Tuesday, July 9, 2013

How to sign your artwork

A while ago, blog reader Trevor asked "I'm confounded about where to sign, and what signature to use. I'm often worried I will ruin a perfectly good painting with a bad/distracting signature! Can my signature change? Do I sign the studies or the bad stuff? Also, what colors should I use? Should I include the date or anything other information?"

Thanks, Trevor. Great topic! It's generally a good idea to sign any work that you're reasonably proud of. It can increase the value of your work by a large factor, and it aids in identification, should your work get scattered after you're gone.

(Above: Serov) Sign your work in the same medium and with the same tool that the art was created in. The color can be lighter or darker than the background, but it should probably be a color that harmonizes something in the image. A dull red such as English red is traditional. Choose a spot in the painting that's not too busy and not too important. The normal place is at the lower right or lower left, just above the rabbet edge of the frame or within the crop margin of the painting, but many artists have signed at the top of the painting, too. 

Usually a painting is only signed when it is finished. However there are cases of artists who signed unfinished paintings, such as this one of the 1848 revolution by Adolph Menzel. He wisely signed it in the middle of the unfinished area. That way if someone after he died wanted to finish the painting for him, he would have to paint out the signature, too.

If you're a plein air painter, and you're painting on a light ground, especially an oil ground, you can scratch your signature and the location through the wet paint with the pointed end of the brush handle. A scratched-in signature serves as proof that you did the painting on the spot in one sitting.

My personal feeling is that the signature shouldn't jump out and demand attention, but it should be easily findable if you're looking for it, and it should be identifiable in a digital file of your picture that's as small as 500 pixels across.

You can come up with a rapid monogram or a way of signing with initials for your sketches. Sketchbooks, unfortunately, do get bladed. Adding a date or just a year helps future conservators or descendants. The picture above is by Adolph Menzel, who made tens of thousands of drawings and signed and dated most of them.

It's OK to work on your signature, especially when you're young. And it's normal for your signature to evolve through your career. It helps to have two or three ways of signing, such as a cursive signature for a pen, a brush signature for paint, and initials for a pencil sketch. The signature may change depending on the tone of the piece. Rockwell used elegant capitals for the Four Freedoms, but cursive or caps and lower case for his funny magazine covers.

All that said, signatures can be distracting or objectionable. Some artists make their signatures big and flashy (I'm talking to you, Rockwell, Frazetta, and Leyendecker), but that can be part of their visual identity. Let's face it: in their case, their signatures sold a lot of books and magazines, so it had to be a key part of the design. Some artists, like Howard Pyle and N.C. Wyeth, often quickly scrawled their signatures, tossing them off like they didn't care.  

If you work for a movie studio or an advertising account, you may be required not to sign a work. Or if your artwork is part of a larger published work, such as a comic page or a single illustration from a picture book, you probably don't want your signature on every page of the book. In that case you can sign the piece after it is shot for reproduction. You may want to shoot it again after it is signed should you wish to frame and sell the painting. Remember that if you sign the piece outside the image area, someone framing it in the future will have to cut the mat farther out to show the signature. 

In addition to signing the work, it's very helpful to write pertinent information on the back of the piece, such as title, date, location of a plein air, or circumstances of its creation, such as a study for something or a rejected sketch. Future conservators and archivists (should we be so lucky) will thank you. The back of your painting is important. Auction houses show the backs of your paintings, too.

Greg Shea, Senior Museum Preparator at the Yale Center for British Art, adds this:
"Working in an art museum has afforded me the opportunity to see the backs of thousands of paintings. Many artists also sign (in paint, India ink, etc.) the backs of their canvases, panels, or even on the stretcher bars. They often include additional information not contained in the signature on the front of the work, such as the subject's location or name, the sitter's name, the age of the sitter, the intended recipient, etc. This information is extremely useful for art historians, conservators, etc. as it can greatly enhance the understanding of the context of the work. In addition, the additional signatures or other information can show that the various components of the work are original (the frame, stretcher, canvas, etc.). These elements are also useful, as they can contain a wealth of information by themselves. In my institution, any information given on the back of a work is documented and preserved along with the object, as part of it's history. This can be anything from hand written paper notes, printed dealer labels, old exhibition labels, auction lot tags, etc. To an art historian, all of these are just as important as the signature on the front of the work. So do yourselves justice, add some information to your works. It might mean the difference in having your works cherished for posterity, rather than fading into obscurity..."
More about signing artwork at ArtBusiness.com and Making a Mark


Eric said...

Really great info! I do fine art landscape photography but this is just as relevant for that medium. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this.

Tom Hart said...

Great information and insight. This is just the sort of thing that, if treated at all in an art book or class, is given the slightest of treatments. But, for sure, it's on every artist's mind on some level.

David Teter said...

Good topic. Katherine over there on 'Making a Mark' had a good post and poll on this some time back.

I personally and date the front with a legible but subtle or not distracting signature. I don't usually care for loud signatures and often find them distracting.
Other info on the back.

ArtBusiness.com had a good article on it too. Much of the same advice you give here, worth a read.

Russell Dickerson said...

Great article, thanks! I always sign mine, for various reasons. Images go everywhere on the web, and I like that it's on there for recognition. But the most important part for me is that the signature is the very last thing I do. It's for me to call something "final", and walk away from it before I do something awful. But I do have different signatures for different media, and I've changed them all periodically over the years.

Anonymous said...

This is interesting because some artists are adamant that you don't sign the front but the back of the piece. They say signing the front detracts from the surface and image but that you should sign it, date it and put the title on the back. They go on to say that signing the front is "outdated".

I haven't formed an opinion yet but I have been thinking about signing the back.

Any other comments/opinions on back vs front signing?

Donald Pittenger said...

I second your thought about signature size. For what it's worth, I notice that paintings with large, intrusive signatures often aren't very good. I think that a good painting should do the talking, not the artist's name on the canvas.

On the other hand... There are some signatures that are so modest and/or stylized (especially the latter) that they are indecipherable. Not so good, either.

Joyce said...

This from a museum curator: please be consistent with your signature. Using the same formation of your signature and/or your monogram will allow future collectors and curators to be fairly certain that the work is yours.

When artists like Howard Pyle changed his signature and monogram over the course of his life, it forces those of us working in the collecting part of the field to have to learn all his forms of signature and monograms.

Thanks, Joyce Schiller
Curator, Rockwell Center for American Visual Studies, Norman Rockwell Museum

Meltemi. said...

As Joyce said: Be consistent from the very first painting. It's your art. It's your signature. It's your marque. It's your Trade mark. Always use the same colour. mine is in silver...see...http://artofphilkendall.com/page12.htm

James Gurney said...

Thanks, Joyce and Meltemi. You're absolutely right—sticking to the same signature makes sense for curators someday, but also for your artistic image, kind of like a logo is for a company.

Tabasco, regardless of whether some people think signing is outdated, it remains standard way of recognizing and affirming work made by hand for many centuries. Not signing the front presents many problems. A person's work is usually known only by a jpeg of the front side. The hard truth is that people tend to underestimate how quickly their work gets forgotten or disassociated from the details of its creation. That said, the back of the piece is really important, too. I added some helpful comments to the post from Greg Shea on the topic of what to put on the back. Keep in mind that the back of the panel or canvas may be covered up by paper in the framing, so it may not be visible later.

Eric, glad you enjoyed the post, and thanks, Tom for all your comments along the way!

Off the Coast of Utopia said...

An old favorite of mine form Calgary artist Cris Cran: "Self-Portrait Practicing Signatures"

Charley Parker said...

My favorite artist signatures are the monogram style signatures of Albrecht Durer and Howard Pyle, which are, in effect, logoforms. Pyle's was of course based on Durer's.

carmenloofah said...

I want to use a Sharpie to sign my paintings so that I can sign my usual signature which is illegible so I would write it clearly on the back of the painting. Some say to sign in the medium that you're creating the work in but I wouldn't be able to sign with a paintbrush and paint, what do you think? Sharpie?

James Gurney said...

Carmen, I would say you might want to test the Sharpie first for a few months in sunlight before using it for a signature. It might tend to fade.

Johanne said...

I've read through the comments but I failed to see the original person's question about how to sign work that is done as a study. My son was commissioned to do a painting based on another artist's work and I've seen both my son's and the original artist's and they look quite similar, almost identical but he doesn't know how to sign it. Would it be okay to sign it with your own name and then say something like "after such and such an artist"?

James Gurney said...

Johanne, yes, that's exactly how to do it.

Alan said...

Wow, this is really rare information! The fact is that I work as a writer at https://coolessay.net/, and I have a hobby that I make for a living. It's drawing pictures. I have long wanted to come up with an original signature, which would be remembered to a people who look on my paintings. But the fact is that there is really little information on the Internet about how to make your signature for paintings to make it look great and memorable. Very good that I found your article, thank you very much for sharing these!

CerverGirl said...

Thank you James for this thorough post and likewise all comments.