John Downer Speedballs

Written by Typographica on October 25, 2004

Erik van Blokland’s KABK class invited living lettering legend John Downer to demonstrate how to use Speedball pens to achieve the look of that bygone era when advertisements and posters were lettered by hand.

Downer, while Speedily rendering a perfect ‘s’:

It takes years of practice.

A flabbergasted student:

That’s very comforting.

More images of Downer in action: at TypeCon 2002, at House Industries
See also: Cartoon Title Cards : Hand Lettering Basics


  1. norman says:

    When I was a aspiring sign painter, I went and visited two old codgers at their little shop in Seattle. They were two brothers in their 80s. Eventually i found out they had created the artwork for two of the Speedball How-To manuals.

    They were supremely talented and did most of the price cards for all the jewelers windows in Seattle at the time, along with beautiful ’30s style showcard work.

  2. John Downer says:

    The two elderly gentlemen (“old codgers”??) to whom you refer, Art and Paul Lingenbrink, were the proprietors of Link Sign Co. I visited them occasionally at their shop in the 1970s & ’80s.

    They did indeed make show cards and price tickets for many of Seattle’s jewelers, but this is the first I’ve read of their work being in the Speedball Textbook. It was mainly stuff by the Seattle lettering artist Ross George, in collaboration with the renowned show card writer William Hugh Gordon, a Californian.

    Together, George and Gordon produced several editions of the book, later with the help of contributors such as Frank Jacobs (a poster artist and for a time a partner of George); L. M. Kelchner, a fine engrosser; and Raymond DaBoll, the eminent American calligrapher (of Fred Bertsch & Oz Cooper tutelage).

    (For more about DaBoll’s experiences at the Bertsch & Cooper lettering studio in Chicago, please read With Respect to RFD ISBN: 0931474000)

    The Link brothers have been gone now for more than a decade, so it’s not possible to ask them if they had any association with authors of the _Speedball Textbook_. Paul Dorpat, Seattle area historian & columnist for The Seattle Times, knew Art Lingenbrink. He tells me that he recorded, and has in his possession, some fifty-or-so cassette tapes of Art reciting stories. In that audio archive may be a clue. Mr. Dorpat doesn’t know if the Links helped Mr. George, but it is not inconceivable that they were at least acquainted … considering that Seattle was a much smaller city in those days.

    Norman, do you remember where/when you heard that the “old codgers” had some work published in the Speedball Textbook? Can you ascertain which editions reportedly received their input?

    John Downer

  3. Hey John,

    I take it from your quotation marks that you felt I was using codger as a derogatory term. Far from it.

    The Lingenbrinks were great artists. An old friend visited them several times at their home and was shown their basement ‘theater’, complete with curtain, stage lights and sets.

    I also remember the proprietor from Old Seattle Paperworks in the lower level of the Pike Place Market purchased a large amount of paraphernalia from them sometime in the late ’70s. At the time I was quite poor, but still purchased a few guache sign comps from him that I still have and treasure.

    I vividly remember Paul showing me that they pre-cut showcards in several shapes, and air sprayed vignettes onto them, prior to knowing who the client would end up being. I loved that.

    Sadly, I don’t remember specifically what their involvement with the books were, except for them mentioning that they did do some of the pages. An ex-Foley Sign Co. painter (Ron Beloit, perhaps you know of him as well?) mentioned that he thought they helped manufacture some ink or paint product for Speedball in their basement. Whether this is true or not I can’t say.

    I would LOOOOOOOOOOVE to hear Dorpats’ tapes. Dorpat was a close friend of my old art instructor. They worked together on the Seattle underground newspaper The Helix. I really admire the work he’s done. I’ve always thought I should volunteer to help him with layout chores, as I love the content of his books, but not the presentation.

    I’ve been considering compiling some sort of history of the Seattle area sign trade. I was involved in it only on the fringes for a period in the ’70s, but have always remembered and respected several of the practitioners of the hippie sign shops from that time: Splendid Sign Company, Trade-Marx, Zeppelin Studio and Greg Loving, let alone the Links boys, Mr. Champion etc.

    Thanks for the note!


  4. I can safely say Norm is an old codger himself.

  5. John Downer says:

    Norman, you old codger!

    Thanks for your response. Your recollections of Art and Paul Lingenbrink are consistent with mine. Those fellows sure had character. Do you remember the sidewalk sign near the door to their shop warning all prospective customers that their business was strictly a UNION operation? Their loyalty remained in place for years after the majority of local sign painters’ unions across the U.S. had vanished.

    I do indeed recall seeing a beautiful theatrical show card (Greek tragedy theme, gouache pictorial, and tempera lettering in the general style of George & Jacobs) displayed in a window at Old Seattle Paperworks. It was priced way out of my range, so I had to pass. I asked the clerk if there were any more such cards in inventory, hoping to find an affordable one. Apparently there weren’t. The card I saw in the window did not appear to have come from the Links. The Links’ style was unmistakable.

    Those precut show cards and atomized/airbrushed scrolls, filigrees, and vignettes set the work of the Link brothers apart from the window display card work of their competitors. I remember work produced by Foley Sign Co., but I do not recognize the name, Ron Beloit. The “hippie sign shops” you mention truly do bring back memories. Some were topnotch, but none produced work that even remotely resembled the fancy, ornate, dashing Link stuff. All the same, in Pike Place Market there could be seen some really fantastic storefront signs by younger artists. What virtuosity in terms of both lettering and shading. In fact, I’m reminded of a personal story you might enjoy…

    In the early 1980s, I impressed the Links at their shop when I popped in to demonstrate a style of shading letters that I’d learned in Australia. In short, it’s a technique for getting an implied 3rd shade color by strategically positioning just two. (rather difficult to put into words here, but the “mock block” shading method, as it is called in the sign trade, can be a terrific time-saver)

    Art stood back and considered my work without speaking, then glanced at Paul, who was nodding approvingly. Finally, Art addressed me with his verdict: “You get an A.”

    I always got the feeling when visiting Link Sign Company that they knew the “lettering game” from top to bottom. Imagine my glee at being able to show them something they hadn’t seen. I suppose there’s a lesson in it for us.

  6. That’s Mr. Codger to you dammit!

    Do you remember the sidewalk sign near the door to their shop warning all prospective customers that their business was strictly a UNION operation?

    Yes- and it also said absolutely no visitors!
    I wormed my way in though eventually.

    I do indeed recall seeing a beautiful theatrical show card displayed in a window at Old Seattle Paperworks

    I’d put good money on it being one from the pile he bought from the ‘Links’. Two of the comps I bought were by them, tow others weren’t.

    All the same, in Pike Place Market there could be seen some really fantastic storefront signs by younger artists.

    Yep. Splendid did some great pieces for DeLaurentis foodstore there, and my last remaining sign is still hanging above Pike Place Nuts.

    difficult to put into words here, but the “mock block” shading method, as it is called in the sign trade


  7. John Downer says:

    I’ve prepared an illustration for young codger Coles to use, if he can, here on this fine site where old letterers are looming.

  8. He’s not young anymore- he looks like Duane Allman.
    Very sad.

  9. John Downer says:

    Here is an illustration to show how the Mock Block shading effect uses the background color as the underside shade color. This is possible when the underside shade is enclosed by the letter (yellow), a side shade (fire red), and a cast shade (purple).

    Color value is more important than a specific hue for the chromatic scheme to be effective. Note: any hierarchy depends on range of light and dark.

    John Downer

  10. Greetings John-

    I had the great opportunity to attend your talk at Cooper Union this month. And was very fascinated with your Mock Block technique.

    Do you happen to have or can recommend any books related to the subject?

    Shagari Guity

  11. John Downer says:

    Shanghai Guity, thanks for your comment. I did not see it previously, thus the belated reply.

    At present, I am aware of no sign manuals in print which explain mock block, but I have seen a few plates from very old books that touch on the subject without going into depth. The best practitioners of the technique are the Australians. They have kept it alive, and have done many truly inventive things with it.

    John Downer

  12. Thanks John, your definition was usefull one more time, I literally could not see the diference between a cast shadow from a 3d lettering, and this specific “mockblock”
    Now it makes more sense in terms of saving time, paint etc, so perfect for signpainting.

  13. Alex Jay says:

    I’ve posted at Tenth Letter of the Alphabet some biographical information about William Hugh Gordon who was Canadian. At a young age he emigrated to the U.S. where he lived and worked in a number of cities: Colorado Springs, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Seattle. I’ve included many early Speedball Pen advertisements from trade magazines.

  14. Thank you, Alex. I follow your blog and just saw that. Will have to return when I have more time to digest all your examples! I’m also looking forward to getting back to San Francisco so I can see the newly acquired Hugh collection at Letterform Archive.

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