Signing paintings is a way to mark the authorship of a work and often a gesture made by the artist to signify that a work is complete. An artist’s signature is also essentially a form of branding, showing the viewer of the work who made the painting, and sometimes, when the work was made. Signing your painting will help future generations to identify who created the work, however, just like any other brush mark made on the canvas, careful consideration of how the signature is applied will help to avoid it sticking out like a sore thumb. This article outlines several approaches to signing your paintings.
When Did Artists Start Signing Paintings?
Signing finished paintings is thought to have become a familiar practice during the Renaissance, when the creation of art moved away from the co-operative guild system (that would have worked to create paintings that followed a rigid set of aesthetic rules – such as those adhered to when medieval religious icons were painted, for example), to the practice of painting as a celebration of creative individuality. In Western art history, the Renaissance (14th – 17th Century AD) is when you can start to see styles and preferences favoured by individual artists emerging – Titian with his loose, dramatically expressive handling of paint to depict movement and grand gestures; Botticelli and his elegant and soulful compositions of human emotion, Caravaggio’s penchant of the dramatic light and dark of chiaroscuro. Admittedly, this is an oversimplification of the oeuvre of these Renaissance masters, but the paintings produced during this period indeed reflect a time when individual painters were breaking free from artistic conventions to create a wider range of works with a variety of subject matter, palettes and paint handling. The artist’s signature therefore added a stamp of authenticity to the work and proved to the world who made it; the distinctive mark also helps to distinguish the work from imitators.
Some artists signatures are as famous as the paintings themselves. Claude Monet, Vincent Van Gogh and Pablo Picasso are three artists that immediately spring to mind as having highly recognisable signatures. These examples illustrate the benefit of keeping the appearance of your signature constant for building your reputation. A recognisable signature also helps to add cohesion to an ever-growing and developing body of work.
Should I Sign My Painting?
Having set out to write this article, I went through hundreds of photographs I have taken in galleries to see how artists I admire sign their work. I was surprised to discover more paintings than I would have predicted are left unsigned – indeed one of my favourite painters, Stanley Spencer, is thought never to have signed his works. A Vincent Van Gogh portrait unexpectedly did not bear the famous signature. Many of Lucien Freud’s are signature-less, too. Indeed the finality of signing a work may feel uncomfortable, as if you’ve reached a point of no return with a work. Or if you’ve painted a quick study, the painting may not feel that it warrants the status of a signature. Or perhaps maybe, you’re worried that an artist’s signature will simply be too much of an imposition on your painting.
If any of the above rings true, you do not have to sign your painting on the front. If you are working on a primed stretched canvas and want to sign the work on the reverse, it’s a good idea to do so on the edge of the canvas where it is fixed to the stretcher, rather than on any raw unprimed canvas on the reverse of the painting itself. This is because it will be as impenetrable as the front of the primed canvas that the painting is made on, and will guarantee the signing once dry will not change in its appearance. If the signature is applied directly to the underside of the canvas and that canvas is raw, it may sink into the fibres of the canvas and become less prominent. Painting labels look neat and can be signed and placed on the back of the canvas, but it’s always a good idea to sign the canvas directly somewhere as well so that you’re not relying on the label staying on forever.
Whether you’re signing your work on the front or back, always use a permanent material that is light fast and not likely to disappear over a few years. Put that fugitive felt tip pen away!
The Size of Your Artist Signature
Even if you are a seasoned signer of your paintings, I would always practise on a separate piece of board or canvas, preferably using the same material that the work is painted on so that the paint adheres in the same way. A dummy run is less vital for oil painters, as the paint usually dries slowly enough to rub the signature off with a rag straight after any mistakes.
Ask yourself whether you want the signature to be an active part of the work, prominent and unmistakable, or tiny and discreet. If you paint your signature on a scrap of canvas you can place it on the painting to get an idea of what size would work.
The Colour of Your Artist Signature
Colour is equally important. If you want your signature to appear discreet and barely-there, use a slightly lighter or darker shade than the colour you are applying your artist’s signature to. Alternatively, if your artist’s signature is small, you might like to use a contrasting colour so that it is visible. It’s a good idea to stay within the palette of colours you have worked with for the painting so that the signature does not jar with the rest of the work.
Placement of Your Artist Signature
Typically, artist signatures are placed at the bottom of a work, in the right or left-hand corner, and between a couple of centimetres up from the bottom edge, to a couple of inches. If you intend to frame the work you might consider applying your signature after the framing, so that you can make sure the lip of the frame does not partially cover up the signature. You can also position your signature within a shape on your composition, following an outline of part of the composition for example.
Technique and Materials for a Professional Artist Signature
Here’s a list of suggestions of how to apply your artist signature to a painting:
- Scratch your name into the wet paint with the end of your paintbrush.
- Scratch your name into wet paint with a pencil (so graphite is applied as well as the name being etched into the surface of the painting).
- For acrylic painters: use an acrylic paint marker or fluid acrylic paint and a fine round or rigger brush to achieve thin flowing lines.
- For watercolour painters: if not using watercolour paint, use a pencil or pigment fine liner pen.
- For oil painters: Increase the fluidity of your paint by mixing the colour with glaze medium (a mix of linseed oil, dammar varnish and solvent), and apply with a fine round or rigger brush for flowing, even, unbroken lines.
When signing paintings, your artist signature needn’t be your whole name; it can simply be your initials or your surname. You may turn the lettering into a decorative emblem or motif. There are also varying schools of thought for adding the date of the painting. While it’s interesting to see the date inscribed on a historical painting, it may be detrimental to your efforts in selling older work if the buying market is keen to invest in works hot off the easel.
What are your preferences when signing your paintings, and do you have any pet hates for approaches to signing paintings that you’ve noticed in a gallery. Let us know in the comments.