Josh Staub lovingly re-creates every detail of weathered vintage signs he meets across the country.
By day, Josh Staub is an artist at Walt Disney Animation Studios in Burbank, California. By night, he paints vintage shop signs. But his “side hustle” doesn’t involve applying paint to full-sized signs next to old meat markets and car washes. Rather, he paints on wood panels, on paper, and sometimes digitally on his Cintiq, preserving the character of vintage art pieces that most of us pass on the street without ever really noticing. To Josh, vintage signs aren’t just relics barely hanging on to serve their basic function; they’re characters with stories themselves, and he’s preserving them for people who have personal connections with them too. Josh shared his artistic journey and the reasons vintage signs have captured his imagination.
Where did you grow up?
I was born in Boston but grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, primarily in Oakland. However, my dad lived in both Seattle and Chicago while I was growing up, so I spent my summers and most holidays in those cities.
What was your intro to art, and what has your artistic journey been like?
Like most kids I loved to draw, and I also loved music and storytelling/reading, but never really imagined those interests leading to a career, or even what sort of career that might be. Today, as an artist and filmmaker of 25 years, it seems so obvious that the confluence of those things is exactly what I do every day and I’m extremely grateful.
I began my professional career at age 18 working for Cyan, creators of the groundbreaking Myst computer game franchise, where I ultimately served as the art and visual design director. After spending almost 14 years designing and creating interactive worlds, my passion for crafting linear narrative compelled me to create The Mantis Parable, an eight-minute animated short film made entirely by me alone (story, animation, editing, sound, even writing and performing the musical score). This very personal project screened in over 100 festivals worldwide (Annecy, Tribeca), won numerous awards, qualified twice for Oscar nomination consideration, and graced the screens of the National Gallery of Art, the Smithsonian Institute, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where it resides in permanent archive.
The success of The Mantis Parable is ultimately what brought me to Walt Disney Animation Studios, where for the last 11 years I have served in various artistic and leadership roles on five feature films (Frozen, Tangled) and five short films (Paperman, Feast, Inner Workings). Supervising and collaborating with literally hundreds of amazingly talented artists and technicians on enormous projects is thrilling and rewarding, but as a result I find the need to paint and draw smaller pieces when I get home as a personal creative outlet.
When did you start painting vintage signs, and why? What memories do vintage signs bring to you?
I began painting vintage signs almost by accident. A couple of years ago we remodeled our entire Walt Disney Animation Studios building here in Burbank, and for several months we were displaced to alternate locations for work. A group of us ended up working in a building closer to the Burbank/Glendale border, which meant my daily route and routine changed. It was on one of those morning drives to work that I noticed a rusty old sign, so dilapidated that you couldn’t even make out the business name originally painted on it. I’ve always enjoyed the challenge of believably re-creating the look of materials and textures in my paintings, and specifically marks of decay and rust, which alone can provide evidence of a story. This particular sign’s story was that it had been uncared for and relegated to suffer years of abuse by the harsh Los Angeles sun. Feeling sorry for the sign, I was compelled to paint it to capture it in its current form, as a way to acknowledge its beauty and history. All of a sudden I began to notice these marvelous “characters” all over Burbank and the Valley, and then beyond that in my travels around the country. I just haven’t been able to stop painting them.
What’s the most rewarding part of this project?
I love hearing from people who recognize the paintings and share stories of their personal connections to them. Whether it’s the Smokehouse, where one gentleman bought three prints and shared that “my grandparents took my brothers and I for prime rib every Sunday after church growing up,” or Lakeside Car Wash, where the owner informed me that “originally the sign was painted using car paint over 50 years ago, and therefore has never needed repainting but instead gets buffed every month.” I’m fascinated by every story.
What are some of your personal favorite pieces, and why?
For personal reasons I’m fond of the Handy Market sign (Burbank) because I see the real thing literally every day on my way to work and the market itself is a sort of cultural staple for the neighborhood I live in. “Circus Liquor” (North Hollywood) is fun because the sign itself is so enormous and visually bizarre and, because of this, has been featured in several classic movies over the years, which sort of combines both my day job making films and my personal-time projects in an ironic way. Lastly, I enjoy the “Dick’s Hamburgers” sign painting (Spokane, Washington) because it is unfamiliar to most people here in Los Angeles and also reminds me of my time living in eastern Washington state, where I worked at Cyan and also met my wife.
Outside of painting, what are some of your everyday inspirations?
I consider myself first and foremost an artist/filmmaker, so I’m an avid consumer of films of all sorts: short and long form, live action, documentary, foreign, animated, everything. This year I was nominated and inducted into the Academy of Motion Pictures (Oscars), so I have the good fortune of viewing unreleased films presented by the filmmakers themselves at the Academy on an almost weekly basis. I believe I learn something from every film I watch (and sometimes it’s what not to do).
I’m also completely in awe of the wealth of artistic talent around the world, and the fact that I can literally discover new artists and their work on my phone via Instagram. I mostly follow artists who work very differently than I do. By nature I tend to paint and draw in a polished and organized way, and I’m trying to be more loose and whimsical in my work. I’m envious of artists who naturally create in such a free and liberated way, and I’m inspired to learn from them by analyzing their work and process. Three of my favorite artists on Instagram (who I’m now proud to call friends) are @captain_tom, @thomasfluharty, and @jonstich, and if you want to see watercolor still-life painting videos from start to finish that will blow your mind, check out @lizalegina.
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Before we go, what else would you like readers to know about you and your art?
My goal is to grow daily as an artist, so I’m forever trying new things. Anyone who follows my Instagram feed will see me go through phase after phase. I might spend a week loosely drawing vehicles I see on the street using ink and watercolor, followed by a week of whimsical character designs painted on my iPad. Week three might include behind-the-scenes Disney work for a past project, and for the next month I could be painting an enormous photorealistic fine-art painting using gouache[as in the featured image], my favorite paint medium. As an admirer of other artists who share their work process generously, I frequently share my own with step-by-step images and time-lapse videos. I also respond to every comment and answer each and every question I receive.
Connect with Josh Staub and follow his continuing work on Instagram. If his vintage signs have captured your imagination, too, you can bring home your own signed archival print or request a custom piece from his shop!