Ask a Gallery Owner | Should I Use a Pseudonym?

I recently received the following question from an artist:

I was wondering if I could get your opinion on having an artist name.

Do you think it’s a bad business move to give yourself an artist name? If when you may concerned or want to protect your private life from your business life would that be a sufficient reason to have an artist name?

I was wondering what your thoughts were?

–Victoria

Many artists have asked variations of this same question. I’ve worked with artists who use their real names, along with a number of artists who have adopted pseudonyms. After all, it’s quite common for actors and authors to change their names.

First, let’s explore the possible reasons that might lead you to change your name:

  1. As the artist above mentions, you might want to use a different name in order to protect your privacy.
  2. Some artists change their name because their birth name doesn’t have an artistic ring to it. Artists are a creative lot, but that doesn’t mean that their parent’s were particularly creative in the naming department.
  3. Artists with common names may choose to change their name to avoid having their work confused with other artists of the same name. This has become more important with the advent of the internet. If your name is Bob Smith, any hope you have of getting website traffic from Google searches is pretty slim.
  4. Some artists have changed their names to fit better into a new culture or language. Many artist immigrants adapted their birth names when they came to the US. Mark Rothko was born Marcus Yakovlevich Rothkowitz, for example.
  5. Perhaps you just want to reinvent yourself.

These are all valid reasons, but you should weigh very carefully the costs and disadvantages of using a pseudonym. These could include:

  1. Building fame and notoriety around a pseudonym commits you to using the artist name forever. It’s hard enough to build name recognition once – think about having to do it twice if you eventually decide to go back to your birth name.
  2. Confusion. If you continue to use your real name with family and friends, you are inevitably going to run into some confusion. I’ve had people come into the gallery and ask to see an artist’s work. They were dismayed when I informed them that I didn’t represent that particular artist. Only later did I realize they were looking for the work of one of my artist who uses and artist’s name.
  3. Paperwork. There’s a fair amount of paperwork involved in changing your name if you want to legally have a new name, and if you don’t, you have to create paperwork with your bank to create a DBA account.

Many artists have overlooked these problems and gone ahead and changed their artists name and have built successful careers using a new name. It’s not a decision to be made lightly – your name is your brand when you are an artist. If you are convinced that your given name just doesn’t cut it, however, a name change may be just the right strategy.

What do you think?

Have you every considered changing your artist name? What ultimately helped you decide what to do? Are there other factors that I’ve failed to consider above? Please share your thoughts and comments below.

About the Author: Jason Horejs

Jason Horejs is the Owner of Xanadu Gallery, author of best selling books "Starving" to Successful & How to Sell Art , publisher of reddotblog.com, and founder of the Art Business Academy. Jason has helped thousands of artists prepare themselves to more effectively market their work, build relationships with galleries and collectors, and turn their artistic passion into a viable business.

25 Comments

  1. I’ve got one of those names that belong to many others, including an artist my same age living and working 90 miles from me. I considered it seriously a few years ago, even asked a close friend of mine what he thought. When I told him the name I was thinking of he thought it was a good art name and then said, “What if you were to take him on as a partner?”
    That certainly would allow for diversity if one’s work was broad.
    That would be a crazy alias issue it seems.

  2. A friend of mine goes by the pseudonym Art Snake. His works are light hearted, sometimes.humorous, primitive oils, and tis name demonstrates his ability not to take himself or his works, or art in general, too seriously. Art for Art Snake.

  3. I’ve been using a pseudonym since the 1970s and have had no problems. It is just the single name, Stephan, which is actually my middle name. I have it listed as a DBA at my bank. When I lived in California, the DMV even allowed me to use that single name on my driver’s license. My passport, however, was another story.

  4. I use my own name for the fine art and sculptures I make, but have named my functional ceramics business with another name that describes the work I do…

  5. There is another artist who has a very similar name, who also painted in my same specialty- trains. I was mildly annoyed at first, but always knew that was not his fault. Turns out he is an excellent artist (maybe better than me) and a great guy. We started corresponding , and we are probably distant relations. Eventually he branched into stylized paintings of hot rods and portraits of famous people in history, which went well for him. I toyed with calling myself “Garcia Coker” or as my old hippie friends called me , “El Coke”, but as Jason points out, could lead to confusion. Also it seems like a conceit that would take far more talent than I have to back up. As it turned out, after decades of creating and selling work, my name ended up being my brand.

  6. When I started thinking of selling my work I adopted a nickname. Very quickly I realised it was going to be a huge mistake, for all the reasons mentioned, so I changed it to my real name. Fortunately I had already obtained the URL http://www.catherineholland.co.uk for my previous business, and it was relatively easy to change almost everything, apart from my Redbubble account which has been my best channel for selling prints on cards and T-shirts, as to change this I would have to upload all my artwork again, creating a new account. I really would use your real name if possible, including any middle initials or names if you have a common name.

  7. I do use a pseudonym. When I first started publishing and selling creative works I went by my real (married) name. But then the divorce came… and remarriage later, along with another name change. Repeat that sequence once more and somewhere in between I decided to just give myself a name that would never change again. I filed ‘Madison Woods’ as a fictitious name in our local courthouse, file my taxes with a schedule C with that name as a business name, and deposit checks under that name in the business account. People who came to know me since I started using it know me as Madison. Old friends and family know me by the original name. I could have just gone back to my maiden name, but no one except the French say it right, so I didn’t want to have to constantly correct or live with mispronunciation.

    The only time the pseudonym gives me issues is when I use a credit card, even one for the business, that also has my real name on it. Sometimes art memberships reflect the real name and shows have done it before, too, but usually I can clear that up with an email. There are a few people who know my real name who insist on using it in social media when they comment, and that irritates me some, because I’m sure it confuses anyone who didn’t know I’m using a pseudonym, but it’s a minor irritation. In the end, I’m happy with the new name and glad I made the choice to run with it.

  8. Having a DBA is not all that complicated and, when I had a couple of businesses going despite being congenitally math-averse, I found it enormously helpful for keeping personal and professional financial records separate, especially for tax purposes.

  9. If I didn’t change my name I would have to sign my art Anne Thompson!
    Gaia Orion rings beautifully and works well with the kind of art I do.
    When I scroll art gallery websites I always find myself clicking on the “cool names”.

    My ‘real name’ is only on my passport and driving license. For banking, I have a business account with my artist name. having the pseudonym is not an issue at all. Most of my family and friends learned to call me Gaia, this is who I feel I am.

    You would be surprised to hear how much changing your name changes your life and how people see you.

  10. Jason, my name is Günther Johannes Haidenthaller. It’s always been and will always be my name. I was born in Wels, Oberösterreich, Austria. I immigrated to the United States with my parents and siblings when I was 6 years old. (I’m fully bilingual.) I’m proud of my name and my family. The Haidenthallers in Austria are all related; the name traces back into the 1200s, originating in the Haiderthal (about 30 minutes north of Salzburg). In tribute to and out of respect for my ancestors and the many creative souls I am the product and descendant of, I sign my work “von Haiderthal” and my business (and website) name is “von Haiderthal Fine Art.” Nevertheless, my friends, buyers/collectors, and galleries know me by my actual name. Incidentally, my business bank account is also “von Haiderthal Fine Art,” but in my actual legal name as well. Like many other artists, I keep my business account and personal finances separate, for tax purposes as well as for simplification to avoid confusion and better keep track of my P&Ls.

    1. A side note to your solution: The author Eric Van Lustbader ran into some difficulties with being shelved in the bookstore. His middle name is “Van” (like Van Heflin or Van Cliburn) not a prefix to his surname (Rembrandt van Rijn, Vincent van Gogh). Sometimes his books were shelved under “V,” other times under “L.” Shelf placement is not as much of an issue in the other arts, but that uncertainty might also be something to bear in mind when considering a professional moniker.

      1. Those darn bookstores and other people who make name assumptions! My name is Sandy Brown Jensen. Brown is my maiden name and Jensen is my married name. Brown is a middle name. No hyphens or anything to suggest my name is Brown-Jensen, and yet, and yet! I am filed all too frequently under Brown rather than Jensen. Whuddayagonnado?
        As Oscar Wilde said, “Be yourself—everybody else is taken.”

  11. Some very famous artists created their own names, KAWS and banksy for example, but my favorite is the famous painter Hokusai who over the course of his long career changed his name at least 30 times. It was common for artists then to do this.

    I love the idea of having a different name not associated with my previous career.
    I agree with comments that say don’t confuse people but at this point there are very few people even aware of my paintings so no confusion or loss of momentum in career.

  12. I did a variation to the idea of a pseudonym. My first and last names are common, so I decided to use my full name, Michael Frank Peterson. There are only two Michael Frank Peterson’s listed on the search engines, and the other one is deceased. It has taken about five to six years, but if you Google my name now, I’m all over the first page and at the top. You may find that very few people have your full name if you have a middle name (if you have one). Another advantage is that you don’t have to change names. 🙂

  13. Many years ago, I decided to change my name to a pseudonym for my art business. Having studied in Florence, Italy, I was doing European style art so I used VERGILIA, as a version of my real name, Virginia Cooper. My art teacher at the time thought it would be more exotic if I were showing in New York and/or Europe. I opened a website, a checking account and a credit card under that name after procuring my DBA and business license.

    Two years ago, I moved to Arizona and began painting western subjects. The European name did not seem quite so right for the genre I was entering so I changed my business name back to my real name and chose my initials in the form of a “brand” to sign my paintings. I still need to sign the back of my paintings with my full business name of, VIRGINIA CHAMLEE COOPER, ARTIST. The new business needed all new documents anyway, to meet Arizona requirements, so it was a good time to make the change. I am preparing to start a new website with the revisions and fill it with my new, western paintings.

  14. I didn’t change my name – divorce after a concentrated effort of building my business meant I had to keep my former married name. It works in the sense that it is more unusual unless you are a White Mountain Apache – in that case it’s like Smith or Jones!

  15. I use my name and although not everyone knows it, because of my distinctive style, they all know my art. A few years ago I toyed with the idea of branching out into a different style but I didn’t want to confuse people by using the same name for two drastically different types of art.

    I came up with a pseudonym for the new style and that worked well. I took this new persona even further and created a full backstory even to the point of making it a woman. Only my two closest friends know who “she” is. And although she isn’t very prolific she does show up in my studio occasionally as a guest artist.

  16. I go by the artist’s name Gullwing. I have a story I tell my clients about how the name came to be, involving mispronunciations and mistranslations from English to Mandarin back to English, and I stamp my Chinese language “chop” into all my sculptures. Many people find the story interesting, but I can see eyes glazing over on many others. Have to keep the story short. However, I have found that people recognize the name and remember it, and also relate it to my particular art. A catchy name is an asset in the art world. I highly recommend it.

  17. I use my maiden name, (which the divorce judge restored back to me in the divorce). My maiden name is more unique and I like the way it looks written out. (Cheryl Karl) because I make fancy “L’s” at the end of both words, for my logo.

  18. I used a pseudonym for privacy reasons but hadn’t expected my art to generate much interest or to become a business initially, so when I started to gain commissions and orders I felt conflicted when communicating with my customers.

    I wasn’t sure whether to use the pseudonym in emails with them, knowing they would see my real name on bank payment details etc. I started to wonder what would happen if they used my real name in social media comments – so what would be the point of having a pseudonym? – and I also feel a bit of a fraud using the pseudonym with returning customers as we inevitably became more familiar and chatty over time.

    I still use the pseudonym so at some point the issue will need to be addressed more firmly one way or other.

  19. Like some others, I used to be part of a potters’ guild, where it is a matter of course to come up with a catchy name for your wares, which also also ended up titling my website. But my gallery refuses to use anything other than my proper name, so I’m trying to slowly move in that direction with everything. 40 years ago, men outsold women by a huge margin, and we women were encouraged to use our initials instead of our first names so as to hide our gender, and as a result I often received inquiries addressed to “Mr”. I wonder how Banksy feels about all this now.

  20. I do use the pseudonym “L’Oiseau” for my work as I don’t want to be pigeonholed into an artist who just paints. Like a bird, I want to be free to fly between different artistic medias including, sculpture, furniture as well as canvases.

  21. Great timing for this. I’m beginning a completely new direction with my art, and love the experience you guys bring to the table and hear your success stories. Going the street art direction, ala Banksy and Mr. Brainwash, Shepherd Fairey, and naming myself VORTEXXMAN.

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