Lenny

How to sign your artwork

I was going to title this post “Signature Blues,” just to be cutesy in the wake on my last post on framing issues…

In the hundreds and hundreds of shows that I have organized as a gallerist or curated or judged as a juror or curator, one of my constant pet peeves is how artists sign (or not sign) their work.

My biggest pet peeve in that den of peeves is the common artist mistake of having a HUGE signature that makes such a bold statement as to often destroy the integrity and composition of the art itself.

Some artists, such as Norman Rockwell, often signed their works in bold, and even interesting ways that were designed to still be read when their paintings were reproduced as a magazine cover. For these master illustrators, it was very important that their name was recognized once their work was printed on the cover.

But most artists should not make their signature distract from the work itself. Do not sign your work somewhere, anywhere other than in a discreet location on the margin somewhere. Never a few inches into the work itself and never, ever in gold or silver or some other ghastly color scheme.

Amateur photographers are especially fond of signing their photographs with gold or silver pens. Did you notice that I wrote “amateur?” The visual presentation of a photograph should not be marred by that kitschy practice. if you sign your photo on the front, do it discreetly on the margin; otherwise sign it on the verso, also on the margin. I’ve also seen the practice of signing the mat in pencil, and I am OK with that, although I know some gallerists and museum symbiotes do not like that practice either.

Let me be clear: the art must be signed.

If the signature distracts from your own personal aesthetic, then sign it on the back of the work. To be blunt, most collectors demand signatures and there’s ample empirical data that shows that unsigned works always get less in auctions than signed pieces.

Vatican legend has it that when Michelangelo finished his Pieta, the night before it was to be opened to the public, he hid behind some columns as a bunch of priests and cardinals admired the masterful sculpture.

“Who made it,” asked someone.

“I think it was Raphael,” replied someone else.

Michelangelo was so incensed that his masterpiece was being attributed to his rival, that once the place was cleared, he climbed atop the statue and carved his name in bold letters across the sash that crosses Mary’s chest. He carved: “Michelangelo Buonarroti of Florence Created This.”

I believe that it was the last piece that he ever signed.

And it was too big.

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11 Comments »

  1. August 21, 2008 @ 12:37 pm

    Alisha Said,

    Excellent points!

    I usually sign my work on the back, unless it’s a print. My signature includes the date and a specific little marking that I make in gold. I don’t know that it is so “necessary”, but people who’ve purchased my work said it makes the back of the pieces “interesting” and they enjoy taking work off the wall and turning it over to show guests in their home. Maybe it’s the novelty proof of being able to say they bought something from a real, living artist as opposed to all that tasteful, preframed stuff you pick up at Pottery Barn.

    Good post, Lenny!

  2. August 22, 2008 @ 4:09 pm

    Lenny Said,

    Great idea… the back of the piece is fair game for anything… and something unique like that is perfect!

  3. September 17, 2008 @ 9:52 am

    norma b Said,

    thanks for the advice. i’ve got some work going up in a gallery for the first time, so the autograph part was kinda confusing. thanks for the clarification :)

  4. November 10, 2008 @ 1:36 am

    Gabe Ferreira Said,

    interesting. i publish all my work online, so I wonder whether I should sign it so that everybody could see or not sign it at all
    I can’t think of any reason to sign it, since I am not really trying to sell my work or anything.. but you said to always sign it…
    what do you have to say about it?

  5. November 21, 2009 @ 5:55 pm

    Jamie G Said,

    Hw do you choose a name to sign…My last name is in limbo till I marry and I know one other person just in my same town with my same maiden name…. Is it wierd to use a first and a middle name to sign, if it at least a name that is somewhat original. or the first, middle and than an initial for my last name? So confused none of my work in progess are currently signed because all the one that have been sold or donated have my name signed different.

  6. December 11, 2009 @ 3:36 pm

    Terri Said,

    I have the same interest as Jamie G. I too am trying to decide how to sign my artwork. I want to use my maiden name because there are many who know me by that name. Although I am no longer married, it is the name I use and there are also just as many, if not more, who know me by my married name. Any suggestions?

  7. December 12, 2009 @ 11:12 am

    Anne Said,

    To Jamie G.
    Shoot Jamie, I’ve been married, twice. Started out using my first two initials and husband’s name. Then, When divorced, since everyone had bought from A.P. Allen, I switched to A.P. Allen Rubel. Do what you feel good about doing. What people start collecting…stick with that name. You don’t want them to be disappointed in the future, you know? Now that I’m painting a new subject matter, I use another surname, my current husband’s one!

  8. May 12, 2010 @ 4:59 am

    shasta eone Said,

    I recently displayed 64 of 98 paintings. Each is signed with my first name so not to distract from the painting. On the back, it is titled, dated and signed ink. Included is a special mark, uniquely my own : my thumb print! As a former Walt Disney special effects and background artist now in my seventies, the art investment can only increase in value after my passing and hopefully is a way of “giving back” for all the years enjoyed in both the commercial and fine arts fields.

  9. May 13, 2010 @ 10:54 pm

    Laura Ann Mason Said,

    To you young ladies, do NOT use your married name. I made that mistake and will always regret it. I was Laura Ann Mason, to Laura Mason Ashe, and now and Laura Ann Wagner legally. BUT! I now sign my maiden name again to my work, with the full support of my new hubby. It is just too confusing to my ‘collectors’.

  10. July 5, 2010 @ 4:25 pm

    Rod Said,

    Hope you can help…
    What is the best way to add information about a painting and the artist on the back of a finished painting? Using what medium? Some people say you can use an oil based Sharpie, but I heard that can bleed through. Some people say gesso & paint on top of it. What is the safest and most practical way. There seems to be alot of opinions, but no real concrete info. Even while doing extensive Internet searches.
    Thanks for you help!! I’m sure others want to know as well.

  11. September 6, 2010 @ 4:01 pm

    Mary Gravelle Said,

    I just wrote a blog article on this subject. It includes links to three relevant and useful articles on the subject of signing your art. Hope it helps. My Art Notes — http://myartnotes.blogspot.com/2010/09/signing-your-art-matters.html

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