In my early forties, a few months after I left graduate school and a few years before I began teaching, I worked as a billboard painter, painting fifteen by forty-eight feet, photo realist images with text. I had that job for nearly four years.
The boards needed to be done in three or four days. There was no nitpicking and the results expected were specific and needed to be exact. I learned to paint fast and to be economical with an image.
You had to have serious chops in order to pull it off. It was very satisfying to see that I had those chops. That job has had a profound and lasting effect on my work.
The forty-eight feet length came as twenty-four, two feet by fifteen feet metal panels. When they came back to the shop after having completed their run on the street, they had been dropped, thrown and stacked into a pile, onto the flat bed of a truck. They were bent, battered, scratched and dented. Often times they came in with bullet holes. This was not at all like painting on the pristine surface of a freshly stretched and gessoed canvas. The surface here was raw and real!
The first part of the process was to scrape off as much of the old image as possible. It was impractical to take the time to scrape it clean, so a lot of the old image and text would stay.
The next step was to slop a coat of white latex over the whole board in preparation for the new image. Because the paint wasn't completely opaque, bits of the image and text could still be seen. Its history was peeking through.
After it dried, we would use a marker to do a perfect line drawing of the new image. There was a certain intrigue and beauty in the way the accuracy and confidence of the drawing sat on that gnarled and feeble latex surface.
It had a certain rawness and actuality that has had a tremendous effect on my work ever since.