolute joy.

The hand painted back of the sign after installation.

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I spent a lot of time chatting to locals and visitors while I was down in Leysdown. It’s easy to see the beauty of the landscape, the beach and the sea, but what also emerged was the fondness and pride people had in the place. It seems to be the bedrock of many happy memories for visitors ‘my first kiss happened here’, ‘my gran brought us here as nippers, now I come with my grand kids’... When I was designing the sign I tried to include the fun element - the love heart sweets, crabs caught in a bucket (things I remember from my seaside holidays in similar places on the Lincolnshire coast) along with the beautiful landscape and the traditional elements of a seaside holiday town - sea, sun and beach. I’ve also made a feature of the caravan parks - they should be a celebrated part of Leysdown. Look at the aerial view of the town and they turn Leysdown into a quilt of caravan roofs - I took that image and played with the perspective to make patterns of white roofs in the fields. Likewise I’ve used the wind farm in my painting.

Working drawing showing the patchwork quilt of caravans for the hand painted part of the front of the sign.

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I hope my sign represents the enormous pride people have in the town and the quirky individuality of the place. It’s a fun place to be, as well as being surrounded by areas of great beauty. Obviously the sign has a function to direct and inform the visitor, but I hope it’s also a celebration - I’ve had great fun visiting and creating the work and I hope that’s reflected in the sign. I’ve also had some of the best fish and chips down there - delicious!

The front of the sign after installation showing the screen printed and hand painted sections.