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. 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 – 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.

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42 Comments

  1. I have always used my real name and sign my work with the initials of my first name and the initial of my maiden name and then my last name. People recognize my signature and know who the artist is. Artists stand naked before the world by their art. May as well take credit.

  2. Gaia is the name I chose to sign my art with when I started to paint 15 years ago. Orion is the last name of my husband (he changed his name legally a long time before we met). Gaia Orion is a perfect name for my art career, it speaks of my work which is intimately connected to mother nature and spirit. If neither of us had changed our names I would be going by Anne Thompson… I can’t even think of having that name! When visiting galleries’ websites I often click on the names of artists that stand out. I think it is a huge plus to have the right name to go along with our branding.

  3. I have been using T Barny as my Artist name since 1978. It is more memorable than my given name, and my signature fits on the bottom when signing my sculptures. Registering and trademarking was a hassle in the beginning but thirty-five years later it still works.

  4. This is something I am dealing with right now. I restarted my painting career in 2009 and used my married last name, as painting has been part of my former interior design business. When I realized that I was serious about painting, I started signing my work with my maiden name and my career grew. I still sign the art with my maiden name and every now and then people make a puzzled comment. I have been working with a publicist to boost my career. She tells me to wait to change names, until I become better recognized. I sell the art…I feel stuck!

  5. I’ve wondered about this too. My first name ‘Evan’ is okay–even though I’m a woman–but I’ve also been married twice. My husband’s name, Degenfelder makes that quite a mouthful.
    When I remarried I wondered if I should change it, stay with my previous married name or go back to my family name. It’s been something I’ worried over for quite a while.

  6. At least with s pen (or is that “brush”) name, you don’t have to worry if your legal name changes for some reason. But then again, nobody said your artist’s signature has to resemble your legal name. Ever read/watch stuff about the Old West and they say, “Make your mark”? It’s ’cause they couldn’t read to know what letters went into their name. So they just invented a mark. And plenty of modern folk have such an unintelligible scrawl, you’d never match it to their name just by looking at it. If your name’s “Jack Smith” and your signature looks like “John Jones,” the bank isn’t going to care, as long as that’s what you consistently use as your signature.

    For that matter, what if you want to do (was it Whistler?) a symbol for a signature? I’ve see a few YouTube videos on the subject of signing paintings, and some of them say that galleries insist on (for paintings, anyway) signatures in block letters.

  7. I’m not sure I’d get a seat at their table but I might get invited to the gathering. For students of these things there is a variety of very accomplished work on the table top and with human kind by Edward Steichen, Edward Weston, Irving Penn, or Albert Watson, among my favoured. I think it’s a Weston portrait of Ansel Adams with his 35mm Contax that disrupts the Adams brand and his constructed narrative. Perhaps it was easier to construct a consistent brand before the modern communications and the internet and still do a variety of work. In Jason’s attempts to help us, he repeats, often, the necessity to show a consistent body of work. I have wondered if I should give up my aspirations as ‘artist’ and stick to the title ‘photographer’ or show a consistent body of work with ‘nom de plume’ or in this case a ‘nom de guerre.’

  8. I don’t use a pseudonym, but I sign my art using only my first name. I’ve been doing that for many years, even though I have only recently (last 2 years) started building a business around my art. I’m not sure if it is a good idea to continue this or not. Any opinions?

    1. First names can be tricky as they sometimes have the effect of sounding larger than life if an artist opts to use just that. Having said that, your name is interesting enough to work as a single word. How does it work with the last name? There could be some legal benefit to using it now that you are spending more time in you art business. I would be interested in hearing what Jason has to say about the legal part of it.

      1. First names use is a hard one, case in point… do you know how many “MiMi’s” there are out there, I had to use my last name to differentiate. But, you have a host of problems, that you might loose your existing followers if you change your name. Let’s see what Jason says…

  9. When I was in high school my boyfriend said that I should have an artists name. So I made one up. Being a female he said that my last name would change. He was so right. I have had four last names through the years.

  10. I have always used my maiden name since I started developing a career with that first, however, I sign with my full 3 initials: first, maiden, last.

    A new problem I have come across is that I am starting to create a new line of paintings for commercial reproductions of larger quanities. I would like to change my name for these pieces because I would like those 2 lives to be separate. What do you think about that? One name for my professional ‘fine art’ and another for commercial purposes?

  11. This is a good topic! My name is very common and there are AT least 2 other fine/commercial artists with the same name. I rank high on google searches now but will I always want to game that? I do have a hyphenated name in real life after I married and for the first time am considering using it with my fine art. Super tricky since right now my name is so easy to remember! I don’t even own my own simple name-no one does-it is being held hostage. You can see that most of my concern is around being found online verses signing art! Thoughts are welcome!

    1. I use my hyphenated married name and do not use my first name. It was just too long and my maiden name has been with me ever since I started to paint. I also did not want to get lost in the Smith world, though sometimes my poor husband gets called Mr. Wadsworth-Smith. I also felt that defining my gender when I paint should not matter. However my name does work well for hyphenating. Your name Lee could sound like a guy or girl name. How does it sound with your hyphen name?

      1. That’s a great idea, Sharon! Mine would be Lee-Henell, not too bad. I do, at this point have all my social media as XO, Monica Lee and had changed it a couple of time ( I must have commitment issues, haha!) You’ve given me something to think about!

    2. Monica – Ditto on your point… when there is more than one of you… it gets confusing – that’s why I opted to use my nickname from the get go – unfortunately – Google hasn’t been around forever for pre-research, so older artists if not established, are now on the battlefield of name recognition.

  12. Facebook put a new wrinkle in this debate. I always used a business name because I want people to remember it and they can’t spell or pronounce my name easily. (I started business in the ’80’s and my surname was different then and not easily confused with Celine Dion either.) Business Facebook, however, first requires a personal page so now my fans are split so I post content a bit differently on each. Additionally some art shows refuse to acknowledge a business name.

  13. I have used a ‘nom de plume’ for over 30 years and have had no problems at all. Fortunately, it is also my middle name. Both names are on my bank account with my artist name as a DBA. It also makes signing things much easier going by one name. If it works for Cher and Madonna and Erte and Adrien, it’s perfectly fine for anyone. The only problem I ever encountered was with Facebook who required a last name so I became Stephan Artist, problem solved.

  14. Change of Subject–I am having an art show at a gallery this Friday night and would like suggestions as to what foods and drinks should be available. It’s going to be cold so
    I was thinking Wassail and ???. Thanks!!!
    I sign my paintings with an odd spelling of my first name and always have. My name is Connie but I sign my art work K o h n i . It is easier to sign.. I do have to explain the pronunciation often, but it is something to converse about.

  15. My parents saddled me with a nickname that has little relation to my legal/given name. It has been nothing but trouble. When I came of age, I attempted to use my given name, but the company I went to work for said, “We already have an Alan here, so we’ll call you by your nickname, Denny.” I live in a small city. Everybody knows me and I know everybody else. I’ve spent my life, sixty-six years, trying to explain. As I have grown as a professional artist it has only created confusion. At home, I’m Denny. Out of town, I’m Allen. And, when your last name is Smith, it only gets worse. Who am I?

  16. I had no choice, there was already another artist with my name, so I chose my family nick name, which actually had a better ring to it anyway. I can see some serious issues when using a different name for the wrong reasons, mine included, existing artist which as a big problem for me. Everyone I know has come to know me as MiMi now.

  17. I sign my paintings with my “brand” cg, but I use my full name….. CherylNancyAnnGordon because there are too many Cheryl Gordons. I was able to get http://www.CherylNancyAnnGordon.com which makes it nice for those who can remember the name. I don’t like the signature to take up much space on my art. But I sign the piece on back with my full signature and on any reference material I supply with my art.

  18. One name, mine.
    Unless your name is difficult and the spelling so awkward a google search turns up other people besides you, don’t change it. One identity needs to move in different social circles with one person developing those contacts. If you must change it don’t get too clever with a pseudonym. A good example is comedian, Louis C. K. His real name is Louis Szekely. The C. K was derived from a generic pronunciation of his real surname. Perfect solution.
    I changed my name for a short time only in one respect; I was annoyed with the lack of recognized women artists and signed my name Jacqueline instead of the shortened version of how everyone knows me. I’m over that …. 🙂

  19. No pseudonyms for me. I use my maiden name as well as my married name, no hyphens. My maiden name is more unique, and it stands out as opposed to my married name, which is one of the most common names in the United States. (It’s a Welsh last name…and the Welsh only started using last names relatively recently, so there aren’t many to choose from!!) I sign my work with my first initial plus the two last names, but use my full first name on my website.

  20. I use my first name only, it’s unusual enough and a woman’s last name can always change. However I share my birth name with the Greek goddess I was named after. It may cause problems when searching for my site as it may often be lost among information on my namesake. So I use the word “studio” or “art” after my name. You’re right, once you make a name decision it stays with you and may confuse people later if you try to change it.

  21. I have a particular way of signing my name. The “I” beginning letter is an extravagant translation of the Latvian language’s traditional style of copperplate writing. The Latvian cap “I” is different to the English, and that way I stand out.
    The books I have illustrated are in my maiden name and now I have a different surname. I’ve never come across someone with my name. Married name and Christian name together. But I just prefer signing with my Christian name “Ilze.” I would query more whether one should put the year that a painting is painted on the artwork?

  22. At one point in my other life as a jeweler my business name did not have my name–a very long one. I did not have a website. Now I think it’s critical to have your name on your website domain name. Other wise how are people going to know that you are the artist? It will be easier to find and more recognizable. As unusual as my name is someone in Oakland CA also has my name. At the time I was creating my domain name, on her website she said, “I have this website, but I don’t know what I’m going to do with it”. Sheesh! So I had to add art after my name. It’s very easy to find in a search engine.

  23. I altered my Artist name quite a few years back for two reasons. My initial style was Classical and realist and I had a fairly busy Portrait commissions business in this style. However, occasionally I indulged in whimsical water colours which were very different in both medium and style. I signed these as “Indigo”, which suited the feel of them. They sold quite well as prints and I continued to do Portraits etc under my own name with a website category of “Indigo Art” for the prints. Some years later, as internet activity shot up, friends and clients began mentioning it was hard to find me online. When I searched I found I shared a name (Jane Moore) with a well known British tabloid journalist (ugh!) and a lady who tried to assassinate President Lincoln! Both came up before me in searches. However I didn’t want to end up with three names, so I merged “Indigo” with my own name and became Jane Indigo Moore. It’s a bit of a mouthful but I generally get found. I have not done this legally but usually that is not a problem with promotions, payments etc. My subject matter and to some degree, style, has shifted again recently toward more imaginative work and the two separate markets are still sometimes a worry. However I think my artistic “hand” is now consistent enough to carry both.
    A change of name can be a useful tactic if you have a good enough reason for it. I did, but at this stage still wish I could have kept my own. There can be unforeseen complications too. In my case I found out; too late to change it, that “Indigo” had connotations in the “New Age” Art genre which can give a wrong idea of my Art. In summary I would definitely be wary of doing it on a momentary whim or to reflect a style change – an Artist can go through several in their career- and once changed and being picked up online etc, it’s even harder to change it all back again!

  24. I never changed my name or used a pseudonym – I am a teacher and that would cause issues as I work for my government. I love painting and writing poems and when I publish them my actual and only name appears on the sleeve.

    I also have a phobia of ‘otherness’ (I don’t know what else to call it). I would feel as though I’d become a character from one of my stories or poems were I to use a different name.

    Wishing the best of luck to my pseudonymic colleague artists..

  25. It does not matter how you sign your art, with a dot…a cross or a symbol. What matters is the name you go by. Your name have to be consistent if you have a website, business cards, etc. And if you have a pseudonym in your website, are you going to post a photo of yourself with a wig and glasses?
    Having a pseudonym for art and the real name for family and friends is confusing and will create problems. To me it sounds like being a double agent or spy.

    This is not about sharing your private life, is about sharing your creativity, the truth of who you are, your soul.
    Unless you have a Facebook page in which you mix your personal postings with your art , business, collectors won’t know about your new born puppy or your wedding anniversary or whatever is meant for your close friends and family.
    If you don’t like your real mane to be used for your artist’s life, then change it legally.
    Since you are sharing your art with the whole world to see (and hopefully to sell) ..why hide under a fictitious name?

  26. I tried a pseudonym when I first started with museum placements and it did not work for me. I wanted to be like Weegee! Sure, Banksy and a few others can get a way with it, but that does not mean everyone can.

    I’d say give it a try if that is what you want. Either a pseudonym works for you or not…that is the bottom line.

    Here is a post I wrote regarding the importance of naming digital files if you’re using your art online.

    nsfw

    https://danielteolijr.wordpress.com/2015/05/09/the-importance-of-naming-your-digital-files/

    It took me a long time to learn about the importance of using ones name or pseudonym in a way that will help promote one’s work in the digital age. It can help or hurt, depending on how you mange your name online.

    nsfw

    https://danielteolijr.wordpress.com/2016/01/08/if-your-serious-dont-make-the-mistake-that-many-photographers-do-by-diluting-a-portfolio-with-lots-of-garbage-and-personal-photos/

  27. Morgan O’Donnell My Name with the last name first+ add an O in front of the Donnell sounds good. My mother Family name. I hear it all the time not an artist name-Donnell I have two Irish last name. Hmmmmm.

  28. As an author I just use my first name. This solves the problem of cataloging under first or last name. Payments are issued by the publisher or store to my business name and it’s a measure of anonymity. I didn’t want to confuse my writing career with my Art, so I invented another moniker. Having experienced fans and stalking at an early age I was wary to use my legal name on the internet, so from early in my painting career I’ve been known as Sea Dean. The only problem I’ve had with that is on first introductions and I’ve got used to explaining that it is SEA, like the ocean. They never forget my name after that.

    As for the question, I tried all kinds of ways to sign my paintings on the front, being aware of archival concerns and chemical reactions with acrylics and I’m just not good at it. I tried a few ways to simplify, initials, first name only and various ciphers, but after a few years I ended up with an ‘S’ in a box, which is 5 simple strokes.

    I put my full artist name on the back and on the certificate of authenticity, with a more complex cipher and the year. I also now put a bio on the back in our two official languages which is really paying off.

    Even with all that plus cards and postcards scattered around a solo exhibition, I had a critic Say “I hope you don’t mind, but I looked all over and couldn’t find out who the artist was, you need to put your business card next to each painting” (This was not allowed in the guidelines for the venue of course) so I smiled sweetly and gave her a business card from 3 feet away. Don’t you just love them!

    Bottom line – Concentrate on creating the most interesting and eye catching art you can and they will buy regardless of a signature or lack of.
    Sea Dean – Paint a Masterpiece

  29. I want to change my name because there is another artist with the same name. I will change my signature, my website with my new pseudonym. What happened with my paintings signed with my other name? What are the procedures (legally)
    Thank you

  30. Hi Jason

    Thanks for a wonderful blog post.

    I have a few reason’s why I wish to change my name for when selling my fine-art for future, as well as a couple concerns though.
    Isn’t I’m not a young buck .. late forties. Been an illustrator mostly for last 2 decades, but it hasn’t been a successful due to lack of work in shrinking publishing industry, sadly where I’m from.

    The reason’s I want a name change:
    1) I’d like to separate it from my current career line, sort of “re-invent” myself. My current work is quite commercial and it won’t suit what I want to do in the fine-art future.
    2) Honestly it’s for very personal reasons, I don’t like my last name and it’s more for “disassociation” reasons, to be honest I dislike it because I unfortunately have very bad feelings towards my father for the person he was/is and don’t want to be associated with his name.

    The concerns I have:
    1) Financially … If I painted under the name “John”, how would I receive payments into my bank under the name Robin, especially if payment made through Paypal or alike?
    2)I’m not sure what legal implications it might have to copyright and ownership.
    3)Would the art world look upon a pseudonym name as “unauthentic” (hate using that word cause it’s so buzzy now days) … I honestly don’t inside care what most would say about me whether I am being true or not, BUT it probably would effect my “reputation” in promoting my work if such an outlook towards me was taken by the art world and I’m sure public too.

    So my dilemma is, I REALLY would love not to use my last name, not ever to be known by it, But concerned about the outcome of using a pseudonym in the art world.

    Your advice and opinion would be appreciate from anyone here.

    Thank you

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