Going Clear: Clients and the Prison of Commissions

Archie Proudfoot turns his back on client sign painting work to flourish as an independent artist.

Man holding a screenprint.
'Fail We May, Sail We Must', second edition, by Archie Proudfoot.

Archie Proudfoot (@archieproudfoot) is a London artist and sign painter who has undertaken a fundamental shift in his creative pursuits. This was against the backdrop of the pandemic, and losing his father to cancer in 2020. Here, in a very personal piece for BLAG, Archie reflects on this change, and the positive impact it has had on his life and work.

Going Clear: Clients and the Prison of Commissions

By Archie Proudfoot

Painting Can Be a Kind of Therapy

In March 2019, at the age of 65, my dad received a terminal cancer diagnosis and was given less than a year to live. I was on the other side of the world in Tokyo when I got the news, at a Letterheads event no less. I called him from the tiny smoking balcony of my pod hotel at 2am and, with a tight throat, told him that I couldn’t face the idea of going to the event the next day. He responded with advice that would define how he chose to spend the rest of his life: “Well, you know Arch, painting can be a kind of therapy.” I went to the event the next day, I painted, and I felt better.

Man painting Japanese characters.
Archie Proudfoot painted at Tokyo Letterheads, April 2019.

Dad had always painted as a hobby; for him, holidays were mostly an excuse to get some uninterrupted time with his trusty watercolour set. After the diagnosis, the hobby took on a new significance, and the postcard-sized watercolours were no longer enough. Instead, he created larger, more physically expressive acrylic works with landscapes from his life—abstracted by memory—flowing into painting after painting. When I made time to visit my dying father, he would answer the door only to run back to his makeshift studio to lay another coat of paint, muttering something about drying times without barely saying hello. He was obsessed and it was beautiful to see.

My dad had spent his working life as a filmmaker. Any notion of pure creative ambition was put aside to make films for corporate clients with as much artistry as he was allowed to get away with. He was very good at it, and was loved by the people he worked with, and the people whose careers he nurtured. And he was rewarded for it, being paid enough to provide his children with the kind of comfort that led one of them to think he could get away with becoming a professional sign painter.

Made in London: Archie Proudfoot - Signpainter & Artist on Vimeo.

When I set out on that road in 2015, ‘turning pro’ by hiring a small shared studio and hoping for the best, I found in my father a willing ear to my moans about the one big inescapable problem of creative work: clients.

The Dance of the Seven Veils

Over the next five years, I rode the wave of the sign painting revival, and worked with clients of every size and style. Independent shops wanted that classic look again, and big international brands wanted a taste of the soul that comes with a hand-painted sign.