Sign Here, Please

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.

My Signature

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.

Arnolfini PortraitAnother 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.

How do you sign your work?

18 Comments

  1. I struggle to get the signature just right too. But hey, it’s just apart of the process, so I try to make it look as neat as possible, but I dont sweat too much over it lol. I do use the same medium as the painting, otherwise it doesn’t seem to work or adhere properly. Great question 😀

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    1. I think Word Press must be playing tricks on me. I know I read and replied to your comment earlier, but it seems to have disappeared somewhere. I usually do make an attempt to sign a painting in oil as I’m finishing it, but as often as not, I end up wiping it away, letting the painting dry, and then adding a signature with one of my gel pens or acrylic pens. I haven’t yet settled on one precise signature either. Usually I do add the year of the painting, too. Art signatures really has been a fun topic to explore.

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  2. I sign watercolors on the front, and oil paintings on the back of the canvas. I feel they graduate from me, and on the oils, on my 1st one in 1991, I just couldn;t get me hand to touch the painting to sign it. I felt intense resistance. I looked at the painting, and “OH! I see! It will mess up the composition.“ I signed it on the back and It hit me. “Wow, how cool. I listened to my work for once.” That was an important moment, and I appreciate how you indicate to settle into the signing process once you establish it. Good stuff.

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    1. Thanks. It was a much more interesting topic than I’d imagined it would be. LOL. I agree totally about feeling “resistance” when it comes to signing. With some paintings, it just seems that adding a signature will ruin the whole effect of the painting. I want to keep my signature very small on the front. I always do sign and date the paintings on the back, so I might go back to only using my initials on the front. I’m having fun now, though, looking at various artists’ signatures on their works.

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      1. My Mom made a round stamp with her name in Japanese calligraphy that she Sometimes uses and simply stamps at the bottom of her watercolors. Regardless of the composition, it always simply adds the name, though as a graphic so words don’t make too many chefs in the kitchen. When she signs, she usually does it at an angle so it lives with the piece rather than on it.
        https://pin.it/3dAOy1S

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      2. You’re welcome. She and I have had many conversations about titling and signing, and thought you would appreciate some more “research.” Like Abe Lincoln said, “We should learn from others’ mistakes as we do not have time to make them all ourselves.” 🙂

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    1. I sign the back as well, always adding info about the painting, so I think I might just devise a little “initial logo” to use on the front. I don’t want my signature to detract from the painting, and so often I feel that’s what happens.

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  3. Yes, this is an interesting topic! I started adding the year to my paintings at the encouragement of a friend who is an art collector and gallery owner. I’ve started writing the title and date on the backs of all my work, mostly because I can’t remember them all!

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  4. > Think of it almost like a trademark or a personal logo, something which immediately identifies your work as yours.

    Since 20124 I’ve actually signed all my artwork with my logo rather than written words, sometimes it’s placement is obvious and easily found but more often than not I actually include it as part of the design somewhere. To me it’s an statement of “right, I’m done with this one, on with the next”… Some of my IG followers treat it as a kind of treasure hunt I think.

    At least if I ever did anything worth ripping off then it’d be easy to identify as the logo is always in there somewhere not immediately obvious.

    Liked by 1 person

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