On Stencils and Sopranos: The Making of a Gig Poster

As a performing musician and a calligrapher/hand-lettering artist, one would assume that I make my own concert posters from time to time. Why pay someone else to create a poster for a show when I myself enjoy writing, illustration, and dabbling in design? The answer lies in the perception that gig poster design is off-limits-–a specialty reserved for ultra hip graphic designers living in fashionable cities. Nearly every room in my house is adorned with a framed print announcing the appearance of a beloved band in unique script or fonts. Each one was intentionally created by an artist to evoke the spirit and style of the band or performer. From its chosen position on the wall, even years past the date of the advertised performance, each piece of gig artwork seems to say, “You simply cannot miss this show. This musician is so great, they had this beautiful poster designed especially for them!” 

Years ago, I contacted a graphic designer whose work I’d discovered online. I admired the gig posters he created for other bands. For a reasonable fee, he agreed to make one for me and send me the digital artwork. I was ecstatic! Fifty bucks and an hour later he sent me the poster. It was, well…weird. It seemed to have been put together for a different kind of band. Maybe a band that plays creepy music for movie soundtracks in the psychological thriller genre. It wasn’t bad, it just wasn’t us. And then it dawned on me that he had probably just inserted our band name and details on a pre-designed template. I could hardly blame the guy. I failed to make clear my expectations, and we did not discuss his design process upfront. The experience taught me that if I really care what my concert posters look like, I either need to put more effort into communicating with the designer, or I need to make them myself.

Recently, and for the very first time, I chose the second option--I designed my First. Gig. Poster. Ever. It didn’t cost me anything and it was incredibly fun. The energy behind attempting my own poster design can be attributed to skills practice, study, and success in hand-lettering commissions I’ve done during these past couple years. Even before I started carving out a place as a professional artist, I’ve always loved to write script and experiment with various paper-based craft projects. Widely available software has made it easier to digitize hand-lettered font and flourishes and combine them with other graphic elements. So what in the world was I waiting for?

As with other hand-lettering projects, and similar to my songwriting process, I began with fine-tuning the concept. In addition to working with the materials and software I had on hand (in other words, not spending any money and using whatever I had laying around the house), I considered the vibe. What did I want a person to feel when they saw a poster announcing this show?

The show was a co-bill with the amazing Katharine Whalen (most widely known as a former vocalist and banjo and ukulele player for the Squirrel Nut Zippers. If you know Katharine or her music, you likely understand why I wanted design elements that say vintage, colorful, fun, romantic. To attempt this, I started with some cardstock (a page from my six-year old son’s giant coloring pad) and added a soft blended background using an oil pastel as a substitute for watercolor. Then I used scissors and glue to create a collage from some scraps of oilcloth--the colorful, floral kind used for patio dinners or tables at hipster burrito establishments. Finally, the lettering was a combination of script and stenciling, both styles a nod to vintage signage. Voila! In the end I was very happy with my first gig poster. It didn’t say everything I felt about the upcoming show, but I realized it didn’t need to. I had my own story behind it.

Mary Johnson Rockers creates custom hand lettering and illustrations for Detail & Design