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Interview — Gary Godby

Gary Godby

We're proud to introduce you to our good friend and Carmel Type Co. contributor, Gary Godby! In this interview Gary shares how he first fell in love with lettering, talks about his apprenticeship in hand lettering and gold leaf and how that lead to his job as a sign painter at Disney! He also shares his thoughts on the next generation of hand letterers as well as some advice for those of us who are just starting out. His curiosity and work ethic is truly inspiring. 

We hope you love getting to know Gary as much as we have. Enjoy the interview!

When (or where) did you first learn about Hand Lettering?
What initially comes to mind, was when I was 21 (1972). I had been working as a deck hand on a tug boat in Norfolk, Virginia...and sometime later, was laid off because of a contractual term agreement. After taking care of business at the union hall the next day for my final pay and paperwork, etc., I then exited the building outside. Once near the sidewalk , I happened to glance upward and noticed someone painting a small billboard. It wasn’t the fact that he was painting with a brush, but the fact he was effortlessly ‘cutting in’ the letters in reverse! A white letter, shaped with a brushed black background.

I sat there on the curb for a good hour or two in total amazement & eventually caught the man’s attention. A long conversation ensued & little did I know at the time, but this would lead to my long career in the sign industry!

Beauty Parlor Sketches

How long have you been doing gold leaf?
Since 1974

Where did you grow up?
Norfolk - Virginia Beach, Virginia area.

Do you come from a creative family?
My mother’s side of the family; especially my grandfather were very artistic. Sketching, carving, etc. I attribute learning (at an early age) how to grid off a drawing and render it at a larger size from him.

Sketches by Gary Godby

I read that you served a full apprenticeship in hand lettering and gold leaf. You don't see many graduates of a program like that these days. Could you tell us about that experience?
It all started with informal introduction to the trade & it’s many attributed fields by Charles Scherwin (a local sign-painter/gilder since 1946) . In fact, the first six months were spent just merely being the ‘errand boy’! I was in the trenches, so to speak. I was still thrilled to be there & never got discouraged, I knew that there were more interesting things to come.

From there I began formal introduction into hand-lettering, layout, patterns, gold-leaf application on glass and surface-gilding techniques, tools, etc. Practice was a heavy part of my day. Constant hand-lettering drills on newspaper. Letter formation studies were assigned through books and testing and was a weekly occurrence. Layouts progressed from full letter shapes to ‘stick’ layouts on my final 4th year. Gilding training included practicing on a gilder’s tip (made from Badger hair) with silver-leaf...since it was less expensive to do so. The first two years, I learned how to make block (Egyptian) & Roman (serif) letters. Outlines and shadow drills were also introduced. Once I felt comfortable forming letter shapes with the quill, the script style lettering followed.

Crystal Arts Signage by Gary Godby

Do you remember your first commercial design job?
Yes, I recall doing a logo for a boat transom. The name of the boat was ‘Ball Bandit’ and the owner made his fortune selling recovered golf balls from local and international golf course ponds. The logo included a cartoon character with a golf ball head! Looking back on that, I think I’d like to make a few changes (laughing).

How did you begin working at the Sign & Pictorial department at Disney?
In 1981, I started off with the ‘Sign & Pictorial Dept.’ for the Disney EPCOT project. Work included scenic painting, murals, faux-finishes & hand-lettering. The EPCOT site back then was nothing more than a mud pit with no trees or wildlife around! Your work shifts were 16 hour days, 7 days a week!

Mystic Point by Gary Godby

On top of your beautiful hand-lettered signage you have also designed a number of ornate fonts over the years. What inspired you to tackle type design?
I’ve always been fascinated with letter forms and have gravitated to the more nostalgic, ‘period’ font styles of the early 20th century. I took this on as a personal and software-wise. Here, I’d have full, personal control of shape & form. After hours of labor, the end results are very satisfying indeed.

Should we expect to see any new fonts from you in the future?
Yes! Currently, I have six in the works & it’s just a matter of further refinement & fine tuning. Stay tuned!

Where do you draw your inspiration these days?
Old ephemera, including advertisements, bill-heads, letterheads from the late 1880’s to the early 20th century. Recently, all the old Sanborn Insurance Map covers artwork has really caught my eye.

Shinola sign by Gary Godby

Do you have any creative rituals or routines?
Depending on the project at hand, I usually will do rough sketches on multiple layers of vellum & slowly, try to refine as I go. Things I look for most, are symmetry, contrast and readability.

What is the hardest part of the creative process for you?
Believe it or not, color selection is a challenge for me. The psychology and science of color has a more hidden, deeper meaning than most people would think. The power of color selection determines mood, feel & overall cohesiveness of your design.

How do you feel about the next generation of designers and sign makers?
I’m seeing some really fresh, innovative designs coming out on the scene lately. Trends seem to be shifting to more of a hybrid-antique style, coupled with some great compositions & layouts.

I also sense that the young lettering artists today are thirsty to learn from their old predecessors, including the old techniques and styles. ‘Talent’ will not be a shortage for years to come, for sure! From my observations, we are in good hands for generations to come. In the past few years, you get a feeling of a re-birth and new-found interest in the craft.

Freeland Royal sign by Gary Godby

That being said, what advice would you give to someone who is interested in hand-lettering or gold-leaf?
With hand-lettering, don’t be afraid to be learn the classical ways of letter forms. Do not take shortcuts. Observe the subtle nuances of each type/letter character. Study as many type books as possible. Learn by repetitive exercises and use self discipline. Demand the best in materials and tools. Do not get discouraged! It personally took me two years to even feel comfortable with a brush in my hand! Most of all, don’t forget to breathe!

For beginners...Gold-leaf application is best learned through the book ‘Gold-Leaf Techniques’, by Raymond Le Blanc. This is the bible for all gilders. Attend as many seminars as you can on gilding techniques/sign-painting. Advice is usually freely exchanged there. If at all possible, find someone locally who is well versed in these techniques and ask for advice, usually they are willing to share. Practice, practice, practice!

Gary Godby

To see more of Gary's work visit his website. You can also purchase his fonts in the store.


May 09, 2024 • Posted by Tyler Godby

Proud of my dad and the great work he does :) Whenever I’m in Disney, I’m always pointing out “hey, my dad made that!” to whoever I’m with, haha.

Jul 17, 2016 • Posted by Bill Heineman

Gary, I too remember the 16 hour days, 7 days a week!
Although mine began in ’80, with the California based, WDI Show and Ride across the street …
it was to be one of my greatest blessings when I was invited to join the ‘Sign & Pictorial Dept.
department when my groups “creative” ventures in Florida ended.
I belive we belonged to one of the most talented outfits on the face of the earth …
Your work always has, and continues to inspired me …
Kuddos on recognition well deserved.

Jul 13, 2016 • Posted by Mike Kirby

You are missed, my friend!

Jul 11, 2016 • Posted by John Wysocki

Way to go Gary, you’re famous now. Was great working with you in and out of Disney and I was so honored to take over the sho-card work when you left. Hope you can help keep our art from dying out. Best to you, brother of the brush!

Jun 09, 2016 • Posted by Jim craig

Hi Gary, I need a small job, if you can manage. A boat name painted on trail boards, I have the boards ready and background done, Four words, I used to do this but my hand is too shaky now so I turn to you. PO

Jan 31, 2016 • Posted by Robert Frese

Amazing sign artist, one of the best!

Jan 21, 2016 • Posted by Tim MacAllister

Great questions and answers! Proud to know Gary for many years. He is so skilled and versatile, too. Simply the best!

Jan 21, 2016 • Posted by Noel B. Weber

Artist, designer, sign painter extraordinaire. Gary always love seeing your work.

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