If memory serves me right — which at my age is sometimes questionable — the first artwork I ever signed was my infamous cat. If you’ve followed the blog for a while, you’ve seen that graphite cat staring out at you before. I was proud of that cat, although I wasn’t too sure about it during the actual drawing process. But when finished, I was indeed proud of what I’d done, so proud I signed my name to the drawing, framed it, and hung it on our wall.
Signing my drawings is easy enough. I pick up a pencil — or a pen, if it’s an ink drawing — and I write my name somewhere, usually in the lower right corner. Truthfully, though, I rarely sign drawings because the drawings I make are practice pieces, exercises on different aspects of drawing, nothing I intend to offer up as “real art”.
When it comes to paintings, it’s a different story. I want to sign my name to the landscape paintings I create, especially those that go on display in the community or which I enter into an art show. But I quickly discovered that signing a canvas wasn’t quite as simple as Bob Ross made it look on TV.
It is important, though. When we take pride in our work, we should sign it. Who knows! Years from now our work might become famous. Or years from now, something we’ve painted might show up in an auction or thrift store. Someone might look at it and wonder, “Who painted this?” Yep, signing a painting is an important part of the artistic process. We could probably say that a painting isn’t truly finished until it’s signed by the artist.
But when to sign? Where to sign? How to sign?
Those might seem like silly questions, but they’re not. These questions are serious enough that Artist magazine published a feature on the topic in a recent issue. You can also browse around online and find that question — with answers — posed many times. You’ll also find, unfortunately, that there is a bit of disagreement from one site to the next.
The first rule of thumb I learned about signing art was that the signature was created with the same medium. Graphite drawing? Graphite signature. Ink drawing? Ink signature. Watercolor painting? Watercolor signature. You get the idea.
That sounded good to me. It seemed logical. But I struggled with it once I started oil painting. Try as I might — and I really did try — I couldn’t get my paints the right consistency. I couldn’t paint fine enough lines for my signature to resemble anything readable.
And there were more problems and frustrations. What color? Bold, bright colors seemed to detract from the painting. Dull colors… well, if you can’t see the signature, what’s the point? How big? Where to put it? I can’t tell you how many times I attempted to sign paintings and immediately wiped my signature away because it just spoiled the painting entirely, at least, in my opinion.
I was delighted to learn that according to Artist magazine, I can forget that dictum about using the same medium and put my signature on my paintings any way I please. I’d already taken this approach, but it’s good now to feel that I’m not breaking some long-standing law of the art world. I use a fine-tipped ink pen to sign drawings or watercolor paintings, and for my oil paintings I actually use a gel pen — usually white, unless the painting is a snowy winter scene where a white signature won’t be visible.
As for what I sign… that, too, has changed over time. Because of my initial frustrations at trying to sign my oil paintings, my first attempts were nothing more than initials. JK at first, then JLK. From there, I progressed to JLKraus, to Judith Kraus, and finally to my full name. Judith Lynne Kraus. I think that’s an indication of my growing confidence as an artist.
One online source — WikiHow — suggests that art should be signed immediately. Their reasoning is that this will make the signature appear more consistent, more an integral part of the painting. I suppose that’s true, and if I were signing with oils, that’s probably when I would do it. My practice is to wait until the painting is dry — at least 6 weeks — before signing. After paintings are dry, I typically varnish them when (a) they’re going to a display site, (b) they’re going on exhibition as part of an art show, or (c) they’re going to a new home.
Another consideration, of course, is where to sign. For most artists, the lower right corner is the usual place. For me, it varies. In the painting I shared (above) I signed in the lower left. Why? I don’t know. Somehow it felt like it belonged there, probably because it seemed to create a better balance with the composition. If you’re curious, you can see the entire painting — sans signature — here.
Artists sometimes also sign on the reverse side of a painting, making note, too, of the painting’s title, and the date. Another option is to have your signature printed out on adhesive labels that can be affixed to the back of a painting.
For a few more specifics, you might want to check out this article by Dan Scott, from Draw Paint Academy — How to Sign Your Painting. He offers a lot of very helpful advice.
One important tip involves consistency. It might take a while for you to develop your unique personal signature, but once you’ve found it, settle in with it, and keep it consistent from one painting to the next. Think of it almost like a trademark or a personal logo, something which immediately identifies your work as yours.
Rembrandt spent a considerable amount of time trying out different signatures before finally settling on the one we know, and Dutch artist Judith Leyster’s unique “lodestar” signature helped art historians properly attribute many of her paintings to her.
Another interesting fact — it wasn’t until the Renaissance that artists began to sign their work. Jan van Eyck is claimed to have been the first painter in the Netherlands to do so. He signed his work boldly, often adding his personal motto, “Als ich kan” — meaning, “as well as I can.” It’s been noted that these words form a pun on his name, but they may also relate to the medieval concept of modesty or humility in art, whereby an artist or author offered apology for the lack of perfection.
Yet there’s certainly nothing apologetic about Van Eyck’s signature in his well-known work, “The Arnolfini Portrait“.
His signature reads, “Jan Van Eyck fuit hic” — Jan van Eyck was here. It’s in the center of the painting.
In looking back, I’ll admit that signing works of art was nothing I gave any thought to when I first sat down and began learning to draw. Now, I realize that not only is it an essential part of the art process itself, it’s actually quite an interesting topic to explore. I know as I continue my art studies and learn more about different artists and their paintings, I’ll be more curious now about where and how they signed their names.