Yesterday, Margie Deeb of Roswell, Georgia, had some questions about signing paintings: “I make large oils,” she said, “and I don’t see as many artists signing their paintings as I used to. If I sign them, ought it to be my full name? What about putting in the year? Initials only? How about signing on the back?”
Thanks, Margie. You just have to know I’ve got some prejudices on this one. The current trend of not signing paintings is one of the truly dumb ideas. Whether it’s shy humility or an attempt to de-commodify one’s art, it omits and makes more difficult one of the greatest values — the connection to and recognition of you the artist. Making it tough for viewers to make this connection is an insult to them and serves only to shoot yourself in the foot. Also, signing is the stamp of finishing. While nothing in life is truly finished, a signature is a sign that a process has now come to an end. Collectors need this stamp.
To add more prejudice, I believe in clear or relatively clear front signing with your full or “art” name. I believe that people ought to have the choice of knowing you by both your first as well as your last name. Consistency is important. Viewers, you’ll note, lean forward and check this vital information early on in the viewing cycle. Without a name to hang onto they move on to your competition. You can watch it happening. While lots of historical artists have gone for initials only, this shorthand is not practical in today’s world where there are far more in the game.
With regard to dating your works, dates ought to be left off the front unless it’s a specific dedicated work. Dating on the back is also problematical because dealers and others tend to be more hesitant about stale-dated work. “This is four years old — how come it hasn’t sold yet?” they ask. On the other hand, works from specific trips, time sensitive projects, and those that are going right out the door, can profit from dating. Place, in most cases, is more valuable than date. In a way, art is timeless. Incidentally, an authenticating touch is to sign your work on the back with your regular cheque-writing signature. In any case I believe in keeping a card file that records info that can be made available to interested parties on request.
PS: “Great is the art of beginning, but greater is the art of ending.” (Henry Wadsworth Longfellow)
Esoterica: When I was a kid I used to think my name was too short and simple for an artist. I thought I really needed a long, foreign sounding name like Kokoshka or Lichenstein. In a bout of weakness I even considered becoming a Kabalarian and getting myself a new name that matched me better. Roberto Gennslovski, or something. Then one day the light went on that my name wasn’t as important as my work. Also, there were lots of admirable artists by the name of Betty Brown. About eight of them subscribe to this letter. In the age of google it’s better to be Betty Biggerstaffe Brown — the search engine can find you.
“No name” brand
by Sandra Halpin, Santa Fe, NM, USA
I have thus far agreed with every article you’ve written until now. I am absolutely opposed to signing artworks. Especially with the more contemporary pieces, the signature is a distraction to the piece itself and spoils its integrity. It is a matter of vanity that the artist must distract the viewer from the work with their own ego. I never sign my works with a name. My identity is inherent in the work itself, and doesn’t need my moniker on it!
by Carol Swan, Black Creek, BC, Canada
Sheesh, how could anybody fail to do something that will make their work worth more? Art’s a tough enough business without shooting ourselves in the foot. It really makes my blood boil — those who don’t sign are probably the artists that have “mcjobs” on the side to make ends meet. It takes a long time to build a name and be able to command premium price for our work. How could anyone pass up on an opportunity to create value for their clients? I’ve worked long and hard to get a six-month waiting list for my work. I sign and number every piece to increase the perceived value of my work. We artists need to work smarter — not harder — to maintain (and hopefully increase) our incomes.
by Coulter Watt, Quakertown, PA, USA
There are many good reasons to sign a work in the plastic arts, besides the ones you pointed out. They also include value, provenance, proof of copyright (if that’s an issue which requires a date, too). Follow tradition — sign it so a frame will not cover any part of the signature and date. Think about every time you see a concert grand piano. What do you see? Steinway? Yamaha? And in gold leaf lettering over high gloss black lacquer. That’s pride.
Three reasons to sign
by Jennifer Bellinger, Ketchum, ID, USA
My reasons for always signing the front of my paintings, including copyright symbol and the date are threefold: 1. For copyright protection purposes signing the front makes it easily visible to would-be copyists (although signing/dating the back is also correct. 2. Signature is readable for identifying my work. 3. It feels great to sign a painting, I can move on to starting or finishing the next one. I try to sign it where it balances the rest of the painting in a way that isn’t too distracting and sometimes in a color that is used somewhere in the painting and needs to be repeated, as a design element. I also always sign the back, with name, date, title, type of paint, painting support and type of varnish I used.
by Pene Beavan Horton, Sidney, BC, Canada
I have just put PH on mine for about the past thirty years, and my card says, “Paintings by PH.” Why? Because I was lazy and then I had to keep going. Someone once said to me, “In a hundred years from now, people will say who the hell is PH?” He has a point, but in a hundred years from now maybe no one will care.
(RG note) Thanks, Pene. Put your name on and in a hundred years someone will be more likely to care.
Another compositional element
by Ron Gang, Kibbutz Urim, Israel
It must be realized that the signature in the painting is another compositional element, in terms of its colour, value, texture, etc. Its influence on the painting should be taken into account, as a signature can either make or break a painting — often the little extra colour it adds, if in the right place, can often balance out the painting. In more than one instance a well placed signature has solved for me a compositional problem. A good trick is after signing, to view the painting blocking with one’s finger the signature — does the painting look better with or without the signature? Do you want the signature to stand out, or would you rather it blends in with the work? This depends on your personality — are you extroverted or shy? We can probably tell a few things about the artist’s personality as to how he/she signs the work. Sometimes I spend a fair bit of time in getting the signature to work well with the painting.
Woman signing after divorce
by Brenda Rogers, Pollock Pines, CA, USA
I have been wondering what to do about signing my name since I am going through a divorce and want to return to my maiden name. I already have about 100 paintings signed with my married name. I am not sure how to handle the transition. Do I just start signing my maiden name or do I need to change the signatures on the paintings that are still in my possession? Do I add an “AKA” on the back of the painting?
Too many names
by Vicki M. Jones, Belle Isle, FL, USA
My problem is too many names (Vicki Frasier Mooty McCambridge Jones). My first husband died at about the same time my artwork, signed with my married name, was beginning to attract serious attention. When I remarried I began signing my new married name. (I thought about using my former married name as a middle name but decided against that.) I still wonder how many connections were lost in the transition because I was not organized or professional enough to have a good mailing list and to use it to keep people informed. My advice to the single woman artist contemplating marriage: keep your professional name the same. If that name happens to be the name of a former husband, may your new guy be understanding and supportive.
Hidden codes in images
by Dawn Smith, Panama
Since a lot of my stuff ends up on the web, I use other forms of authentication, as well as my signature. Anything one posts to the web can be copied, and sometimes quite nicely with giclee process and archival papers. My extensive records include “codes” that I build into certain pieces; images or patterns that don’t show up on photos, but that are hidden in the piece, such as foil or blacklight underlays. People have suggested fingerprints, but unless one has a databank of the artist’s prints, these are too easy to duplicate and fob off on an unsuspecting public. The limited edition prints I sell have been altered slightly, so they differ from the free image on the web (usually hand embellished). I make my habits common knowledge, so I can both freely provide images on the web for downloading, and protect buyers of my limited and original pieces.
by Sheila Norgate, Gabriola Island, BC, Canada
I have had a series of rubber stamps made up with my last name in clear block capital letters. Thankfully, Norgate is rare, so the one name suffices. The stamps idea came to me after years of signing watercolour works with an illegible pencil scrawl. When I switched to acrylics and my work started to go out across the country into galleries, I wanted people to be able to read my name. In fact, I just started showing in U.S. galleries (where I am not known at all) and to this end, had an even bigger stamp made (I do “sign” the works on the back with my legal — and still highly illegible — signature). I want no ambiguity where recognition of my work is concerned. I have to say that this has been a process of almost 20 years, slowly claiming my authority as an artist.
(RG note) Thanks, Sheila. The rubber stamp or “chop” tradition is alive and well in Asian countries. A few years ago I was doing drawings and watercolours in Japan. There is no Japanese character for the name Genn. I had a chop made up with a pun on my name — “Hara.” Japanese speaking collectors still look at it closely and smile — they get the joke.
Monogram as signature
by Jeff Thomann, Columbia, MO, USA
What about monograms? I’ve made a monogram out of my first name that’s still readable as a name, but is nice and linear and line oriented so that it can be worked in to the elements of the composition along an edge of a shadow or whatever. So that it’s not necessarily just sitting down there in the corner as a name that pulls attention to itself and distracts from the work’s overall compositional elements. Would this sort of thing be a bad idea?
(RG note) Thanks, Jeff. Many painters including J. M. Whistler, Tom Thomson, Egon Schiele and others have used some sort of a device to identify themselves. A cut or a die that can be stamped into wood panels or impressed or embossed into paper is particularly impressive.
Important part of ownership
by Eleanor Blair, Gainesville, Florida, USA
I just sign “Blair” with paint in my normal handwriting on the lower left side (I’m left-handed) of each painting, on the front, of course. I attach a label to the back of each painting that includes my web address, studio address and phone number with space in the middle for a handwritten title and date. When I was in art school, I never signed the front, but always printed the date, title and my full name on the back on a stretcher bar. It may be that some painting styles require that an artist’s signature be out of sight, but if it’s clear that a painting has been hand-painted, I think that the artist’s signature should be included in some unobtrusive way. I usually wait for my paintings to dry before I sign them, so once in a while a painting gets sold without my signature. Someone always notices the signature is missing and they bring the painting back for me to sign. An artist’s signature on the work is an important part of owning original paintings to most collectors.
by Marietta Patricia Leis, Sandia Park, NM, USA
I found that my own “signature” started to change as my paintings went from abstract, complex compositions to reductive and then minimal. At the beginning of the transition I reduced my name to just my last name and then that started to look intrusive so I started to sign just my last name on the side of the painting. Now that I no longer wrap the painting around the sides of the stretcher bars, that looks intrusive so I sign on the back which is sometimes diminished by the wood formats that I now use. It’s been an ego adjustment for me. I used to like the ritual of signing and seeing my name there on the front. I had to work with my head to allow the work to dictate that I’m relegated to the back. I’m okay with that now — in fact I’m so proud of the clean paintings that I make that I’m fine with it as are my collectors. If my work changes in the future I don’t know that I’ll go back to signing them in the front — that didn’t start until the Renaissance, I believe. I haven’t dated my work for years for the reasons you stated — dated work is dated! I do use my inventory numbers which included a code for the year on the back of the painting.
(RG note) Thanks, Marietta. This brings up the current fad of painting around the edges — particularly on canvas stretched on heavy, gallery type stretchers — and signing on those edges. A nice way to avoid framing, yes, but how’s about when they want it framed? A signature forever buried. Signatures on the front may be a relatively new idea — having started in the Renaissance — but I think there’s a possibility that the recent trend toward side and back signing is due to the effect of a subtle attempt by a few challenged art instructors to grind down the already fragile egos of students.
by Duncan Long, Manhattan, KS, USA
One of my pet peeves is publishers and movie poster folks who remove the artist’s name from his picture and then fail to give him credit. My question is what’s the convention for signing and numbering limited edition material. Is the name of the picture sometimes added? I’m assuming number at the left (1/100), title in the center, name at the right. But should the name also be duplicated on the picture itself? Is pencil still the writing tool of choice for this purpose? And how ’bout some nitty gritty like what hardness of lead works best?
(RG note) Thanks, Duncan. It depends on the paper of course, but I generally use a 2B pencil — several of them, nicely sharpened. Your left to right order — number, name and signature — is correct. Outside the image area is standard. These days there’s a trend to sign (often a second) signature within the image area. This is okay and ink is now often used. Removing signatures digitally while scanning or photographing originals for giclee and photo-litho prints is getting commoner. The idea is that the artist’s signature is put on individually and by hand and is something unique. If anyone believes this makes a print any more authentic I’ve got an aqueduct I can sell them.
Double signing of prints
by Jean Bradley, Kauai, Hawaii
I have some people telling me to have my name taken off when they print the giclee so then I can sign and number the piece. Other people tell me that I should not have my name taken off, that I just sign and number under my original signature. My gut feeling is that I should leave my name on and “so what if” my name is in there twice. My original name is proof that I painted the picture!
To fool the public?
by Hope Barton, St. Augustine, FL, USA
I am a printmaker (etchings) turning to painting and have had a time deciding whether to sign my name the same (I have a fancy “H” and can’t do it with a brush). This sets me straight. I think the reason painters are not signing their names is so they can have reproductions made of their paintings and fool the public into thinking the giclees and such are original works. It has always been my explanation (having original prints myself) to people that in a reproduction, the painting is signed twice, once in the work and again on the paper in pencil. Now the public is so confused with artists “enhancing” the giclees with globs of paint. It makes life very hard for those who make traditional hand pulled prints.
Not where I am right now
by Edward Powell, Pittsburgh, PA, USA
I have always signed my lithographs and etchings in the borders according to tradition — but I find that signing a painting on the front gets in the way of the work. You know the old academic concept of every square inch of the work being part of the whole. Sometimes I look back and realize that I didn’t really make the painting but was there helping it come into being. It is its own thing if it is any good at all — mine when it is not so hot. So I give full documentation on the back of a painting but usually give considered hesitation to sign the front. I know there are many arguments for doing so, some of which you cited. It is okay for others — just not where I am right now.
Signing on the glass
by Tina King, Ajax, ON, Canada
I watched James Lumbers using a metallic pen to sign the glass on a framed print for my mom. After seeing how great it looked, I came home and signed my hanging photos. I now sign and date my photos with my name in the bottom right corner using either metallic Gold or Silver ink pens. They come in all different tips from extra fine to thick and move well on glass. If you do calligraphy, it can extend the creativity especially if you are also titling your photos. You can use nail polish remover or other removers to make penmanship corrections. Depending upon your lighting, the writing on the glass creates a shadow on the matte which gives it a three dimensional appearance.
Dealer on an ego trip
by Janet Vanderhoof, Morgan Hill, CA, USA
I went to a gallery in Carmel, hoping to show my work there. After much time evaluating, he says, “You know what I don’t like about your work? — I don’t like your signature — I like the signatures to be so small you can barely see it or initials.” I looked at him with surprise. How could that make a big difference? I asked, “Do you like the art?” “Oh yes, I really love this piece, but your signature is in the way.” Well I said, “The signature can be changed if that is the problem.” Then I realized what kind of ego trip this guy was on. Was he trying to pretend he painted it? Is this a control issue?
by Melinda Morrison, Denver, CO, USA
A national art dealer was looking at one of my paintings and noticed that the signature was not as clear as on others. Her past experience of dealing with dead artists’ work, including some of the impressionist masters, was handed to me simply by saying, “an artist can devalue their paintings in the lack of clarity of their signature. Always sign your work and make it clear.” I have always followed that rule. Whether my work is collected far beyond my years is to be seen, but I sure do not want to minimize the investment someone has made in my art by obscuring the signature. I am proud of myself for stepping into this difficult creative journey and for that, I am willing to put my signature on everything I do, even if it’s not my favorite painting.
by Luann Udell, Keene, NH, USA
The tendency to overlook signing and branding our work goes across the board! One of the most important steps I’ve taken in the last couple of years is using tags with my jewelry. (It’s a small motif of my signature “Lascaux Horse” with my signature -name- inside.) It now goes on all my jewelry (except earrings), in addition to my name stamped on the artifacts themselves whenever possible. My customers notice and constantly comment on it. They think it’s a neat touch!
by Stephanie Bridges-Bledsoe, NC, USA
I also do calligraphy and have created a ligature with my first two initials and last name — my intention was to use that for my identifying mark when I finish a drawing or painting. I suppose I still can, but any calligrapher could easily forge that. You bring up good reasons for using the cheque-writing signature. Is there anything wrong with using both? Or is that entering the realm of ego?
(RG note) Thanks, Stephanie. The idea is to identify and authenticate your work as best you can. It’s possible that a consistent, extensive signature on the front can be backed up by your cheque-writing signature on the back. Nothing to do with ego.
by Tom Landreth, Rabun Gap, GA, USA
When we lived in Wisconsin, I became friends with Clair Frye, a retired art director of Brown Bigelow and a very good artist. His studio was a converted barn and high on one wall, unmatted and unframed, hung a beautiful nude executed in charcoal. I loved that drawing even though Clair had not done it. An associate had given it to him years before. Clair made the decision to move to Arizona. I helped him pack up his studio and get things in order for the move. After he had gone, I went over to the old studio where the new owner was busy in the yard, raking up stuff and throwing trash on a fire. The new owner was an investment broker but not tuned into art and artists. I had a scary thought… “Jim, did you notice a sketch done on brown paper hanging on Clair’s wall?” I asked. “Oh, you mean that drawing of the naked girl… yeah, I burned it with some other stuff!” In the lower right corner of that drawing were the familiar block letters “NR.” In the earlier days Norman Rockwell signed his name with initials.
Difficult name to pronounce
by Traute Klein, Winnipeg, MB, Canada
I make my calligraphic signature part of the design of the painting. After finishing a picture, I decide where a certain color is needed. That is where I fit the signature into a curve of line. It shows that I am part of the work and that I am proud of it. If I were showing my paintings in a German-speaking country, I would use my given name in the signature. Here in Winnipeg, too many people would mispronounce my name if they saw it before they heard it. So I would rather that they did not see it, even though I am proud of it and would not change it for the world. It just hurts me to hear it mispronounced. Once people mispronounce something, they keep on doing it even if someone corrects them. If they ask for the name, they will hear it correctly and will keep on pronouncing it correctly. (My name Traute is pronounced “troutie”)
Masterpieces come later
by Chris Bingle, England
Tomorrow I start teaching a 10-week drawing and painting course for complete and utter beginners at a local College of Further Education in Cirencester, England. I’ve been told the course is full at 16 adult students and others have been turned away. I’ve taught similar courses from time to time, and I’ve found that at the start, most beginners are desperate a) to produce a masterpiece (unrealistic expectations) and b) to get onto the painting part (and skip the “boring” bits). I try to get them to understand that good drawing forms the ‘bones’ on which a strong painting hangs. Learning to look, to understand, through practice and asking yourself questions about what you’re looking at, are essential to developing skills. I tell my students that once they begin to really look at what is around them, they see the world in a different way. I see it happen time and again as their confidence and enthusiasm develops. I also tell them that masterpieces come later.
by Alev Oguz, Istanbul, Turkey
I am a true oil painting enthusiast. However, a short while ago, I started over with drawing. For two months, I put my paints on the shelf and did not touch them. I drew something (mostly from real life) every day. Well, it was very refreshing and a real benefit. Now, I am back to my oils. However, I did not stop sketching. I used to make my compositions with the computer. Now I make a preliminary drawing. It adds a lot to the final piece. Drawing helps with the value planning as well as texture and the impression.
No mechanical stuff please
by Hans Werner, Australia
Today drawing skills are substituted with computer imaging techniques and invite a wider debate. The distinction between art and imaging is now so blurred that only experts can tell the difference. We as Artists should express ourselves against this corruption of all traditional art forms. We have Art labeled as pencil drawing, charcoal studies, oil, acrylics, watercolour and pastel, but not computer. In my view an image produced by a computer and transferred to cloth belongs among curtains and drapes, and has nothing to do with Art. I label my work now with the following, and urge others to make the distinction also. “All my work is made through original inspiration and with traditional materials, and no mechanical or digital methods have been used in its creation.”
Two kinds of artists
by Howard Gebeaux, Northern Neck, VA, USA
I was a bit disturbed to see Robert write, “Another problem is that many collectors still don’t see stand-alone drawing as a collectible.” I’m coming into art after a lifetime of photography and writing. My reasons revolve around the creative urge I have, the vision I see and want to see, the impulse I feel to create. None of the reasons are market-driven. To me, seeing the market, or letting the market be a reason or driving force for creative expression can only hurt the effort. Sure, artists have to live. Maybe there are two kinds of artists — those who create for a collector and those who create to create.
Stuff for the Katrina kids
by Susan E. Marcin, Englewood, FL, USA
We are collecting coloring books, crayons, and sketchpads for the children of Hurricane Katrina. Our hope is to personally bring these items to as many children as we can. I would like to do this with my fourteen year old daughter so that she may experience how important it is to reach out. We live in Florida and will travel as far as needed in order to do this. So far, most organizations want us to bring these items to them to distribute. I want my daughter to experience this first hand, so my hope is that you could provide me with suggestions on who I could reach who might assist me or “meet” us on the other end. So far, in the first week, we have collected approximately 300 items. This drive will continue until October 17th. My hope is to gather at least 1,000 items. Our plan is to leave October 20th and return October 27th. I was also hoping that my daughter and I could volunteer where needed in the area we distribute the coloring books and other items. I am not getting a big response from many organizations. This is important for me and my daughter. Most organizations do not allow children that are fourteen to volunteer. If you or your subscribers could provide just a smidge of guidance I would be greatly appreciative.
(RG note) Thanks, Susan. Let’s help load Susan up with a pile of good stuff for the kids. Her mailing address is Susan Marcin, 8430 Truman Street, Englewood, Florida, USA 34224. Her phone number is 941.828.2636
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 105 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2005.
That includes Marcia Perry, Saugatuck, Michigan who wrote, “Some pieces, especially of sculpture, deserve to be unmarred by the assertion of ownership.”
And also Felipe Adan Lerma who wrote, “You thought Genn was too short — I always felt mine was too long. I go by Adan — Spanish for Adam.”
And also Julie Rodriguez Jones of Spanish Springs, NV who wrote, “On google there are dozens of “Julie Joneses” but only one “Julie Rodriguez Jones” — so this is the only way I sign.
And also Paul Kane who wrote, “I don’t sign my work. To sign a painting would be a travesty. A painting is not finished until it reaches that pitch where nothing can be added and nothing can be taken away. Obviously, one cannot then blithely add a signature to such a balance. It would be like starting the painting on a whole new road.”
And also Orpha Harnish who wrote, “If a work is not signed by the artist, I will not buy it.”