Posted on Tuesday, December 8th, 2020
In many business districts, Christmas window splashes are a big part of the holiday experience. Usually the work of sign artists and freelance artists, they can transform a storefront with a holiday theme that’s affordable for business owners—and profitable for the sign artist.
In more temperate climates, sign artists do their window splashes on the outside of the glass with water-based paint, often over a base of white acrylic latex paint. But when freezing temperatures, rain and condensation make that impossible, the Christmas graphics have to go on the inside of the glass, done in reverse.
Ralph Toews started doing Christmas windows in the late 1980s, and they’ve been a part of his work each year ever since. His sign business, RT Signs [Steinbach, Manitoba, Canada], has grown over the years, yet he still finds a little time in early winter to knock out Christmas windows around town.
“I’ve always enjoyed doing them,” he says. “They’re big and fast, and before COVID-19 you were out among people and in the holiday spirit. Now, unfortunately, I do them before or after the store’s business hours so as to avoid unnecessary contact.”
Christmas windows, like all window splashes, must be done very fast to be practical for both the sign artist and the business owner. Ralph spends about an hour on the average window and in years past, charged about $100 per window.
This year, though, as the COVID-19 crisis hurt many local small businesses, he decided to do the windows at no cost for small businesses in his community.
“We’ve had a good year at the shop,” Ralph says, “and COVID-19 fortunately hasn’t affected us much. But so many local businesses have been hit hard so I am doing the windows for the community without looking for any income. It’s my way of giving back. The response has been amazing. I never expected that, but people are so surprised that I’m doing them for free. It’s been a great experience all the way around.”
Ralph says being left-handed helps when working in reverse. “I can letter backwards faster than I can frontwards,” he says, laughing. “The thick and thin strokes work more naturally for lefties.”
Painting in reverse takes some getting used to. “It’s tricky,” says Ralph. “because it’s like painting a picture in reverse. If I were doing them every day, my lettering would be smoother, too. But I’m working backwards and only doing these for a few weeks each year, so I’m not as proficient as I would like to be. Every year it takes the first few windows before I get back in the sync, but I get a little faster and smoother with each one.”
When the season’s over, the shop owners can take them off quickly with a razor blade scraper. Holding a vacuum nozzle close by to suck up the paint scrapings keeps the mess to a minimum. Some people mist the paint with water then scrape it off, but it can be a little messier.
Ralph uses Chromatemp liquid tempera paint. He squirts a little paint into a small paper or plastic cup and doesn’t thin it. He sits the cup on a small palette cut from a scrap of cardboard, then holds the paint and palette in one hand, dips his brush in the paint, palettes the brush a few times and goes to the glass.
For brushes, he uses quills and flats designed for use in water-based paint. “I use mostly Andrew Mack brushes. I really like the John Hannukaine No. 79 quills a lot. My brushes are pretty well used already, but they keep getting more and more ‘used.’”
Ralph works out of a Mastercraft rolling plastic toolbox. His brushes are in the top tray, then paper cups and other supplies go in the bin under the tray. Paint is stowed in the bottom drawer. “Along with some chalk for layout, about the only other tool you need is a razor blade in a holder for any ‘erasing’. Let the paint dry a bit before scraping away any unwanted paint.”
The splash begins by doing a quick rough layout on the outside of the window with chalk. “The designs are in my head, so to speak,” says Ralph. “I can draw a wreath or a candle in a minute. If a customer wanted a specific design—say a red pickup with a Christmas tree on the back—I would do a paper pattern in advance. I do a drawing, project it with an overhead projector and draw the design full size on paper with a felt-tipped pen. I tape that on the outside of the glass and paint from that.”
Next, he goes inside and does a black outline on any parts of the design that need clear definition before adding any color. “Some of the painters who I know don’t do this. They simply paint the colors on and leave a space around them. From the outside during the day, that space appears black.”
Once the black is on, he starts quickly filling in. There’s not time to let the black dry completely, so he avoids letting the colors touch the black as much as possible. “If you pick up a little black in your brush,” he says, “just palette it out with the color on your palette and keep working.”
Once all the colors have been added, he outlines everything with white. “It gives the splash a crisp, finished look,” says Ralph.
During the day, when the light source is on the outside, the graphics appear opaque. From the inside, every brush stroke is visible. At night, when the light source is inside the store, the opposite is true.