Why sign your artwork?

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What you need ‘need to know about signing your art

I am revisiting this subject, which I first addressed back in June 2019, as I get asked a lot about signing artwork. A few years ago, when I was taking part in the Surrey Artists Open Studio event, I set up a table of ‘old’ works which I was selling off at a reduced price to raise money for charity. The reason one particular piece made the ‘old’ works table was in part because of the dominance of my signature, an issue I will return to later. However, any mark you make on your artwork is a part of the work and therefore a part of you. The size, colour and positioning of your signature is an integral part of the work. It matters, and you need to get it right.

The following are some common mistakes people make when signing their artwork and a few ‘rules’ you need to remember:

My signature when I first started out

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

As well as identifying you as the artist, your signature should complement, and certainly 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 but here are some tips. Put your signature onto a piece of tracing paper and experiment with positioning it on your artwork. If you are a watercolour artist, practise on scraps of watercolour paper first. When you’re happy with it, lightly pencil your signature onto your work and then paint over it. This works well. If you are an acrylic or oil painter, scratching your signature into wet paint also works well.

Ideally, you should really sign the front of the work. The traditional place to sign a painting is at the bottom right-hand side. It’s where people expect to see it. There could be a good reason for not putting it there and choosing a different position, but in all events, you really should sign the front.

Some of the different signatures I have experimented with over the years

There are many painters, including me, who sign the back of their work. As an abstract painter I don’t sign the front so that the buyer can hang the work whichever way round they like best. I sign the back and also attach a glued-on sticker giving all the details about the work. Many people I know attach a certificate of authenticity instead, but a note of caution here, certificates and stickers can fall (or be taken) off, so I sign the actual work AND add a glued-on sticker. If you don’t feel it is appropriate to sign the front, make sure your signature is on the actual work at the back.

Also think about placement as a signature can be covered when a work is framed but don’t sign the frame or mount. If the work ever needs reframing or mounting the signature will be lost for ever. Something you could consider 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. Wherever possible, though, signing the front is really the best option.

As your art journey continues, the quantity of work you produce increases and  documenting that 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:

Some of the initials I have experimented with over the years

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’, it just looks better than starting at ‘1’ – and the date the work was completed.

People’s signatures are as varied and individual as people themselves and artists are no exception. So give some thought to choosing how you use your signature to identify your work. I was advised by one elderly art tutor not to use my full name because women in art are considered less worthy than men (in literature, many female authors use a male nom de plume) and using my initials rather than my full name would allow the work to be judged on its artistic merits, irrespective of the artist’s gender.

Having noted that, I think the world has moved on a bit, and I now proudly include my first name. I also realised I needed to include my middle initial, as when searching my name ‘Alison Saunders’, Google (other search engines are available – Ed) 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 is worth considering things like this when starting 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 imprinted into wet paint as a recognisable and consistent mark, just as people used to have their own seals and signet rings to press into hot wax 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 your mark needs to be recognisable and consistent.

Another issue is using the wrong marker, which brings me back to the error I referred to at the beginning of this blog. I once produced a watercolour piece as a reference for a printmaking project. I grabbed a felt pen and wrote my signature across the piece; it looked dreadful. The painting became about my signature and not about the seedpod (see illustration), which is clearly where I wanted the focus to be.

The signature is just too noticeable.

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.

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 practice 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 London’s Trafalgar Square you will often find artists copying works by the great masters. By copying work, you really, really, see the way work has been made; it educates and informs your future practice. However, it is not your work.

If a teacher brings their own photos into 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 an original work. When you then sign that work it becomes a breach of the original artist’s copyright and can be considered legally to be a forgery.

Someone I know told me recently that photos supplied by her teacher but then painted by her did not constitute a problem as she had produced the paintings, so they were her work, and she did not have to worry about copyright rules. This is Wrong.

The photograph is an artwork which has been copied. The rules are clear. This person argued with the teacher/artist when challenged and, despite being told not to, proceeded to sell the paintings at an art fair and did very nicely, thank you very much. Of course, she did. The photographs had been cropped and enhanced in order that the outcome of the student’s classwork would be of a high standard, but the copyright still belonged to the teacher/artist as she had created the photos, not the student. In this instance the teacher/artist decided not to do anything more about it, but another teacher/artist might not be so forgiving. You have been warned.

This is a photo of our fish Flip. If you would like to paint him I give you my full permission to do so. I own the copyright but I am happy for you to use the image.

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