I don’t exactly remember how it started, but at some point before the first Formula One Grand Prix I attended as a fan, I decided that I really wanted to make a banner.
I was 18 at the time, and an avid participant in the Formula One community on Tumblr — which meant I’d seen many of my European friends head to races with flags of their favorite driver’s country. I loved the passion, and before I even knew I was going to attend a race, I was designing t-shirts and mugs and selling them on Redbubble (and years before that, I used to hand-paint my own custom t-shirts). But I don’t remember when, exactly, I decided that I wanted to do something more than just bring a flag. I wanted to go above and beyond. I thought, fuck it. I’ll paint some goofy-ass shit about a honey badger on an Australian flag and bring it to the US GP to support Daniel Ricciardo. And then, when Jules Bianchi was injured at Suzuka, I decided to make a flag for him, too.
That kicked off a solid three years of banner making for racing events, and I just hunted down a bunch of the old photos when I was scrolling through one of my old hard drives. I’d made banners for everything from F1 to Formula E to WEC to IndyCar. I mainly stuck in the realm of shitpostery, which included a very memorable flag I painted for Loïc Duval that read “Drop It Loïc It’s Hot,” a pun that Audi’s very stoic German PR person did not actually seem to understand.
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To make a long story short: I loved making banners. And I figured it’s probably time I let you all in on the secrets of my craft now that I’m a Serious Journalist who can’t be showing up to races with a clear favorite driver in mind.
The best part of this process is that it doesn’t take a whole lot of artistic talent to make something really fun. Drawing has never been my forte, although I spent most of my life wishing it was (although I would like to say “suck it” to my 13-year-old self who thought art would have been a better career than writing). You just need a few different pieces of equipment:
- Some sort of cloth material: a country flag, a piece of canvas, whatever suits your purposes best.
- A photo editing software that allows you to put various images into their respective places. I used to use GIMP and Pixlr X.
- Fabric paint. I liked Tulip brand paints, but I had a friend who found local paints that worked really well, too.
- Tape or pins.
- A projector.
So, my secret for these great banners was that I never actually hand-drew much of anything because I, again, have no artistic talent or a sense of spatial awareness that would have allowed me to have large letters remain the same size across the whole banner. Instead, I’d cobble together some Frankenstein-like image on an easy-to-use photo editing software that incorporated what I wanted on the flag, whether that was text or an image. For me, most of the time, that was just getting a very specific phrase and font adequately sized. On some of my more complex arrangements, I’d roughly outline images like drivers and stick them where I wanted them in my designs. Here’s a rough outline from one of my banners:
And then here’s that finished product, after I improvised Rossi’s Manor firesuit and added a glove to Will Stevens because hands are cursed things.:
Then, I would either tape or pin my canvas to the wall. At my apartment, I used to have to pin it above my desk. Then, you set up your projector to cast the image on that canvas. Again, at my apartment, this usually meant stacking a bunch of books up on my kitchen counter so that it was roughly level with the area above the desk. And then you turn off all the lights and project the image onto your canvas.
Then comes the fun bit. Here, you use your chalk to outline the image you want to draw based on the projection, providing enough markers for yourself to understand where you should be shading or changing colors. That’s a bit of a learning process, which is why I started out just painting words with different outline styles before moving into the complex images. It can be easy to lose yourself in your drawings, both if you don’t make enough markings and if you make too many.
If you’re working on something really big, you start to lose sense of your drawing. If that happens, step back, turn off the projector, and see what markings you’ve already made. That usually gives you a chance to orient yourself in the bigger picture. I used to have to do this a lot.
(A word of the wise: use a color of chalk that’s, like, barely lighter or darker than the canvas you’re working on. You can wash the chalk off, but it can mess up your banner in the process. If I was working on a white background, I usually used light yellow chalk. If I worked on a dark blue background, I’d use the light blue chalk that came in my chalk pack. You just want it to not look super obvious when you see it from a distance.)
((I will also hear NO SHIT about how tracing is cheating. Because the next part is also not easy.))
Once you have your outline, transfer your canvas to a large, flat surface to start painting. At my apartment, I used to just clear a space on the floor and work there. At my family’s house, I’d tape my banner to a large piece of plywood and put it on a bed, since that was the only large flat surface in the house, and it also enabled me to move it if I needed to. You can also paint on the wall, but I used to paint late at night, so I liked to be able to lay down.
A word of the wise: if you’re painting on anything that you do not want to get painted (i.e. the wall or the floor), tape some wax paper down first. Cheap flag material or any other thin fabric bleeds very easily. Take this from someone who had the phrase “honey badger” painted on her floor for months before she finally scrubbed it all away.
Now, we paint. I always kept a variety of paint colors and brush sizes on hand, but if you only want to make one banner, you can be more selective. If you’ve never painted on fabric before, you’ll probably want to buy a little more paint than you think you’ll need. Most fabrics really soak up paint, and most lighter paint colors need a lot of coats to make them stand out against darker backgrounds.
Your choice of brush size can vary. I had tapered foam wedges glued to a stick that I used for most of my lettering, since foam and sticks were cheap, and I didn’t need anything fancy. But as someone who really liked art, I always had a variety of brushes around. You’ll be your best judge. Variety packs of cheap brushes are just that — cheap— and can be nice if you have literally no idea what you’re doing.
And then: you paint. When I started out anything complex, I’d usually mark each section with a little dot of paint so I knew what color I was going to paint it so that I wouldn’t have to constantly refer to my reference image. Otherwise, I’d just dive right in. I used a paper plate as my paint palette, and I’d get down to work.
Keep in mind that, depending on the size of your canvas, the whole painting process can take a while. For simple designs, I’d do a layer, let it dry overnight, and then come at it again. That usually took about three days, depending on the base fabric color and the paint color I was using. More intricate designs could take up to a month, since some of them involved very elaborate brushwork. Basically: this isn’t a thing you’re probably going to be able to pull off the weekend of the race.
And that’s really all there is to it, aside from a few helpful tips:
- These banners are usually designed for being observed at a fair distance, so little mistakes don’t really matter. There’s a good chance no one is going to notice or care.
- Most drivers and teams are just stoked that someone went out of their way to make a whole banner dedicated to them, so if you think yours sucks: don’t.
- If you have back issues that make bending down over a canvas hard, you can tape your canvas to a piece of large plywood and stand it up. Just make sure you do a lot of taping, since you don’t want it to randomly sag on you.
- If you blend colors, I recommend blending more than you think you need to create the right shade and painting it all at once because, unless you are some sort of art genius, you will probably never make that exact same shade ever again.
- If you’re looking for an autograph, I recommend carrying your own pen (I loved fabric paint pens) and pointing out a good spot for the driver to sign. Some get hesitant about signing over your work.
- Hanging banners at race tracks can be a whole debacle. Some tracks don’t let you hang things, since it covers ad signage. I liked to make banners that I could wear as a cape — but if you do want to hang it, invest in some zip ties and a grommet puncher to have a place to tie up your banner. Just make sure that, if you don’t plan on abandoning your banner, you bring something to cut it down with. Most race tracks will give you shit about scissors but not a small set of nail clippers. Crochet scissors can also work if you’re willing to try to sneak them in.
Overall, my personal goal was to do something that was decidedly extra but that was also fun, whether that be Duran Duran puns on a Susie Wolff flag or a bad Snoop Dogg joke. If you go into it with the intention of having fun, that makes it a lot easier to just fuck around and see what happens. Trust me — your banner doesn’t have to be perfect for it to be great.