Yesterday, Bob Whistler of Brainerd, Minnesota, wrote, “I’ve been a painter for nine years and I sign my work ‘Whistler.’ I put my full name and date on the back. James McNeill Whistler, a distant relation, signed his paintings in different ways during his lifetime. Early works had his full name and date. For a while he signed Whistler with date and lastly with the abstract ‘W,’ which became the butterfly. How should I sign my work?”
Thanks, Bob. Unfortunately, most people who have the name of a great one are thought to be imposters. However, when handled wisely, you can reap the Whistler benefit and still be your own man. Not that you were thinking about it, but it’s important not to adopt any device or logo that is anywhere near Whistler’s butterfly. The best idea is to be straight up and sign your whole name. You don’t want anyone to think you’re coat-tailing. Whistler alone is not enough. I suggest a clearly lettered Robert W. Whistler. No confusion. Honest goods.
Nowadays, with so many artists out and about, your name is mighty important. I believe in including first names so there is at least the suggestion of familiarity and friendliness. Further, in a name like Joseph Smith, a third or middle name will distinguish him from the Mormon guy and make him findable on the Net. Joseph Gascoyne Smith.
Clarity of signature is valuable too. While mystery is fine, and it’s dynamite to have folks recognize your “signature” by looking at your work, to be able to see and read clearly is an appreciated courtesy. Even a roaring ego like Picasso valued clarity, and he wrote it large to match. Only later, when he was a household name, did he reduce to initials. Singular names, monikers and avatars like Cosmos, Crumpet and Christo (Christo is a combination of two artists) can appear smug and artificial nowadays. Singular names work better for rock stars where glitz is more important than content. In my experience, a return to quality art is taking place, and names are cooperating.
I’m not saying artists should join the flock — we need to maintain our individualism at all costs. Who can blame Mary Brown for signing “Paintergirl”? On the other hand, while cute, “Paintergirl” has a slight odour of merchandising. Maybe she should think twice. Signatures should be neither condescending nor vernacular. After all, it’s called “fine art” — and it’s getting finer. Unless your genuine name happens to be George Stink, it’s best to hang your life on what you were given. Incidentally, some of the Stinks I used to know put it all behind them and changed their name to Stunk.
PS: “Remember always that you have not only the right to be an individual; you have an obligation to be one.” (Eleanor Roosevelt)
Esoterica: Back in the old days, John Singer Sargent got away with an inept scrawl, barely legible on some of his works. It was part of his calculated mystique of appearing casual. “Genius,” said Elizabeth Barrett Browning, “is the power to express individuality.” A name may be ordinary, but these days, as long as someone can google it up and discover work that vibrates with individualism, you’ve got it made.
by John Crowther, Los Angeles, CA, USA
This posting is doubly significant to me. One, because I only recently changed the signature with which I sign cartoons, from the scrawl I’ve been using to something readable. Now that my work is being picked up by various websites and publications, I wanted people to know who did it. Two, I just completed the attached cartoon in the past few days (mindful, of course, that “Whistler’s Mother” is not really the official title).
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by Ruth Rodgers, Lakeside, ON, Canada
Several years ago I bought a large painting by a student in the Fine Art program at the college where I worked. The student had not signed the work, but when I asked that he do so, his teacher intervened, saying that they discouraged students from signing work on the front of the canvas on the grounds that signatures had become “commodified.” I thought this was a bit of nonsense, and again asked the student to sign the work on the front of the canvas (if he was comfortable doing so), which he did, with one wary eye on his professor.
(RG Note) Thanks, Ruth. Puerile pedagogic puffery.
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by Dwight Williams, Meridian, ID, USA
After painting watercolors in my area (and sometimes beyond to include some of the world) for over forty years, I am pretty well known around here. Some times, facetiously, I tell people I give the paintings away and sell my signature. Unfortunately there is some truth to this. There are a lot of whiz-bang painters around but they are often ignored because they are not as well known as the old guy who beat them to the game. Sometimes, though, someone new catches on because their work is really unique. I am not bothered by the competition at this late date, but rather really like it because it means that at least part of the public is seeing what’s going on.
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Unusual is good
by Louise Francke, NC, USA
I fortunately have a very unusual Maiden name, Zjawin, which I use as part of my “art signature.” Since this name is so unusual in its spelling and pronunciation for those not knowing how to approach a J following a Z, I was hesitant to use it. Until a gallery director said she both remembered my work and associated it with that unusual name which I should keep using. Now, I am proud of my name and its meaning “seer of apparitions” fits my art.
Symbol as identity
by Sam Liberman, Sacramento, CA, USA
I thought I had solved the problem of signatures, but now I will have to think about it again. I have a longish name, and I have been uncomfortable about taking up too much of the page with the signature, not to mention that it takes a while to paint it. I have a long, distracting signature, and I dislike the scribble. I tried a number of devices and finally arrived at the Hebrew letter ‘shem,’ my first initial, inside a box with the lower right corner of the box cut off. It is a combination of a simplified chop and an initial that I don’t know anyone else uses. The shape kind of relates to the shape of the surface. It is simple enough to reproduce each time, and I can use whatever color I think fits in. I also sign the pastels on the back in pencil.
The question is whether or not this is too confusing or mysterious or otherwise seems to be covering up my identity.
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Make signature legible
by Nina Allen Freeman, Tallahassee, FL, USA
Wonderful subject, signatures! My pet peeve is tiny little signatures hidden somewhere in the painting so that the viewer has to send out a search party for it. Is the painter ashamed of his or her work? The other pet peeve is signatures so carelessly written that it is illegible and the artist is incognito.
Proudly let people know who you are in an appropriate size and place in the painting. When I’m looking at paintings I like I want to know who that talented person is who did it and learn the name so I will remember it the next time I encounter it.
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Signatures lump into view
by Kate Lehman Landishaw, USA
My dilemma about signing my work is visual: After creating the work, I don’t like the additional line of calligraphic symbols becoming part of it. My handwriting is OK (legible, adequate, even with a modest flair) as a signature on written work, but I just don’t care to add its particular visual substance to my artwork. Nor do I like to see most artists’ signatures — give or take Picasso and Matisse, for whom it’s impossible to separate their iconic lines into “mere” names from the value symbolism they represent — lumping into my field of view. I sometimes wonder how much of that is a holdover from realizing “girl artists” aren’t as valuable as the boys . . . psychology can be nasty stuff!!!!!
Gift to gallery
by Susan Burns, Douglasville, GA, USA
I signed with only my last name until 6 or 7 years ago. One day, I signed both first and last names on a canvas that was sent to a gallery. I received a call from the gallery owner, asking me to not ever, ever sign both names on a canvas again, because art buyers could find me on the Internet, and not buy from him. When an art buyer calls me, I always ask where they
have seen my work. I give the gallery, where my work was seen, a gift of a small percentage because I feel they have earned it, and, of course, now I sign with both names, clearly.
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Reason for full name signing
by Pat Dolan, State College, PA, USA
I totally agree that artists should put their full name on their work. Here is a story that exemplifies one reason why:
This week I received an email asking if I am the Patricia Gangl Dolan who painted a watercolor of a farm house in 1981. Included was a photo of the watercolor. Yes, indeed, I am the artist of that piece — although long forgotten! She purchased it in an antique shop in NJ. I painted and sold it while living in rural, upstate PA. Then we moved to central NJ, and now to central PA. I’ve changed my medium to fiber art, although now that I’m back in PA, watercolor is begging to be used to capture the rural scenery of this area.
Just how the new owner located me is unclear — maybe she was searching all the Pat and Patricia Dolan’s on the web. How long she searched is also unknown. But she now knows I’m still alive and working. And I know my art has been appreciated and has found a new home and a new frame.
And yes, I do put all my contact information on the backs of my work — full address, phone number, email address. My name is how people find me, and if they like my work I want them to find me!
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by Brigitte Nowak, Toronto, ON, Canada
I sign my work with my first initial and last name, sometimes including the year. While the times may well be changing, when I started out, women’s art was taken less seriously, and often valued less highly, than that of men. Using only my first initial gave my work a genderless identity, and, in my opinion, called on the viewer to make judgments about the work, rather than the artist.
Having been a painter before becoming a wife, I kept my own name (yes, I know, it’s not mine, it’s my father’s, but at least I was born with it) when I married, before it became common to do so. My husband has gotten used to being addressed by my name at art show openings. For women, trying to build an art career is difficult enough without confusing one’s collectors by becoming someone else in mid-career.
Putting my name on my work indicates pride of achievement, as well as completion. The galleries that have my work insist that paintings be signed, but having spent much time trying to create an illusion in my paintings, I will often sign my work so it becomes part of the image. That way, those who wish can seek out my signature; while I appreciate recognition, I prefer to present my images and ideas rather than myself.
Appreciating the painter
by Carole Ann Borges, Knoxville, TN, USA
I have two beautiful paintings. One has no name at all and the other has only a last name and date I can’t read. I imagine these are not valuable paintings on an open market, but they are both lovely and precious to me. I would like to know the painter’s name because I really appreciate the work and would like to appreciate the person who created it. It would also help me research who the painter was, if they were local I could probably trace them through local archives or word of mouth via the artistic community. I think this is an important topic. Because of my experience with these two paintings I prefer buying ones with a legible full name and date. Sometimes I think a small paper on the back giving a little history of the author would also be a nice touch. I’ve bought paintings at flea markets with these labels and it is very easy to research the painter and her work.
How to satisfy collectors?
by Alice Wofford, Sherwood, AR, USA
I started signing my name very, very tiny, even making it part of the design because I was so ashamed of what my work looked like. It was clean, just very small. I also put my name and date on the back of my work — both china and canvas so if anyone wanted to know more they could find me and of course know when the item was painted.
After deciding that and I had progressed to the point that I didn’t mind owning up to being the artist, I started enlarging my name and people who collect my work had a fit. They wanted me to keep the tiny signature, said it was a trademark, so I went back to the small but clear writing.
With collectors wanting the tiny signature and yet others saying that one must have a larger clearer signature, how can both be satisfied?
by Doug Walker, Calgary, AB, Canada
It is rare that I write on any subject, yet Andrew Wyeth had such an effect on me, that l thought it would be appropriate to share these words:
My Hero — by Doug Walker
When I started painting on the last days of November 1979 it was not long until I was introduced to the works of Andrew Wyeth. It was a casual introduction at first, as the person I was studying art under was a great fan of this watercolour master. The borrowing of books that portrayed Wyeth’s works and the sketching of his sketches was where it started for me.
The attraction to his work was great, after I came to understand and have some proficiency with my own art. There was a rural back ground that was a thread throughout his work which I could immediately understand as it coincided with my own upbringing. Wyeth’s portraying of the vastness and isolation of a country location and its objects was what attracted me to much of his work. Yet he owned the moment in that the understanding of the subject was on a personal and intimate basis. Another way of expressing this is that Wyeth had an understanding of loneliness and was able to convey this feeling through his work. Even when doing work of subjects like Carl or Helga, there was this feeling of isolation and distance in these people. I know that these personalities that Wyeth painted would not have done well in a more urban environment. I think that this can also be said about Wyeth himself.
One can comment on each painting, even each stroke, yet on hearing of his death I was touched with the thought that I did not know him in person yet walked with him through his art. As I write this, to no one in particular, I have books of his works on the table. I am immediately taken back to areas of my art career, as humble in comparison as it was, and admit he was my hero. He will be in my heart, forever.
Mission Canyon Bougainvillea
oil painting by Laurel Mines, CA, USA
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