Using Photoshop and Illustrator (and Trial and Error) to Uncover the Past

By Craig Winslow

Experimental designer and Adobe Creative Resident Craig Winslow has spent much of the past year unlocking the secrets of ghost signs and bringing them back to life, though animated projections. Each sign is unique, with its own mysteries to reveal, so Winslow has to tailor his approach and use multiple techniques (along with good old-fashioned trial and error) as he works. In a previous article, “Ghost-Sign Sleuth,” we got an inside look at some of Winslow’s painstaking detective work. Here, he reveals more details of his process, with a closer look at four interesting signs he’s recently revived.


Some of my favorite ghost sign specimens have multiple layers for me to resolve. They’re known as palimpsests, and this Cakebread Robey sign in the Stoke Newington area of London was immediately interesting: it had compelling coloring, with red letters on white areas, and the two layers revealed the growth of the company—with the newer layer advertising new business locations and new capabilities. 

Since starting this project, I am often asked if finding the old typefaces is difficult—but the fact is that these are not typefaces; I re-create the letters from scratch, mostly using Adobe Illustrator CC and its pen tool. One Illustrator technique I’ve used to figure out the letters in difficult-to-resolve palimpsest ghost signs is vectorizing the shapes in the most visible, newest sign layer and toning down the intensity of their colors (using the eyedropper tool). This makes it much easier to see shapes on the lower layer (as shown above).

The bottom line was by far the most difficult to figure out, but by focusing on the slight difference between the red colors and looking at hints of paint remnants, I was able to complete the older layer. I used Adobe Photoshop CC to select a color range to isolate colors, and then I just stared at the sign and dragged similar letters around to solve the puzzle of which words made sense.

The older sign was a simple three-layer stack of type, on either side of the window; the newer layer had a more complex design, with new locations and the word ironmongers listed as a new service.


To the naked eye, this palimpsest, also in London, is nearly impossible to isolate into its three distinct layers. The words WESTMINSTER and CRITERION at the top, the word NEWS at the bottom, and a mysterious chunk of white all blend together into one mashup of a wall.

Fortunately, using historical photos, I was able to reveal the original layers, which date back to the 1920s. Collected by my collaborator for the London Design Festival, Sam Roberts of Ghostsigns, one image gave us a view of the words WESTMINSTER GAZETTE and an entire pyramid graphic, visibly absent today.

Neighboring walls reveal similar ads, as well as an insight into the Criterion Matches layer (the middle layer): the block of white is actually an illustration of a matchbox.

Further references found by Sam Roberts for the Criterion Matches packaging helped define exactly what the matchbox illustration looked like (as shown below).

The bottom layer of this sign is an ad for Gillette that is barely visible. It was very satisfying to solve the mystery of the slogan hiding on that layer. By dragging vector points and guides around to create letters in Illustrator, I finally came up with the full phrase: “British Made Razor Blades.” 


This sign in Portland, Maine, was a real mystery. My focus was on the left side, where the words WILLIAMS BROS. CO. are clear, but the round corner caught my eye because the word SIGNS is clearly hiding there. I uncovered conflicting information as I started to dig into the history of the building.

The structure is known as the Henry Goddard Block, built between a shockingly-earlier-than-expected 1831 and 1833. It was one of the few structures to survive the massive fire that destroyed much of Portland in 1866. Over the years, this location has been home to a saloon, a restaurant, a brass foundry, a coppersmith, a boarding house, a sign shop, a tattoo artist’s shop, and more.

A Sanborn map from 1909 has the location clearly labeled as sign shop, confirming my initial hunch. However, I couldn’t find any further information or photographic evidence about the sign shop business.

It took me far too long to realize the giant arrow in the ghost sign didn't say “around back” but was actually pointing to a location, and the letters inside it were actually an address: Custom House Wharf.

The company was sold to Brookline Machine Company in 1985 and has since moved, but it kept the same name and remains in business today.

I'd like to find more information about the mysterious sign shop at this location, but some of these ghost signs are so elusive that they get lost to time.


Nestled between two buildings and underneath a bridge, this London sign has survived for a surprisingly long time for being painted onto wood.

With no historical references available, I had to resort to just doing my best to resolve the letters in Illustrator—and the support of Sam Roberts’s local expertise and knowledge.

Once I had a few letters vectorized, I got a feel for the style of other letters that should be along that same baseline. I would often make little marks to help my brain find incomplete sections of words. It’s quite often a fun little puzzle to figure out what makes sense—it’s incredibly satisfying to figure out a word previously lost to time.

January 6, 2017

Marquee image: Cortney Vamvakias

Other images: courtesy of Craig Winslow