How and Why to Sign Your Artwork

Famous artists' signatures

Signing artwork is an important part of the creative process that’s sometimes overlooked. Here are three signatures we’d all like to find in our attic! (via)

What’s the first thing you do after you’ve finished a piece of artwork? Frame it? Take a photo? Put it on your website?

Not so fast. Before you do anything else, you need to sign it.

Common mistakes in signing artwork

The most common mistake artists make with signatures is not signing artwork in the first place. Maybe you forgot, maybe you aren’t sure how, or maybe you don’t feel like a “real” artist.

This is no time to be shy — signing artwork is a must. It gives the work value and marks it as a finished, sellable piece of work. (We’re including examples from Art League artists throughout this post.)

Artichokes on a Crate by Brent Erickson, signed with the artist’s initials in a trompe l’oeil style.

There are some other mistakes you can make when signing your art:

  • Distracting from the artwork: Your signature should be small and unobtrusive. This is not the time to break out your glitter marker.
  • Signing illegibly: The signature is there to identify you as the artist, so make sure it’s legible.
  • Signing the matte: For photographs and other prints, we sometimes see artists sign the matte. You should sign the print itself — probably not on the image, but just outside, or on the back. This way, if the piece gets reframed, the signature goes where the art goes.
  • Using non-archival materials: Just like the artwork itself, your signature should be made to last. Don’t use ink that will fade over time, for example.

Blue Dot, Yellow Center by Marilyn Grelle. The signature is on the same paper as the monotype, printed neatly just below the image along with the piece’s title.

Where and how to sign

Where to sign is up to you: some artists do it on the back, some on the front in a corner. As you’ll see below, there are other places to “hide” a signature. Most artists, however, sign in a bottom corner, and that’s where a collector will look first.

Just be sure to sign on the artwork itself — not on the matte or a stretcher bar, for example.

#877 by Tory Cowles is signed on the side of the gallery-wrapped canvas.

How to sign depends on your medium: pen or pencil are good for works on paper. Painters should sign in paint (using a small brush) with a color that makes sense for the artwork. Again, your artist signature should be legible but not draw attention to itself.

Keep in mind this doesn’t have to be the same signature you use for signing checks: you can use your initials or a monogram, like Albrecht Durer’s at the top of this post.

Signing artwork with a chain stitch

Diane Blackwell signed her sculpture The Washington Football with a chain stitch.

What about three-dimensional work?

The same basic rules apply to sculptures and other three-dimensional work. That is, you should sign unobtrusively on the work itself and not, for example, on a detachable base.

For jewelry and ceramic works, you may want to create a unique maker’s mark. You can see Blair Meerfeld’s distinctive mark below:

Signing artwork with a maker's mark

Blair Meerfeld

Jewelry can be tricky when it’s very small. Whitney Staiger puts “UDOP,” the name of her jewelry business, on the inside of pieces when she can.

Creative solutions

As long as it doesn’t detract from the artwork, there’s no reason you can’t get creative with your signature! You are an artist, after all.

  • In this video, Sara Linda Poly shares a good tip for painters: you can sign with a color shaper by removing paint. It’s probably a little easier to write with, compared to a brush.
  • You can have a little fun by hiding your signature in the subject matter, like Joey Mánlapaz does in her painting below.

911 by Joey Mánlapaz features a signature built into the scene.

Artists, is there anything else you’d like to know about signing artwork? Let us know in the comments!

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