Marketing Mondays: Signing Your Work

In several recent conversations with artists, the subject arose of where we sign our work. To be honest I hadn’t thought much about it. I sign my work on paper with my last name on the front in the conventional right hand corner. I sign my paintings with my full name on the back so as not to interfere with the edge-to-edge color field.
Then the issue of size came up: How big do you make the signature if you sign on the front? My printed last name is in pencil, smallish. 
And then the issue of dating the work: Do you? Don’t you?  I date where I sign, and I do date because each painting or body of work on paper has a particular place in the development of my oeuvre.
Scrolling through a Facebook post on the topic, I found a number of artists who feel that signing on the front is the mark of an amateur, others who sign on the front and have done so for years, and still others who front sign using their initials only. Some front signers do so large, others small; some quietly, others in-your-face boldly. Some artists date their work, some don’t. What seemed so routine to me turns out to be rather quite complicated.
Where to sign?
I asked Marcia Wood, owner/director of the gallery that bears her name in Atlanta, for her thoughts on the issue (disclaimer: Wood represents me). “Almost no contemporary artists I am aware of put their signature on the front of paintings,” she says.
Why? “It’s all about the integrity and importance of the image.”
Picasso—whose has probably the most widely identified artist signature in the world—might have disagreed, and there are others, including some early Rymans with the name so large it’s part of the composition, but I’m with Wood on this. Imagine a Bridget Riley canvas with a signature, or a Rothko.
Bridget Riley standing before  Après-Midi, 1981, oil on linen, 91 x 77.75 inches. You're not likely to find a signature on the front

Robert Ryman, Untitled, 1958; casein, colored pencil, and charcoal on paper, 9 3/8 × 9 3/8 inches, Whitney Museum of American Art

What about work on paper?
“Paintings and photographs are usually edge to edge. Work on paper has some sense of background, or margins—a stopping point for the image—and the signing is always outside the stopping point.”
And dating the work?
“Dating is placing the work in your span of ideas and growth as an artist so it’s historically relevant.” Down the road, she notes, when a curator or art historian is looking at your work, the dates provide a reasonable guide to the development of your work. “The date helps the catalog.”
Ultimately, says Wood, “The location of the signature doesn't matter to my collectors. It does matter sometimes to people who are not art savvy and think that if there isn't a signature on the front the work is somehow suspect. Or they need an explanation why it's not on the front."
On the other hand, Wood notes, “Folk, naive, and outsider artists almost always sign the fronts.”
For those of you who think where we sign is less important that what we're signing, you know what's coming. "The main signifier," says Wood, "still needs to be the quality of the art itself."

Possibly the most famous folk artist ever: Grandma Moses, The Pond
(You can make out her surname at the bottom center, between the figure and the fence)

Digital watermarking
Finally there's the issue of watermarking an image to prevent cyber misuse. I'd show you an image or two, but they're copyrighted so I can't. But I think we can all agree that if the watermark interferes with the viewing of the image—and some do—then it's too large. I understand that you don't want people to steal your image, but you want viewers to be able to see it.
As always, your comments are essential to this conversation.


Susan Schwalb said...

I used to sign my work on the front but some years ago switched to the back or side (in paintings). It just seems to make more sense to not mess up the image. When I had borders on my drawings I signed in the lower right hand corner. In prints I always sign on the front in the classic way. No one has ever asked me about this.

Ben Stansfield said...

I have a couple of clients that seem baffled by my lack of a front-signature. I don't have a problem on certain kinds of my work, like drawings, or older figurative stuff, but feel it would be too distracting for me to see my signature on the front.
I sign and put the year on the reverse, in acid-free pigmented marker, or coloured pencil, what materials were used, and whether the piece is varnished.
I also find that the it's the less-experienced collectors who ask me about the no-front signature.

Louise P. Sloane said...

I always sign the work on the back. With works on paper and/or tyvec I try to sign on lower left portion of back. When I'm doing the framing, I have the framer cut out an oblong "box" on the back so that my signature can be seen for authenticity.
Even when signing prints, I feel that I have compromised my image..

annell4 said...

I used to only sign on the back, but now I sign on the front, but very small not to interfer with the image.

Susan Huxley said...

As a textile artist I struggle with this. I do sculptures, wearable art, and some pedestrian things for festivals and markets. Quite a few people have asked me to point out my signature. The non-traditional materials I use won't take a signature. Should I attach a label like one finds in clothes? This seems so, well, gauche...production oriented. What to do?

Unknown said...

In grad school, I had this amazing conversation with Richard Tuttle about this same subject. It was awhile ago, but he talked at length about the importance of Arshile Gorky's signature in his the placement, scale and calligraphic nature of it was incorporated and balanced out the work. It seems like a signature is one of those personal habits or quirks that artists have about their work. For me, it doesn't interfere either way; I can see both positions for signing on the front or back. I've always signed somewhere in the lower right in a discreet manner, for mainly reasons of vanity: I want someone to know that I did the work with or without a wall label.

linda hirschman said...

on my fiber sculptures, i attach a flat bead to the bottom and sign with initials or my full name.

Stephanie Clayton said...

My work is visually minimal and front signing would interfere with this. I sign on the back. Additionally, on the back cradled area of my encaustics, I write the title, dimensions and year.
I am currently working on two series on paper and have yet to decide where to sign; it will probably be the lower right, outside the image.

Adeaner said...

I used to sign my paintings very proudly with my everyday, signature; which I was very proud of, it made me look like a doctor. And then an artist friend convinved me that I had to come up with a gimmick. And so each bustrip we would take to Chelsea or SoHo he would point out all the vivid and cool signatures. And so finally I came up with my "artist's signature" (which is kinda cool if I do say so myself !). What I've noticed is how well some artists will incorporate their signatures into the painting to make it an integral part of the composition.
With some of my paintings, a signature on the front works quite well - others, it would be disruptive. Regardless, I always sign AND print my name along with the title and date and my initials on the back of the canvas or paper and then if I paper over the back of the canvas I put all that information again on the paper.
As for dating your works of art - I've always had disdain for any artist who won't date. There's only one reason for that - they're scared about someone not buying it because of the date. I too have considered this, because it IS a reality. But then I realized how important dates are - image if all the great artists didn't date their work - and decided that I don't want to worry about people who are that shallow. If the date is more omportant a consideration than the actual work of art - my, my.

Tina Mammoser said...

A timely post for me. One of my galleries has just brought this up, saying a collector did wonder why I sign my initials on the front since it, to him, disrupted the image. I do sign the back anyway already, so have been thinking if I want to stop initials on the front or not. (still undecided) Nice to get more opinions to ponder though.

Unknown said...

Joe Andoe always has a huge signature across the front of the painting and it becomes part of the image. I sign initials when it's a work on paper with a margin, otherwise on the back. Still initials. It wasn't always that way, but that's what I do now. And date. And if it's part of a series, I might put the number very small on the left, like a print edition.

grovecanada said...

It's really hard for me to sign my sculptures...I haven't figured out yet how to do it...

Christopher Pelley said...

I think I have done it every which way. At the beginning of my exhibition career, I signed the front, which then morphed into an abbreviation of a Latin phrase printed in magiscule letters. For the last 10 years or more, I simply print name, title, medium, date and city across the top of the stretcher bar on the back. The gallery staff loves this - no having to cross reference inventory sheets to guess which piece it is. For the signature, I just press my inked up hand against the back of the canvas. Works on paper get a similar treatment... sometimes.

CMC said...

I've done this sig bit a number of ways over the years. Mostly I do not want my signature to distract from the painting. I sign on the back now with a date on the front but some paintings have a signature that is unobtrusive.For work that is minimal, I just sign the back. said...

I initial and date my work in the far lower left hand corner. earlly on, I tried to get away without signing on the front.

Usually, it is just scratched in the paint surface, blending in with the textures. When people ask, I have to point it out.

I do write my full name, title and date on the back. I'd prefer that my work and manner speak for itself but alas most art buyers are proud to own my work and they do want to see a signature. It's not up to me to call them uninformed art buyers.

painting with fire said...

I sign works on paper on the front - and coming from a printmaking background I often put a title and series number on the front as well. I sign in pencil and not terribly large. Paintings get signed on the back.

Lori Buff said...

Pots usually get stamped on the bottom or a handle attachment.

Looking at this question from a marketing point of view, one could argue that some buyers want to show off the name of what they purchased, it's why they spend money on clothing that advertises the maker. I agree that the signature should never interfere with the art but I also find it interesting that someone may not want to see a painter's name hanging in their home near the TV with the brand name boldly in front of them.

ken said...

George Ortman once advised me to sign all my paintings on the front, but I never did take that advice. (He usually does that on his paintings, unobtrusively.) When I started making paintings where the front face of the painting faced the wall, or parts of the painting were reversed, my typical inscription of title, signature, and date, placed and written in a way not meant to be seen, were sometimes were exposed along with other "non-pictorial" stuff like the staples and stretcher bars. I liked that.

Adri Arch said...

It does seem like how we sign, where we sign or if we don't sign is a matter of fashion and taste.

Jeff said...

Ten years ago I came up with a unique way of dating my paintings. After signing them inconspicuously on the front, I silkscreen an image of my children on the back. For people that know me personally they will know that paintings from 11 years ago have two kids on them and the current paintings have three. I do the first print on my studio wall for my records then date it for future reference. The idea came from talking to a ceramicist about signing his work. He signs his work with a shell. The story is that in early Japanese culture the potters would sign their pieces with a shell. Over time the ridges on the shell would wear away because of constant use and there would be no imprint left. The idea being that once you became a master potter you and your artwork became one so there was no visible sign of the creator. I thought it was an interesting concept and decided to adapt it to my paintings. I chose to use an image of my children because they bring me so much joy and I know watching them grow up is going to happen so fast. The idea is by the end of the year the screen will be so worn down that the image will be either completely washed out or just pieces visible...I have yet to create that many paintings to wear away a screen in a year.

Angie Platten said...

I always put my initials on the front, pretty small and strategically placed as to not be distracting from the piece. Full name goes on the back along with month/year.

Cyndy Goldman Art Blog said...

Love that Bridget Riley shot! I sign my work on the back - always low rt corner, middle of back - title, date and have had to pencil on the stretcher bar -- 'top' especially with diptych work. I regret signing some older encaustic monoprints in the front with a silver, probably small signature in pencil. My art consultant and designers always want to know which way is up!

Dana S. Whitney said...

I've signed and not signed... what I need to START doing is a) signing and dating on the back and b) keeping a better catalog/spread sheet. I recently moved and gave away/sold a lot of my paintings.

Linda Cline said...

My quilted work is clearly art by some, but others can't get past the idea that quilting is for bed coverings and other utilitarian items. I think the stitched signature on the front reinforces my intention that my pieces are art to be hung on the wall. Title, date, and signature are written on a label sewn to the back.

I am currently working on a small sculptural piece. I plan to put a small label on the bottom surface.