Handmade Gig Posters: 3 Common Approaches

Editor’s Note: The following piece on designing gig posters is excerpted from Show Posters: The Art and Practice of Making Gig Posters by Pat Jones and Ben Nunery, the latest title from HOW Books.

There are an unlimited number of tools people have used over the years to create imagery and type for designs and for gig posters. Many of these methods have been used for many years. Designers use different tools and techniques to achieve different looks and combine them in various ways for even more looks. Some techniques that have been popular in gig poster design are stencil cutting, use of traditional fine-art tools, hand lettering, and even the use of old machines to purposefully degrade image quality.


Sign Painting

Sign painters are considered the first graphic designers because of their need to display a message around a service or product that caught people’s attention as well as symbolized the differentiation of a brand (service or product). Originally known as the art of painting on buildings and signs, sign painting grew out of the need to communicate services, products, and events.

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During the 1970s and ’80s, sign painting began to slowly be replaced by new advances in printing: digital layout machines, vinyl printers, and die cutters. It saw resurgence as people began to look at hand lettering and typographic illustration to add a human touch to advertisements. Sign painting allowed businesses a chance to create “one-off” typography and iconography that carried an air of authenticity. And now, sign painting is still used contemporarily because of its unique look and its tie to the idea of Americana as well as its industrious nature (hand done, time spent, and a human value). A hand-painted sign shows a human quality—it gives the reader a sense of someone telling you something important one on one. And that is something a machine mass-producing a sterile message can never do. Hand lettering and hand-done type styles are born out of sign painting.


Thick marker/chisel tip conveys a sign-painting type of quality.

Related: Check out some impressive hand-painted signage from around the world.


This mask-making technique was born out of necessity before digital printers were invented (in printmaking). Rubylith, a brand of masking film invented by the Ulano Corporation, helped artists and book makers create multiple copies of a work quickly from a mold that wasn’t constrained to pre-existing imagery and type that could be laid out with letterpress. It was used to create screens in screenprinting or plates for offset lithography. Using Rubylith you could create large areas of color in printmaking before you could digitally output a film.

Rubylith creates a smooth, “vector” line that looks as if it were painted or cut vinyl.

Rubylith allows you to draw layers of shadowing, but with a knife versus a pencil, which gives you free flow decision-making. To create an image, layers of the masking film are built upon one another and a screen is shot for each. Layers of colors are trimmed away to create an image. On the first layer you cut away all but the lightest lights and white. Depending on the number of colors, multiple layers are built on top, each cutting away the next level of “light color.”

The last layer will be the darkest darks or black in the image. Ultimately, the technique creates a smooth, “vector” line that looks as if it were painted or cut vinyl. Rubylith is still used today to create low-colornumber designs that still show form shading and depth. It is commonly used in portraiture or to show a posterized version of a person, place, or thing (a good example of this is the work of Shepard Fairey).


Layers of film are trimmed away to create an image.

Layers of the masking film are built upon one another and a screen is shot for each.

Rubylith is still made by Ulano as a “masking film” but is less used as a print process tool. Today it is used more as an illustration tool that limits you to just a few layers of depth. Similar tools are Amberlith (a yellow-colored masking film), which has been discontinued by Ulano. Amberlith blocks less light than Rubylith, but still blocks much of the UV spectrum.

In terms of overall visual style, Rubylith is similar to the stencil cut. However, Rubylith produces a perfectly printed line where stencil cutting depends on the quality of the way it is applied—spray-painted, stamped—and the distance from stencil to substrate.

Related: John Foster shares 10 essential tips for designing gig posters.

Stencil Cut & Construction Paper Cut

The process of stencil cutting goes all the way back to cave-man drawings and hasn’t changed too much to this day. The process involves rubbing pigment, ink, paint, charcoal, etc. through a mask to produce an image. Stencils were used before screenprinting was invented as a means of mass-producing books. And for decades graffiti artists have used stencils to quickly and stealthily create works of street art, often displaying multiples of the same image, message, or tag in major metropolitan areas. Stencils are used contemporarily to show quick design decision-making, DIY quality, and a handmade aesthetic.


Create a stencil by cutting away the positive space in your image.

The construction paper cut is a similar method. The main difference between the two is that stencil cutting is the first step in a masking and application process and construction paper cut is the positive or reversed version. Instead of cutting away the positive and painting, printing, or drawing through the mask, construction paper cut uses the positive image or paper as the image itself. Construction paper cut refers to the rudimentary tool (construction paper) and process (like a child could do) that creates a particular look that is quickly made, which is often made with whatever is available.


This series of photos shows the process of using a stencil and spray paint to quickly create an image.


T5463_1Read more in Show Posters: The Art and Practice of Making Gig Posters:

Powerhouse Factories takes you beyond album covers to teach you all about the art that drives today’s biggest shows and festivals. Show Posters offers a visual timeline of the big players in the music industry, from The Black Keys and Passion Pit to Phantogram and Real Estate, as well as the posters that launched their shows—and the designers’ careers.

Show Posters features step-by-step instructions to guide you through screen printing, hand lettering, and yes, even Xeroxing your way to recreating iconic, kickass posters. The high-energy rock-and-roll artists of Powerhouse Factories will coach you on how to hook up with bands, managers, and promoters, and create an original, limited poster for one of their shows. Purchase it here.

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