Yesterday, Marjorie Moeser of Toronto, ON, Canada, wrote, “I sometimes place my signature to the left at the bottom because it suits the composition better than having it on the right. I try to make the signature inconspicuous. Mostly I sign in black, but sometimes white or a neutral tone. But I’ve done paintings that seem to say “no” to a signature up front. So, I omit it, opting for signing on the back. What is your advice? Also, what about dating?”
Thanks, Marjorie. I’m a member of a party who thinks signatures should be clear, consistent and pretty well always in the same place — lower right. There are times when lower left is okay too. Further, if the style of signature is consistent, the colour of the signature can often be harmonized or integrated into the painting, as you suggest. My advice to most artists is “unobtrusive but clear.”
While the unique style and painterly quality of your painting is more important than your signature, a good reason for putting a signature on the front is in the interest of the observer. People love to be right. If someone sees a “Joe Bloggs” from across the room and says, “That looks like a Joe Bloggs,” and moving closer, sees the signature “Joe Bloggs,” then this observer confirms his brilliant connoisseurship by merely recognizing the Bloggsian style.
Leaving the signature off the front of a painting may be okay for internationally-famous iconic artists whose style is so recognizable that anyone who didn’t know who was responsible for the work might be considered a knuckle-dragging Philistine.
Dating is another matter. For artists who regularly exhibit in commercial galleries and switch their work around from time to time, the date needs to be left off both the front and the back. That way the art remains “new.” I’ve had ten-year-old paintings with more exposure than Mitt Romney’s dog arrive at a new gallery and quickly find a discriminating collector. If the work had borne a stale date people might think it substandard for being so long an orphan.
The exceptions to the no-dating advice are commissioned portraits and work executed at events needing to be memorialized. Similarly, do not sign “dogs.” Put them on the roof of the car and take them to the dump.
PS: “In those days he was wiser than he is now — he used frequently to take my advice.” (Winston Churchill)
Esoterica: Signing and dating is not often covered by the “how to” art books. Perhaps that’s why these questions come up so frequently. It’s valuable to make a note of the date, however. I have this and other info put on a file card and filed alphabetically by title. That way it’s always available when people inquire. Since the advent of the Internet, collectors seem to want more provenance. As well, you need to think of the future. What, when, where, why and how may be of interest to latter-day students and researchers. Speaking of books, we’re constantly refreshing our oft-visited Books on Artists’ Shelves. Please feel free to add your own current favourites.
Old paintings not stale
by Casey Craig, Wimberley, TX, USA
It is unfortunate that a “stale date” may cause some to question the quality of a work, but I think for some this is true. For this reason, I agree completely about not visibly dating work. Sometimes it takes a while for a painting to make it out of the studio, but that doesn’t mean it is of less value than newer works. I often sell older paintings, but they are “new” to the gallery and the eyes of the collector. Since my work has remained consistent in style, paintings done a few years ago don’t look different than those done last week.
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How many failures?
by Vicki Kestranek, Atlanta, GA, USA
You mentioned putting your dogs on the roof of the car and driving them to the dump. I have a lot of dogs as I am not a career artist and have only discovered pastels in 2008. I am curious how many dogs you create at this point in your career. I’m sure you could encourage some of us newbies if we knew failure happens to all of us.
(RG note) Thanks, Vicki. It is a truism that as you get older you get more particular (and less desirable). While I’m still confident a lot of the time, I still anguish over every one and reject about 20%. Incidentally, putting them on the roof of the car and taking them to the dump was a euphemism. I burn them in the fireplace.
A good ‘dump’ story
by Jeffrey Hessing, Nice, France
Taking work to the dump is not sufficient for the “dogs.” I once took a roll of life-sized erotic drawings, starring yours truly, to the dump and watch them drop into a deep pit. I used to see the smoke and flames rise from that same pit every evening as I drove home.
Much to my shock and embarrassment those same drawings showed up at a dealer who said he bought them at a flea market. He wanted me to buy them back from him. It dragged on for years. Fortunately there were no takers for my erotic fantasies and he finally traded them back to me for a couple of small landscapes. The last time I did some spring cleaning I hired a kid to spray paint over the rejects or tear them into tiny pieces before they went into the trash. He thought I was crazy but I’d learned my lesson. What a crazy profession!
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Lefties sign left
by Claudette Lee-Roseland, Grafton, WI, USA
I always sign in the left corner — I am left handed and it is easier. I definitely agree with your dating comments. Shows often want work executed in the last year. Perhaps a painting is your favorite and you have hung it in your own house for a time before parting with it. Dates can interfere with entering it into a show.
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Are digital prints originals?
by Mary Ann Liscio, Chestnut Ridge, NY, USA
My question pertains to creating an original, signed work when created by “painting” on the computer. If a piece is created, then printed, is it proper to call it an original if only one copy is printed and signed as the original? Does the digital then have to be destroyed?
(RG note) Thanks, Mary Ann. The proper designation for exhibition is “one-off digital print.” There is little need to designate as “original.” If you want to maintain your integrity, destroy the file.
Signing, archiving, and estate planning
by Brad Michael Moore, Perrin, TX, USA
Coming from a photographic background, the dating aspect has a whole different and iconic meaning for my genre. How many pieces of one work did the artist create — and was this early period, prime, or ‘sunset of the career’ reproduction. I have always had a self-imposed limit of how many reproductions I would sell of any one work, and that is five — size does not matter — just count. As an abstract artist — even though I am generally a traditionalist, and see most of my work as positioned in one way — occasionally, even I can admit some creations have both a horizontal, and a vertical pose… On the rare occasion this aberration occurs, I will sign my name on the bottom right side to each position, and wire the frame both ways as well — then the buyer can feel empowered to choose which juxtaposition fits their ‘frame of mind.’ The second signature is always a buzz creator in a gallery opening. How I love to anonymously stand near and listen to some, “expert,” during an Opening — with one, or a few followers, expound upon their theories over why the artist did such a thing, and why it is creative, or a bad practice, etc.
While I know you have broached the topic before, from however many directions — still my biggest worry is my estate. Not only do I have a legitimate art collection of other people’s art, but my art — such a big part of it is not so much the prints I may leave behind — (I have regular burnings for the best test prints I kept for a time to surmise over — but all of my work from 2003 on is digitized, and I have many external hard drives holding exact, and varying, captures of those works. Pre-2003 — going back to 1957, is all negative. While I have refrigerated aging negatives for years — the color films do falter with age (like my libido). The B&W negatives hold their own to the test of time in much better fashion. The best of all my film works have been digitized anyway — so that is not my worry. Do I commit my collection to, “The Cloud,” somewhere, so I have more, or less, worry over the eventual handling of my old hard drives? Even as technologies progress, between each transition is a period where you can transpose your older works into the newer formats of archiving. Still it is a daunting dilemma to face with all certainty. Even a painter wants digital artifacts of their work to be held within the estate for as long as protections by law are available. If only to control, and allow, reproduction rights to periodicals, textbooks, and other publishing opportunities that may be beneficial to the future estate, and for art history — if one is so lucky.
Faulty use of the word ‘dog’
by Barbara Steinberg-Orlowksi, Hawaii
Exactly what do you mean by don’t sign dogs and take them to the dump! That could be taken offensively by those who care about animals. “Animals have been regarded as property for way too long. It’s high time we took on a more loving and responsible relationship with our kindred beings in the web of life on this beautiful planet. I always think and act as a guardian towards my kindred beings, never as their owner.” (Jim Mason, author An Unnatural Order)
(RG note) Thanks, Barbara. Sorry, I’ve made this boo-boo before. It’s too bad, but since my art school days the term “dog” has always been associated with bad work. I also apologized to Dorothy and Stanley.
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The value of dating
by Dianne Mize, Clarkesville, GA, USA
I’m often in the school of least acceptance and on this matter, I find myself in disagreement with you, something that doesn’t happen often. I know intentions today are more market-driven than in the days of our predecessors, but I continue to think of painting as a product of my journey rather than inventory and so I date my work so that it can be chronologically placed within my total oeuvre. When I see a piece from years ago, it is informative to see where I was as an artist when that piece was done. As to my collectors I find they appreciate being able to pinpoint where that particular piece fits in the journey.
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by Mary Moquin, Sandwich, MA, USA
For the record, and my own, I encrypt the date in my inventory number that I list on the back of the painting. It is a 4 digit number, the first two numbers are my age and the second is the order in the year it was completed. So, the first painting I painted the year I turned 49 for example, the number was 4901. That way I at least have a vague record of when the work was completed for posterity. Some day when I am dead, hopefully someone will unlock the code for my major museum retrospective.
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‘How much do you make?’
by Debra Keirce, Ashburn, VA, USA
Maybe you get asked this every day. I do. And I am fresh out of ways to convince myself that people mean well when they say it. “Is your art selling well?” “How much money do you get for a painting these days?”
Never mind that even good friends ask this over lunch. Never mind that they could get the answer from my blog, newsletter or website with just a few clicks to links I strategically place. And never mind that I feel judged every time I am asked, as if my worth as an artist is directly linked to how well I am selling and how much I get for a painting in any given moment. Is this the only profession where people feel they are feigning genuine interest by asking you how much money you make? And what is a good way to answer them?
(RG note) Thanks, Debra. There are many who compulsively need to know about the money. I generally say “I can’t complain.” A few years back a studio visitor who happened to be CEO of a large forestry company, remarked “I guess you’re able to eke out a living from art, eh?” On another visit he happened to notice a tax assessment that my assistant had carelessly left lying around. By the look in his eye I could see he was realizing that I was eking out more than he was.
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Feel the balance before signing
by Urania Tarbet, Pollock Pines, CA, USA
I’ve always believed that signing a painting is totally subjective to each artist. To me, the word ‘balance’ comes to mind. When one extra item such as a signature is added to a painting, it can possibly throw the entire balance of the painting off kilter. It is a quiet fact that most beginning artists who are right-handed tend to want to sign their paintings on the lower right hand corner. Conversely, a left-handed artist tends to want to sign their paintings on the lower left side. This seems to come automatically from the balance of the mind, and who knows, perhaps the universe.
My personal technique and the advice I give to my students on the proper signing of paintings is to always hold a thin brush handle at all four corners of the finished painting, pausing to look at the overall canvas to check the feel and balance of the painting’s subject matter. If it makes the look of the painting feel too heavy, that is not the place for the signature. Your ‘eye’ will tell you the correct corner of the painting where the signature should be. I’m amazed at the many times a student will discover the correct corner may be one of the top two corners, which is not the norm for artists to sign their paintings. In their excitement, I always remind them that the top corners might not always be the best place… it is a must that this process of checking all four corners be used before signing each painting.
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Free art retreat
by Keith Thirgood, Markham, ON, Canada
I organize art retreats. As you probably know I advertise these retreats on The Painter’s Keys Workshop Calendar. For the artists who read The Painter’s Keys and Robert’s remarkable letter, I’m offering the chance to win free attendance to our art retreat in Muskoka, Ontario, Canada this coming August. All entrants have to do it submit their name and contact information here and they will be entered for the contest. The chosen artist will receive a $600 art retreat. Everyone who enters will be kept informed about our future retreats. I’m also wondering if any of your readers could use a similar tactic for promoting workshops or classes.
(RG note) Thanks, Keith. While we can’t guarantee we will do it for everyone, it looks to me like a good idea to encourage people to come to recommended workshops. Good luck with your contest.
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Enjoy the past comments below for Signing and dating…
acrylic painting, 72 x 47 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 oliver of Texas, USA, who wrote, “I have gone ’round and ’round on this — the real purpose is to let people find you.”
And also Terri Higgins who wrote, “I have a painting done by another artist hanging beside my front door and people think it’s mine because it’s signed on the back. I constantly have to tell people that it’s not my work, but it only became annoying after the 100th time.”
And also Annette Waterbeek of Maple Ridge, BC, Canada, who wrote, “Works of Art have an expiry date?”