7 ‘need to knows’ when signing your artwork

7 ‘need to knows’ when signing your artwork

A very knowledgeable and talented master watercolourist friend of mine reminded me this past weekend of the mistakes I have made in the past when signing my work: more about her in another blog.
This reminder led me to writing this week’s blog. Let me explains.
I am currently taking part in the Surrey Artists Open Studio event. I have set up a table of ‘old’ works which I am selling off at a hugely reduced price to raise money for charity.  The reason one particular piece made the ‘old’ works table is in part because of the dominance of the signature – so more about that later.

The follow are common mistakes people make when signing their artwork.
But firstly you need to understand that any mark you make on your artwork is part of the piece of work you are creating.  The size, colour and placement of your signature is an integral part of the work, the size, style and placement of the signature matters, and you need to get it right.

So here are a few ‘rules’ you need to remember:

bannerartistssignatures_1_origpicture borrowed from http://www.martinasclassesgoldcoast.com

# 1. You must sign your work.  To leave work unsigned is a big mistake.  Your signature identifies your work as yours.  It doesn’t matter that you are at the beginning of your art journey, and perhaps you know the work isn’t that good and that in one, three, five or ten years from now your work will be better, be proud of your achievement at this time and let the world know that this is where you started.  Be proud of where you are in your journey.  Own that point in your journey.  Sign it.


# 2. Your signature. As well as identifying you as the artist you signature should complement the painting and it should not distract from the work.  If you are new to this and you haven’t settled on a particular style of signature, don’t worry, you will figure that out over time.

Shareskill photo

picture borrowed from Skillshare’s website.

# 3. Where to sing the work.
You should really sign the front of the work.

the normal place to sign a painting is at the bottom right hand side of the work.  It’s the place people expect to see it.  There could be a good reason for not placing it there and choosing a different placement, but in all events, you really should sign the front.
There are painters who sign the back of their work.  I know an abstract painter who never signs the front of her work so that the buyer can hang the work whichever way round they like best.  She signs the back and also attaches to the back a certificate of authenticity so that her work can be identified as hers.
A note here though, certificates and stickers can fall (or be taken) off, also a signature can be covered when framing – and don’t sign the frame or mount.  If the work ever needs reframing or mounting the signature will be lost for ever.  My advice in these circumstances when a signature on the front is inappropriate, is to see if you can find a way of marking the canvas on the front in some other way to identify the work as yours.  Perhaps a stamp, a shape or some sort of ‘logo’ worked into each finished piece could work, but signing the front is really the best option.

Fountain Street Fine Art
picture borrowed from Fountain Street Fine Art site. 

# 4. Documentation. As your art journey continues, the quantity of work you have produced increases and the documenting of your work gets more difficult.  Try to get into the habit of documenting and numbering your work right from the start; it will pay dividends in the end.  The best practice is as follows:
Your signature, mark, stamp or monogram should be of the front of your work.
The rest of the information can be recorded on the back of the canvas and in your record book.
You need to include your name (the one you use to identify yourself as an artist), the title of your work, the reference or inventory number – start at ‘101’ or ‘1001’ – just looks better than starting at ‘1’ – and the date the work was completed.

# 5.Your actual signature. People’s signatures are as varied and individual as people and artists are without exception.  Give some thought to choosing how you use your signature to identify your work.
I was advised by one elderly art tutor who taught me, not to use my full name because women in art are not considered to be as worthy and men, (in the same way that many female authors use a male nom de plume) and the use of initials rather than full name would allow the work to be judge on its merits and not be misjudged by gender.
Having noted that, I think the world has moved on a bit, and I now proudly include by first name, but also realised I needed to include my middle initial as when Googling my name ‘Alison Saunders’, Google brings up first the British barrister and former Director of Public Prosecutions.  By adding the ‘G’, I now come up first, which is clearly where I want to be.
It really is worth considering and researching things like this when you start out on this journey.
Also, although the simple use of your initials is probably the easiest identification to execute, you could decide as I have, that it is preferable to use your full name.
I have seen some beautiful Japanese style symbols made into a brass stamp and stamped into wet paint as a recognisable and consistent mark, just as people used to have their own ‘seal’ to press into hot way when sealing envelopes.
Of course, if you work in different sizes, some large and some small, you may need to adapt your signature to the size of the work.
I have a whole series of small drawing works on paper where I effectively hide my initials in the work along with the date, but in this case, I also sign the work on the back too.
The point is that you mark needs to be recognisable and consistent.


# 6. Using the wrong marker.  This brings me back to the error I referred to at the beginning of this piece.  I produced a watercolour piece as a reference for a printmaking project.  I grabbed a felt pen and wrote my signature across the piece and you can see for yourself how dreadful it looks. The painting has now become about my signature and not about the seedpod, which is clearly where I want the focus to be.
Making your signature too big for the piece is yet another common mistake.  Your signature should not dominate either in strength of colour or size.  Whilst your signature is part of the work, you do not want people to be distracted by it.

# 7. The exception to the rule. Finally, there are always exceptions to any rule and here is no different.  Below is one reason that you should NOT sign a piece of your artwork: Copyright!

It is a common practise for students to copy other painters or use photographers’ photos in order to learn techniques and perfect their craft.
It is something which is even encouraged.
If you visit the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square and you will find artists copying great master works.  By copying work, you really, really, see the way work has been made – it educates and informs your future practise, but it is not your work.

If a teacher supplies photos in classes for you to copy, it is their work, not yours.
So, to avoid upsetting teachers, other artists/photographers, here are the rules.

If you copy a painting or photograph produced by someone else, your outcome is not original work.  When you then sign that work it becomes a breach of the original artists copyright and can be legally considered to be a forgery.

Someone I know told me recently that photos supplied by a teacher but painted by her did not constitute a problem as she has produced the paintings, therefore it was her work and she did not have to worry about copyright rules.


The photograph is the artwork which has been copied.  The rules are clear.  This person argued with the teacher when challenged and despite being told not to, proceeded to sell the work at an art fair and did very nicely thank you very much.

Of course, she did.  The photographs supplied had been cropped and enhanced in order that the outcome of the student’s classwork was of a high standard. The teacher wants her students work to look good as it reinforces her reputation.
But the copyright still belongs to the teacher as she supplied the photos, not the student.
In this instance the teacher has decided not to do anything more about it, but another teacher might not be so generous.  You have been warned.





4 Responses

  1. Tommy Stimpson says:


    Yet again these are exceptionally helpful and informative. I did not understand all about signing of the work but this step process and explanation is very helpful.

    If you copy work and gift it as a gift is it also worth not signing and just write a study of……….and the Artists name?

    Love and light excited about our day.



  2. Mark Wheeler says:

    Very interesting, Alison. I assume all these considerations would apply equally to photographs.

    • I am not entirely sure of the protocol with photos but I image you would treat them like Printmaker’s do. You mark the bottom left with the edition numbers ie 1/25, 2/15 etc then in the middle you write the title of the work and on the bottom right you put your signature.
      Printmaker’s always do this in pencil but I have seen photographers use grey felt pen or silver marker pen. Again I am not sure of the protocol. If you give me a few days I will reach out to a couple of professional photographers I know and ask them what they know.

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