It all started with a pencil sketch

By Bob Behounek

Posted on Friday, April 7th, 2023

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I think it started back during my junior high school days—you know, those times when we have time to doodle and dream. It was the mid-60’s, and I was always looking at the magazines and comics that were popular: MAD magazine, Ed Roth’s work in the car magazines and a host of other inspirations.

Computers were science fiction. It was a pencil-and-paper world, to say the least. The Kustom Kulture art of the West Coast had exploded like an atom bomb. We pencil pushers where ready to explore each new inspiration and offer our own interpretations. I spent much of my free time drawing quick renderings of the things I saw in these publications.

Remember the cartoonists who drew microscopic situations in the corner of the pages of MAD? They helped us laugh, dream and create—and move beyond our limitations. High school brought these art forms into a larger reality. Art classes taught us to think outside the box. Pop art was getting a lot of attention. At the same time, our industrial drawing classes provided discipline and kept us in check.

Pencils and paper were the common denominator. Anything and everything we could imagine found a way to get sketched out on something. Somewhere during this time, I noticed a major movement in what we were seeing—lettering, typography, supergraphics and the creative use of these art forms made my pencil dance.

Hot rods, race cars and sign painting

Most of my early drawings were small thumbnail pieces to help me work out the basic designs I had visualized in my head. I’ve mentioned this before, but the blending of Kustom Kulture art and the art of sign painting was a NASA-like liftoff in its own right. Those pencil drawings came to life before our eyes. There were race cars, custom cars, hot rods, airbrushed T-shirts, cartoon characters, pinstriping and—believe it or not—signs.

In high school, I spent time watching both the art world and the ever-developing automotive engineering. Playing with type, color and design kept us busy drawing. There was plenty of energetic graphic design and creative typography to see. It’s hard to believe, but it all started with a small hand-drawn pencil sketch.

When high school finally had enough of us, it was time for the real world. I went into sign work, an extension of the previous years of drawing. I learned to lay down the lines that would be the foundation of so many designs of my past 40 years or so.

Our union apprenticeship program put pencils in our hands, training us in the drawing of type used for outdoor advertising and teaching us the principles of layout. I was learning to draw professionally the same things I used to do in my spare time during junior high.

During this time of my life, scale rulers, triangles and straightedges were the rule. Learning to draw type perfectly would play a major role throughout my sign career. I believe that only once your mind comprehends the basic elements of typography can you learn to bend and flex those rules in a creative way.

Start your sign project with a sketch

Even today, when I start a sign project, it begins with sketching out a basic concept with pencil and paper. It’s just like those early days when drawing cool cartoons or automobiles filled our free time. (Well, I thought it was free time—even if my teacher didn’t.)

It always amazed me the different things we find to draw on and work out an imagined idea: a restaurant napkin, the back of a business card, a concrete floor, shop walls, toilet tissue, a scrap envelope, a piece of 2-by-4-in. lumber or even a grease pencil right on a vehicle. Even more amazingly, sometimes these pieces are used to actually sell the job to the client!

I remember stopping by a sign shop in New Mexico one winter to visit. We sat there for a couple hours with chalk in hand, drawing on the floor. It reminded me how I used to draw large letters on the school playground as a kid. Never got in trouble, either! In the future, I’m not sure how many of us will take the time to use a pencil to work out a basic concept. Maybe it’s all a matter of what we got used to in those formative years. Nonetheless, if you’ve never tried making a quick thumbnail sketch, it’s never too late to start.

I rummaged around and found a few pencil sketches that were used for one project or another. Some are rough, some finished, some in-between—but all are concepts that went on to become finished signs. I’ve always enjoyed sketching with a pencil, and I can tell you that putting it down on paper always speeds the thought process.

Sometimes you grab whatever’s close by and start sketching, just to get your ideas on paper. Here a folded paper towel and a Sharpie marker did the trick. Often a sketch like this is all that’s needed to sell the job.



Bob Behounek has spent over 40 years as a sign artist and pinstriper in the Chicago, Illinois, area.