Old Dogs...New Tricks

We got the phone call in early July this time.

It was Chris O’Neil with the St. Louis Marketing Division of the Nestle Purina Company. He was calling to inform us they had come up with a new advertising campaign, and would we be interested in painting the dogs again? Our answer was an ecstatic yes!

This would be the third time we’d get to hang off the side of the tower, and we were excited. And this time these two old dogs had a couple of new tricks.

PEDIGREE LINEAGE

The Nestle-Purina tower is an eleven-story grain elevator just north of downtown Denver. The plant runs 24/7, and produces tons of name brand dog food daily. It is truly a Denver landmark.

In 1991 I was working as head lettering artist at Smith, Nelson & Oatis in Denver. Our shop specialized in wall art and murals, and Purina asked us to paint their new dog logo on both sides of the tower. We took the job, and together with Todd Hoffman, a fresh-out-of-art-school “wunderkind” and our fabulous fab man Rod Smith, the three of us painted “Sparky”, the first Purina Dog. It became quite the feather in the SNO cap, and everyone knew us around town as the “Purina guys”.

In 1998 my partner Rick Folker and I started Performance Signs & Graphics. We had worked together at SNO for several years and had several wall jobs under our belt. Rick is quite an amazing artist, and I can usually stay inside the lines at best, and we got the assignment to paint the Purina wall a second time.

That job hit in mid February, and if you’ve never had the pleasure of being 110 feet up in the air on a 30´ aluminum swing stage in the middle of winter, it can be a bit nippy. It was chilly but it was a high profile job, and we jumped at the chance to do it a third time—this time in “balmy” September. 

SEVEN-YEAR ITCH

Our drives past the tower showed the wear and tear of seven years of exposure to sunlight, pollution and the harsh effects of the mural being directly over the fryer vents. The building needed a facelift, and the project started with the re-painting of the entire building. What a job that had to be—the building is huge, and the painters covered almost every square foot with fresh white paint.

The canvas was ready and waiting—time for these old wall dogs to try a few new tricks. The artwork for the new ad campaign was provided to us by Justin Ford of Nestle Purina’s art department. We were asked to paint two different dog images on the sides of the tower, and repaint the Purina checkerboards on the north and south elevations. The new dogs were sooooo cute—the west side would get a frolicking “Benji” looking dog, and we’d paint a big fluffy puppy on the east.

Two different images and different copy for each side of the tower meant a lot more time preparing for the job. We’d need two separate sets of patterns, two sets of artwork to break down, patterns to project, and a lot more colors to mix.

We decided to get some help from our friends at Fineline Graphics, who always have fresh ideas and lots of state-of-the- art equipment at their command. The artwork had come to us on disc as a graphic image with about 60 colors per illustration. We asked Justin to break the images down to about 20 colors each, which was still a lot of detail considering the paintings would be viewed from the highway 100 feet below.

Fineline was going to pen- plot the copy for us, and we put our heads together with our buddy, Ewen Reese, and came up with the idea of taking the artwork and printing out full size color outputs of the images on paper. We could then perforate the outputs and use them as patterns. What a great idea! 

ICONS OF ART, SWING AND STAGE

Meanwhile, there were all the other details we had to deal with in preparation for our assault on the tower.

We had to secure a sign permit from the City of Denver for the repainting of the wall, and try and get them to let us go larger than the 200 square feet per side they had previously allowed us. I presented our case to the Mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs, and tried to get them to approve the dogs as “Iconic Artwork” instead of advertising. It was a nice try, but I walked out of zoning with a sign permit for the same 200 square feet per side as last time.

The next step was to get insurance to cover us 11 stories up in the air. We needed a million dollar liability policy, and even though we have never had an insurance issue, it took us several weeks and about a half dozen agents before we found a company that would cover us. The coverage was job specific—one month on the wall—and it wasn’t cheap.

Things were falling into place, and the final hurdle would be the timing. We were busy, and trying to free up a month of time to devote to the job would be tough. We had an arrangement with the painters to take over their swing stage when they completed the painting of the building, and we hoped our schedules would mesh. Any downtime once we accepted the swing stage as our own would be costing us, and it would have to be moved four times. Our contact, Eric Blackard at Waco Scaffolding, kept things rolling, and soon it was time to paint.

The first elevations we would paint were the 100-square-foot Purina Checkerboards on the north and south sides of the tower. We had a scale drawing of the 10´ x 10´ logo, and with our “precise calculations” and a few snapped lines, we cruised right through them. (Of course it didn’t hurt that we could still see the outline of the previous logo through the paint.)

We were beginning to feel quite comfortable way up high, and when both the cable climbers locked up and stranded us, we were quite calm as we screamed for help. A quick phone call to Waco and a review of the operating instructions and we were safely down and at the bar by happy hour.

JOB WELL DONE

Next came the west wall and the chance to see just how clever we really were. The swing stage was moved for the third time, and scaffolding towers were erected to get us up and over the rooftop mechanics.

Now the job got serious. The biggest challenge would be getting our precious paper patterns up onto the wall without them being shredded by the wind. We had seven rolls of 48˝-wide patterns, and we were right over the exhaust vent for the ovens—it was like working over a wind tunnel, and it was so loud we couldn’t hear each other without screaming.

We covered ourselves with duct tape, found center of the building, and started unrolling our 24´-long patterns. The black charcoal powder we used to transfer our image onto the wall tasted like victory, and the spray fixative we applied to keep the layout from washing away was like a fine perfume—the layout was on the wall, and it was time to break out the brushes. We started with the copy and got through it quick—painting big letters vs. the details of the dog took us no time.

Next we cranked the stage up to the tippy-top of the tower and began painting the dog. Rick came up with the idea of using the color output as a full size color reference, and it became a giant paint-by-number painting. Even with 20 colors, much of the detail we were painting would never be seen, so we needed to simplify the graphics while still maintaining the overall look of the image. It was a challenge but by week’s end the first dog was done.

The east side was next and we made a few more modifications to our plan. We talked Rick’s wife Julie into helping us, and having three people on the stage made the pattern step go much quicker. Julie is an excellent artist and even though her shop nickname is “Dripsy” she was a big help.

Rick came up with a custom table that attached to the railing, which held our paint and supplies. Every time-saving trick we came up with we applied to this side, and we were soon packing up our gear and saying goodbye to the good folks at Purina. Everybody loved the dogs and so we called it a job well done. 

LESSONS LEARNED

We learned several things on this go ‘round, and it’s always good to come away a little smarter than when you started.

For instance—if you kick over a Dixie cup of paint on a swing stage 11 stories up in the air, it will take approximately forever to touch up every drip on the entire wall.

Also, it is a proven fact that no matter how well prepared you are for the job, as soon as the swing stage gets to the top of the wall you will have to go to the bathroom.

And if you somehow manage to get black charcoal powder all over your face, no one will even mention it.

Times have changed in the world of sign painting and lettering. What once was an art that took hours of practice and years to perfect, is now pumped out in strip mall sign shops. “Quick, Fast, and Speedy” are the words used to describe a lot of the business of signs these days.

Time was there used to be a sign guy (or gal) at a bench, scratching out a layout with a stick of charcoal and then picking up a brush and lettering by hand his layout in some exquisite script or casual. Nowadays, it’s pick a font and a color and we can have it in an hour.

But some jobs still require the work to be done the old way—by hand, with a paintbrush and a can of paint.

And so in closing, I’m hoping this story will be interesting to the new generation of sign folk out there—those of you who’ve never had paint under your fingernails, or sat on a mineral spirits soaked rag, or gotten zapped by the pounce table. Maybe you’ll get a call for a job like this one, and maybe you’ll have to hunt down a couple of old sign guys to do it. Hope you do—look forward to your call, and remember, some of us old dogs still know a few tricks...