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 and Making a Mark
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