Yesterday, Chris Bingle of Stroud in Gloucestershire, UK, asked about signing paintings. She recently turned down the purchase of one because the artist had signed her name “quite high on the lower left in a thick, black stylized script. It jolted the eye and brain,” she said. “I knew it would bother me.”
Chris signs her own work “in a colour a few degrees darker than the background.” Simple and understated is Chris’s thinking. I agree. I like my name to be neat, legible and not too intrusive. It’s a personal preference, but I’m here to tell you there’s more to a signature than meets the eye. Like paintings themselves, they carry a meta-message about the artist.
Think of the range of signatures you know. They may give impressions of strength, weakness, haste, ignorance, naivety, stiffness, contrivance, carelessness, obscurity, egocentricity, humility, commercialism, etc. Just as handwriting experts speculate on the nature of the writer, viewers pick up information from a few innocuous letters and flourishes. Some artists, consciously or unconsciously, bring their signature into harmony with their work. If you look around, you’ll also see signature styles that are in contrast to the style of the work. Concerned with the toil of their personal process, they may sign cursorily to convey the impression of bravura. Painters with bravura, on the other hand, may sign neatly to magnify the contrast. I’ve noticed that the size of my signature fluctuates with the size of my current feelings of prowess. Signatures are a window to the machinations of personality.
Mysterious, cryptic and illegible signatures aside, many artists simply want to be known as fellow humans — folks with consistent first and last names and sometimes an initial or two. These days, whether a mouthful or a singular moniker, your name needs to be somewhat distinct for Internet purposes. Singular can be problematic. “Vincent,” for example, has been taken. In my case, I like them to know my first name as well as my last. When strangers call me “Robert,” I know they know my work. Everybody else calls me “Bob.” But then again, you are you, and your signature is part of your entity. It’s your life. Sign your life as you would live it.
PS: “Prince, you are you by accident of birth; what I am, I am of myself. There are and there will be thousands of princes. There is only one Beethoven.” (Ludwig van Beethoven)
Esoterica: Chris also wanted to know about the current fashion of not signing work at all. Or if at all — on the edge or the back. People look at these works with puzzlement and ask, “Who is this person who is unable to identify himself?” Actually, some artists feel good about doing this. It seems to me that front-signing is a simple, time-honoured convention worth caving in to. I like the company. Bending down with a small sable, I figure if Titian, Turner, Tissot and Toulouse-Lautrec did it, it’s gotta be okay.
by Ni Elli, TX, USA
I would think that with a man, most of the time, their name is used from birth till death. However, in the world of woman, she can easily become lost using her birth name and then confused when using a husband’s name. And it can go on endlessly. I, being born with a name I never used, given a name that was not my name, married under the wrong name and still later adopted under a previous name of a mother, I decided initials were just fine, simple and obviously less complicated. I decided to write under one name, paint under initials that depicted a hint of being the same person even with name changes and lost. Thanks, Ni, NV, NvB, NvE, and NvT.
A curvy little ‘yes’
by Jean-Ann Holzenthaler
I have always felt that the signature should blend with and be part of the artwork. I use my initials “jah” as my signature and in my usual handwriting, but in all lower case letters. I like the idea that “jah” means yes in German. When I sign my work, I feel like I am saying YES! and giving a fist pump like Tiger Woods. When I first started painting, I did not have the confidence to sign anything and I felt my whole name would distract the viewer’s eye. My name is very long. Jean-Ann Holzenthaler has 19 letters! My curvy little “jah” in the lower right corner says just the right amount and in a color that coordinates.
Signature to add to composition
by Paul Massing, Amelia Island, FL, USA
My Art School instructors encouraged their students to sign the works in a manner to add to the composition. Later, as an independent easel painter, I signed my paintings and drawings with initials in a flared script to fit the expression of the work. One recent comment from a purchaser was that he didn’t know whose work it was from that signature. He now calls me “pnm” in a kindly way. Calligraphic marks in the work are made to attach a signature meaning to the composition. Having had a good work session doing the attached drawing, I felt a strong signature would fit the work.
(RG note) Thanks, Paul. It’s been my observation that a clear, consistent full name avoids confusion and is best for the long term. Many artists feel that a signature can be creative, dynamic, and even dominant. But viewers need a simple bit of information at one point in their looking, and a flamboyant signature, while irresistible for some, simply overstates that which ideally might be understated.
Problems with acronyms
by Pauline Varnell Sager
My full name is Pauline Varnell Sager from which I created the acronym, PAVASA. I’m known as Pavasa by my peers, my in-laws address me as that, and I’ve been signing my work as such for years. Pavasa is succinct, but recently I got to thinking maybe I should be signing my work with my true name, Pauline Sager, as a better identification for the public. The Pavasa signature with a business card attached to the back of the framed piece helps with the full identification, but the card could easily become detached in time. What is your opinion?
(RG note) Thanks, Pavasa. Acronyms, avatars and aliases are hot these days, spurred on by the current anonymity rampant on the Internet. Pavasa is mysterious and fine, but it googles up an island in the Pacific, a town in Columbia and one in El Salvador, and not you. I’m willing to bet that you’re the only Pauline Varnell Sager on earth.
Special hidden thanks
by Kelli Maier, Westerville, OH, USA
Some people just stink at lettering so the signature becomes larger than they intended. I started signing my work with colored pencil for just that reason. It works. I don’t know why I hadn’t thought of it. I had been hiding minute secret messages… actually the names of my spouse and children in every painting for quite sometime. I owe all I am to them. I paint because my husband made it possible for me to do so from a financial point of view, long before we married. He and my children give me reason to laugh, love and create every day (and lately to carry on through the rigors of art school, at age 40!) …so they go in there with the painting… unobtrusively. I was inserting the name of my youngest daughter in a painting, using a color that matched the area where it was going, when I realized I could solve my lettering/signature issue by just using a colored pencil.
(RG note) Thanks, Kelli. If you are painting in oil or acrylic and signing in coloured pencil, I suggest you put a note on the back of the painting: “Attention cleaners. If I’m history when you’re cleaning this, please be careful or my pencil signature will be history as well.”
Go ahead, create a mystery
by Nancy Bea Miller, Philadelphia, PA, USA
Having worked for several years for an art appraiser and conservator, let me warn not to rely solely on signing on the back of the canvas or the stretcher bars! Supports can change, a canvas might need re-lining or the stretcher bars become damaged and need replacing. Over time it is surprising how often this kind of thing happens. Then a later appraiser or even art historian is left with a mystery: who did it? If you are hoping for fame after you leave the earth or that your work will skyrocket in price to the delight of your heirs, make sure your name is legible and on the front of the canvas, and that your signature is under the varnish! If you sign on top of a varnished painting, when the varnish needs removing (as will happen if your piece lives long or survives a house fire) your signature will be cleaned away with the dirty varnish. On the other hand, if you really don’t care about being identified as the creator of the piece, please don’t worry about it! There is a certain beauty and bravery in the anonymous.
Don’t sign potential Giclees
by Marie Martin, Fountain Valley, CA, USA
My work tends to be clean and minimalist. A signature often interferes with design and composition. Back-signing has been the best alternative. There’s another practical reason to not sign the front: Giclees. Giclees are numbered in series, often on the back of the piece. Typically, it is undesirable for a signature to appear as part of the reproduction. A signature can be Photoshopped out, but it’s time consuming and, no matter how skilled a person is, sometimes the alteration is going to be obvious.
Out of the nest
by Asterio Tecson, Cape Coral, FL, USA
Ideally, it would be nice to exhibit artworks without artist signatures on them so that each art piece could speak for itself and be judged, appreciated on its merit or weaknesses. Many times I’ve noticed viewers check the signatures first before they give the artwork a serious thought while others cross-check the price list first as some guide to its ‘value.’ It’s common practice among artists to sign an art piece when they so decide that the particular artwork is ‘done’ and the artist has nothing more substantial to add. It is my belief that my paintings are only “mine” while I work on them and cease to be “my artwork” the moment I sign my name; once signed, a painting is for the world to enjoy and the viewing public “owns” it. The artwork then takes a life of its own, and the artist lives forever as the art piece continues to touch and move the next generation of art lovers.
(RG note) Thanks, Asterio. Signing a painting before it’s finished can help prevent overworking.
Inventor of the ‘logo’
by Sidney Chambers, East Sussex, UK
I have always been interested in the flowing style of James McNeill Whistler and intrigued by his signature in which he painted a butterfly. Over the years this butterfly became more and more abstract to the point that it no longer looked anything like a butterfly, just a series of lines similar to the evolution of Chinese and Japanese writing. In the process I think perhaps Whistler inadvertently invented the Logo.
Compass rose included in signature
by Hal Moore, Jensen Beach, Fl, USA
As I am a landscape painter and mostly of the botanical kind, I add (most often) a compass rose with a little arrow indicating north. The thing is as simple as can be, and unobtrusive as possible next to my signature, the whole thing consisting of a circle in a low perspective with a tiny arrow on a very short shaft pointing to the north and giving the viewer an idea of which way they are standing in the picture, helping to give an idea of place. I make the thing as small as the height of my signature and the same brush and color of my name.
by Erika Schulz, Red Deer, AB, Canada
What about the possibility of identity theft? I have two signatures. One I use for everyday use, signing cheques and whatnot, and one I use to sign my work. For some reason this makes me a little more comfortable. If I signed my check writing signature on the front for the world to see, some enterprising thief could take it and parley it into my life. Should I be concerned about this at all or am I just paranoid?
(RG note) Thanks, Erica. I’ve never heard of it happening, but maybe someone will report it. Your worry is, in my opinion, just another argument for developing a distinct and clear lettering signature.
by Marilyn Brown, TX, USA
Isn’t it also a good idea to always sign your painting using the same media you used to create the work, i.e. pastel, oil, acrylic, watercolor paints? I have many students who want to sign with a felt pen because they feel their signature is written better than using a brush. I have been discouraging this technique and urge them to practice signature using brush, pastel pencil, etc and practicing signature. Also I personally dislike seeing signatures that are scrawled at an angle up through the painting. I feel the signature should be level with the bottom of the work. What is your opinion of these points?
(RG note) Thanks, Marilyn. Level signing is my preference too. I’m dead against scrawl. I’ve discussed this with my therapist. Most “permanent” markers are fugitive. A friend of mine signed his watercolours with them until he had to go around to people’s homes, unframe, and sign them again in India Ink. It made him really nuts.
When to find a stage name
by Karen Foster, Arlington, TX, USA
My name is Karen Sue Foster. It just doesn’t get anymore common than that. Should I do anything drastic, like finding a stage name, or spelling it different to make my name a little more artistic? I would really appreciate your comments on this.
(RG note) Thanks, Karen. Since artists now recognize the worldwide potential of the Internet, we’re not local anymore, and your plight has become a growing concern. Some artists solve it with a modest, almost unnoticed but complex name change — Karen Soo Foster. Sioux or sault would dioux.
by Pat Spencer, North Bay, ON, Canada
Excellent letter regarding the reasons for signing a painting and the type of signature. I use my three initials and last name. What about putting the date beside your signature?
(RG note) Thanks, Pat. If you are in commercial galleriesparticularly if you are moving works around between them — it’s a good idea to leave the date out. That way there’s no stale buns. I make date and other info available to collectors who write and ask after the fact.
by Alcina Nolley, St Lucia, West Indies
I have stopped adding the date to my signature. I felt that possible buyers would be put off by a painting that had been painted years before. I now put my copyright and full name and date on the back of the painting. Is this OK?
(RG note) Thanks, Alcina. Many artists have now come to this conclusion. Further, as other artists have suggested, putting the copyright mark (C in a circle) on the front of a painting is tacky, pretentious and unnecessary.
by Tom Bennick
I’m a paper artist and since my work isn’t a flat surface what would you suggest about signing the work? Some of my work won’t allow for me to even use an attached name on the back. A card on the front of the work would really be out of place.
(RG note) Thanks, Tom. I’ve seen some very fine cast paper work with an embossed logo. These can be produced by striking a specially cast “cut” with a hammer, or a prepared clamp such as lawyer’s use for their seals.
Enjoy the past comments below for Signing your life away…
Kentucky Landscape No. 6
acrylic on canvas, 16 x 20 inches
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Glenn Waggner who wrote, “I always sign the back of my paintings. Try as I have, signing the front competes with the image and becomes a focal point.”
And also Bridget Busutil who wrote, “Most of us evolve as artists, and as a consequence go through different styles. And the signature remains!”
And also Susan Bainbridge of Ramona, CA, USA who wrote, “As a family historian, I value a clear indication of the creator of a piece. With that in mind, I sign on the back as well with any pertinent information as to the subject. I often leave a fingerprint by my signature on the front and embed a hair sample for the DNA.”
And also Leonard Rattini who wrote, “What does lettering a name imply rather than writing the name?”
(RG note) Thanks, Leonard. Lettering implies a desire for clarity. It’s been my observation that artists with messy studios sign neatly, whereas artists with neat studios sign messily. Writing the signature can also imply the desire to convey haste, which fortifies the “genius” possibilities. John Singer Sargent was a painter who wanted to imply haste.
And also Linda Lopez who wrote, “I don’t know about signatures. It seems mine has always been somewhat illegible. What does that mean?”
(RG note) Thanks, Linda. It means that people can’t read it.
And also TJ Miles of Spain who wrote, “I often think that the large signature is just a way to hide the insecurities of exposing your soul. Either that, or a rampaging ego that has started to believe its own hype!”
And also Kim Rody of Stuart, FL, USA who wrote, “I had been painting 3 years when I got divorced, and had to make a conscious decision to keep my “rody.” The main reason I did was because it was on about 300 paintings by that time. I’m glad I kept it.”
And also Alfredo Rainho of Brazil who wrote, “Hamada, the most famous Japanese potter, did not sign his works. He explained that when he became a potter, it was not appropriate because his name was unknown. Later it was not necessary to sign because everybody could recognize his style and his work.”
And also Laura Garrison of Montague, MA, USA who wrote, “The paintings that look appropriate unsigned are the ones that speak more about craft, for example an encaustic’s appeal is the overall surface texture, glow, smell, etc. Abstract art in general rejects identification or ownership. I sign and date my work although my peers and some galleries devalue a dated piece. I love seeing dates on historic works.”
And also Herbert Pryke who wrote, “I have chosen to use my first two initials, HP and leave it at that. I write my full name, Herbert Pryke, on the back of the canvas. It’s not only long, but hard to pronounce. I won’t even begin to comment on what I’ve been called all my life. Sometimes deservedly!”
And also Joe Kazimierczyk of Neshanic Station, NJ, USA who wrote, “My last name is long and even if I signed that name in a very subdued manner, it would still take up too much space. Although I’m proud of my name, I’ve settled on signing my nickname, ‘Kaz.’ Since I’ve adopted this way of signing, I stick to it — even for my larger works. Consistency is very important.”
And also Winy of the Netherlands who wrote, “When I was young I was so proud of myself that I signed my paintings with a big WINY. As years passed by my name has gone smaller.”