Signature Style

Did you know that Albrecht Dürer was one of the first artists to start signing his art? 

An artist’s signature is a very important component of his art as it is his personal declaration that he is done with his creation and that he is contented with it. Any mark or symbol on the canvas (or the surface being painted on) that represents the artists signature becomes an integral part of the artwork itself.

Most professional artists either don’t sign their work at all or don’t do so on the front of the piece as they feel that the signature distracts from the main subject of the work. Traditionally, artists put their signature in the bottom right corner of their painting. This can be done in the left bottom corner as well, although signing in the right bottom corner is more common.

Some artists decide on the placement of their signature depending on the style of work, as they believe that placing it on top of the work can not only distract from the image but also completely spoil a very delicate or minimalistic piece. There have been several instances where group shows/exhibitions have requested artists not to put their signatures on the front as they want the exhibits to be viewed hence bought regardless of whether the artist is well known or not.

Here are the signatures of some of the greatest masters of art:

Why do artists sign paintings?

During Renaissance, most artists actually did not sign their artwork, partly because they were hired by patrons to create art for their homes, and their names were known well within an art community or among the people hiring them. Thus they didn’t feel the need to put their name on their work.

When Michelangelo created his masterpiece, the sculpture called La Pietà, he overheard people admiring it and giving credit to another artist for it. This made him go back and carve across Mary’s chest his name, Michelangelo, to make sure that everyone knew it was his work. That’s one of the first instances of an artist signing his art. Another Renaissance artist, a Dutch master, Jan van Eyck, was also one of the first people to start signing his art. 

This trend started especially in the Northern Renaissance, as people in the middle class, had now started collecting and buying art. It wasn’t just the super wealthy like the Church or other people in high places of power who wanted art for their homes. Artists created art that was a little smaller and portable. What better way to make sure people knew that you were the artist? In a way, it was the birth of branding.

Many contemporary artists today don’t sign their work on the piece itself. The signature may be concealed behind the work, on the back of the canvas, or the back of the mounting for a photograph. For some conceptual works, the signature can come in the form of a certificate of authenticity.

Here are the reasons why an artist should sign his or her work:

  1. It helps them assert that the work is theirs and in future, wherever the piece ends up, it can be identified as their work.
  2. It honors their work. It helps artists realize how they are currently placed in their artistic journey, and take pride in owning their work.

How does one sign a painting?

While deciding how to sign a painting, an artist needs to take into consideration colour, size, placement and execution of the signature. The general thumb rule is that it should provide the identity of the artist, compliment the painting and not distract from the work.

However, there are several artists who don’t sign their work at all! I somehow can’t imagine leaving a work unsigned!! I find the signing bit not just assertive, but also my finale statement declaring the work as my exclusive creation and that I’m done with it for good. I do not agree with artists who say that the signature distracts from the viewing of the art. This just doesn’t make sense to me. So in order to ensure my original signature is not distracting, I try to place it as strategically as possible so that it blends in with the entire composition without taking away from it in any way.

Another thumb rule about signing art is that the signature should be in the same medium as the artwork (except for prints and graphics, which are generally signed in pencil). For example, sign a watercolor in watercolor paint, an acrylic in acrylic medium, and an oil painting in oil paint. The reason for this is that if the signature is in a different medium, it increases the chances of the artist being questioned whether or not the art was actually done by him or her. While I followed this rule during my initial yeas as an artist, as I evolved, so did my signature as well as my choice of medium. Now I find myself not signing my paintings in the same medium as the art itself. So whether it’s an oil, acrylic or watercolor I sign them all with my favorite signing tool – a gel pen. And you know what, till now it has worked fine for me, so to each his own!

It is also believed that you should sign all your art in more or less the same way. Signatures should be consistent in size, color, location, style (written or printed), etc. That way, people who do not know your art will find it easier to identify your work. Also, signing your name in many different ways or locations eventually makes it easier for forgers to sign art and claim it as theirs. This is one rule that I agree with so while my signature has evolved and changed over time, I have now reached a stage where it has become consistent and original and am using it to sign all my art. What I’m trying to say is while it is ok to experiment with and explore your signature, it is very important to eventually narrow down on a specific style so as to avoid forgery.  

Dating your art minimizes any doubts about when it was completed. Putting dates may not seem important when you are just starting out as an artist, but after years of practicing art, it helps in making an inventory of your work, thereby making it easier to sell. It also helps followers of your art to trace your evolutionary path as an artist. In most cases, you should put the date you finished a painting, though it needn’t be next to your signature on the front. You don’t have to put the date on the front of your painting but can write it on the back (though once it’s framed you may not be able to see it).

A word of caution – Never sign on top of a varnished painting or glazed sculpture because the signature then looks like it was added later, more as an afterthought than a declaration. Also, do not scratch your signature into dried paint, ceramic, or similar media unless this is how you normally sign your art. Scratched signatures rarely blend with their art and their authenticity can easily be questioned.

I usually sign my paintings on the bottom right corner as it’s generally where everyone knows to look for the artist’s identity. If for some reason the composition doesn’t allow it, then I place it elsewhere. In fact, very often I like to place my signature in the more unconventional spots in such a way that it looks part of the composition. When I sign in the bottom corner, I ensure I place my signature a couple of inches above the edge of my painting so that it doesn’t get hidden under the frame.

Some artists sign their names on a sticker attached to the back of the frame but stickers can fall off. Others do it on the back of the frame itself but the painting can be re-framed in which case the mark is lost. Signing the back of the canvas is also a good idea but it might get covered by certain types of framing.

All this can become quite frustrating so to make it easier, I do the following – My signature is on the front of the canvas. The rest of the information is included on the back of the canvas and/or on the back of the frame. This info includes my full name, the title of the painting, the inventory or reference number (if any), the medium and the year of completion. I also make it a point to add a one liner describing the concept behind the painting.

I believe in playing around with my signature.  After all, it’s going to be with me for a long time so I want it to be perfect. To achieve this, I like to change the color of the signature to suit the painting, but now that I have settled on a style, I am sticking with it so as to avoid confusion about my identity. So explore by all means, let your signature evolve and grow but once you are sure of your mark, stick to it. Your signature needs to be consistent and clearly identifiable as yours. It is an extension of your identity as an artist, so it should be unique as the artist in you.

Should copied paintings be signed?

Copying a painting is a very useful exercise for students. It teaches them about the technique, at the same time facilitating artistic progress. However, when it comes to signing copied paintings or imitations, there is a definite line that shouldn’t be crossed. The basic principle of signing a painting is to indicate that you produced it.  If we copy a painting from another artist it is called a derivative work. It is not our own original work and if we sign it or show it as such then it becomes a forgery or a breach of copyright. It’s therefore very important when making a copy to indicate that it’s NOT all your own work. So, by all means copy but don’t sign it or show it as yours.

Many artists leave copied paintings unsigned, especially if they were done for educational or study purposes. Some artists reference the paintings as being connected to the artist who has been copied in some way eg After Van Gogh (this is the most usual form ie “After (painter’s name)”. This might be done on the reverse. Some artists sign on the front – but again any painting which is a copy should indicate this fact e.g. via its title for example AND through the signature used.

NEVER, under any circumstances, attempt to forge the signature of the artist on an artwork you’ve produced – whether or not it is a copy. Otherwise you could end up in court or even jail!

But what should your mark consist of?

Artists’ signatures are as varied and unique as the artists themselves. And so it should be. Here are some pointers I use to make my mark exclusive:

1. Try not to use your regular signature

In this day and age, where identity theft and fraud are rife, you don’t really want your personal signature to fall into the hands of all those cyber-crook out there. So develop a different signature for your artworks.

2. Your signature should be legible and not a scribble

Very often our regular signatures are not very readable. You need your signature to be unmistakably clear so that your fans and collectors can instantly identify your work

3. What part of my name should your signature contain?

Try out various permutations and combinations of your name, surname and initials. If you both your name and surname our too long, your signature will take up too much space on your painting and may even cover your composition where it is placed. In that case, it may be a good idea to use just your initials, or your name with just the initials of your surname, or the initials of your name along with your surname.  With some trial and error, you will eventually find a combo that works for you. Whatever you choose, bear in mind that once you start using it, you have to use it consistently.

4. Make your signature your Brand name

Your signature is your identity so it should be an expression of your art as well as personality.  Every artwork of yours should consistently identify you as its master creator, thus making you a brand name in the world of art so to speak.

5. Design your signature

Explore your signature by doodling it out in different ways. Create enough number of variations and then pick the best one, the one that is really you. Who knows? If your signature is good enough, it can even become your logo! This will come handy for promotional purposes on exhibition invitations, flyers, catalogues, business cards and web sites in addition to your artworks.

How my signature has evolved with time

When I look back in time, I realize that I signed my debut painting with just my first name. Soon enough, I realized that there must be innumerable artists of my namesake and this will not give me a unique identity that I can call my own.

My first signature

So I added my surname to my signature. Now, another realization dawned upon me. My signature had become kind of too long for my liking! Not only was it distracting, but was also taking up some valuable space on my canvas as well as interfering with the composition of the very artwork it was supposed to define.

My second signature

So I decided to shorten it and I discovered the best way to do this was to use just the initial of my surname along with my first name. Perfect! Just what I wanted!! Neha S…

Now I can confidently say that I have a signature that defines my art without taking away anything from it. This is what it looks like – Neha. S…

My current signature

I wanted to break free from the conventional norms of creating a signature so I started exploring different styles of writing, from calligraphy to print. But finally it was my own running hand that did it for me. My very own handwriting in a slightly stylized way became my mark and it is “the one” for me.

I don’t like to bind my signature within the shackles of the same medium as that I have used for my painting. For me, my signature needs to be precise and crisp with clean lines.  Many a times this does not come through with a brush and paints. After several attempts of sloppy, goofed up, smudgy and blotchy signatures, I finally found the perfect solution for this problem in the form of fine tipped pens, my favorite being gel pens. How do I use them? Once my painting has completely dried, I just pick up a pen in a color that compliments the background of my artwork and sign away! It’s that simple!! Not only does it give me intricately thin and clean lines, but also makes my signature easily readable.

The sloppy one

Usually on darker backgrounds my choice of color is white and for lighter ones it’s black but as far as colors are concerned I keep a fairly open mind to ensure that it blends into my composition. I also like to play around with the positioning of my signature, very often placing it in such a way that it becomes a part of the composition. I know this holds the risk of my signature being lost within the composition and thus missed by my audiences so to ensure this doesn’t happen I make it conspicuous enough to be seen clearly.

When it comes to my signature, I don’t like to follow some arbitrary rules that have been followed for ages. I follow my own rules until I find something that speaks to my heart and makes me feel good. I can’t say for sure whether I have a consistent signature yet as I feel I need to give myself the space and liberty to make it better for it will ultimately help me promote and sell my art better. If you really want people to recognize your work, it’s not just the style of your art that helps do it. Your signature can act as a kind of logo for your work and help people who don’t know you learn about you.

I want to break the rules that don’t fit for me by doing what feels right for me. There is no right or wrong way to do it. You don’t always have to put it in the bottom right corner. So my advice is don’t agonize over this and lose time on your actual art. It won’t matter where and how you place your signature if you don’t finish the artwork in the first place! So take your time developing your style and don’t fret too much. A unique signature is something that comes with time. Innovate and be adventurous.  Go ahead and create a signature as astounding as your artworks and ensure that your ardent fans instantly recognize your stylish yet indisputable stamp.

DISCLAIMER – All the information, data and imagery in this blog post is for informational and educational purpose only. While there may be copyrighted material the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner, I have only made it available with the sole effort to stimulate creative progress and artistic enrichment. Some images may have been taken from the links included below and I give full credit to these websites/pages, thereby in no way claiming them to be my own. I have also used these links for reference purposes and collection of data; therefore I give full credit to the respective web pages. Most of the data in this post is based on my personal experiences and opinions and I am not responsible for any material that is found in the links at the end of this post.

Sources and Photo Credits –

7 mistakes Artists make when signing their work and what to do instead    

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