Ask A Gallery Owner | To sign or not to sign . . . that is the question

Artist signature

In the following email exchange, I answer an artist’s question about visible signatures on art – what’s your opinion? Post in the comments.

Jason,

I’m so glad you were a presenter again in this year’s Telesummit. You provided a great deal of value. I’m sure many who participated are very grateful.

I do have a question. In your experience of selling art, have you noticed any impact on whether or not 2-D artists sign their work in a way the signature is visible? My paintings and mixed media work are abstract. I’ve thought a signature detracts from the work. I do sign, title and give the dimensions of my work (not the date) on the back. Should I re-think my signature practice?

– Tom

My Response:

Tom,

Thanks for the email. I wish I could give you statistics on your question (“You are 29.75% more likely to sell your art if you include your signature on the front of a piece”) but statistics like that are hard to come by in this business. What I can tell you is that over the years I have had artists who don’t sign their work on the front and I perceived some hesitation among collectors about the work because of it. I can’t say for sure that it prevented any sales, but my attitude is “why risk it?” Art buyers are accustomed to signatures visible on the front of work, and typically in the lower right corner. My tendency would be to give them what they are used to.

You can minimize the aesthetic impact of the signature though by keeping it small and discrete, and by using low-contrast color.

Jason

Featured image by Xanadu artist Charlie Barr

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.

51 Comments

  1. Thanks, Jason. I’m truly grateful for your response and guidance concerning my question about signing my work. I know others at the smARTist Telesummit had the same question. I’ll share this with them.

    1. Hi Tom/Jason,

      I do similar work to yours Tom (mixed media/abstract) and I also am most likely to sign on the back, together with the details, depending on the type of work, like abstract expressionism.

      My reason for this is to not distract from the experience , if any that the painting can convey to the viewer. I can also understand Jason’s point of view as one may be a bit traditionalist when collecting, so may refrain from buying. For instance, I had lost a sale of a scenic painting, although really liked, just because it wasn’t in oil, but acrylic. I was actually told so. Oh, well!.

      On certain work, although I sign on the front, I may do it discreetly or blend it in some way into the painting. What comes to mind, is a painting of mine with flames and both my signature and the date are ‘camouflaged’ there.

      These are my main reasons for doing what I do generally with my work, as I don’t mind and will sign on the front if I think it goes well there, in the right hand bottom corner.

      It has been nice to hear this question and the views, always learning something new.

      Thank you and all the best,

      Zeal.

  2. I too got a lot out of your presentation on Smartist, Jason. I typically free-motion quilt my name and the year on the lower right corner of my fiber pieces, but I also provide a label on the back with Title, date, dimensions, and all my contact info. Thanks again for a great talk. I will be implementing many of your suggestions in my marketing program.

  3. I also do abstract work and dislike the look of a signature. I don’t think my name is beautiful or even interesting to look at per se …. I find that my compromise is to do a very small signature, in a reasonable color in the lower right hand side. I want it visible to those who look for it but at 10 -12 feet away it tends to disappear.

  4. I am baffled why any artist would NOT want to sign. It’s free advertising! It’s presumption to assume everyone can identify your work by your style. Even in a collector’s home, when their friends see it, you should be proclaiming your name to them (potential new collectors) so they don’t have to ask, “Who did this lovely piece of art?” I like my collectors to remember my name without having to turn the piece around to see it. I’m amazed at how many people I have asked for the name of an artist they purchased a piece from, and they can’t remember it. How much more likely they won’t remember it if you don’t have it signed… legibly… on the front. They need reminding… names are something many of us have a hard time with.. the older we get, the more it happens! As creative folk, we can always find a way to creatively put our name on a painting that looks good.

    1. I’m with you MIa. When we ourselves shop for other artists’ (world wide famous or our neighborhood famous) work, don’t we look for their signature first thing? It’s one of the best marketing tools we have, and shows the creator’s pride in their work.

  5. Jason,
    I always sign and title my photography. I title on the bottom left corner and sign on the bottom right. It is on the mat and in small print in pencil. I have been told by some galleries that for entry into a juried that this not be done. Supposedly so the judge will not be biased. If that is the case I will not enter the show. I figure if Edwin Weston, Ansel Adams and many other greats signed their work, it is good enough for me.

    1. I also enter juried shows, most entries are online but a few are juried for awards in person. Online it is easy to Photoshop a signature out of a painting. In person it would be very easy to attach a piece of removeable tape over signature with not “remove tape after jurying”.

      Good discussion on this topic. I have been signing my abstracts on the back with title but will now sign on the front. Most of mine do not rotate so bottom right it is

    2. I applaud you for taking a stand on this issue. Everyone including artists, is bias in one way or another. Self expression is driven by preferences and biases. But if an art judge is bias because of a signature or the placement of a signature, yes, by all means, move on and away from that judge and that gallery. Blessings!

  6. “Required” may be a little strong. That sounds like being strong-armed. How about “encouraged” to sign their names . . .? Strongly encouraged.
    LLB, Charlotte, NC

  7. If I sign it’s only for figurative work, since abstracts sometimes get rotated by the final buyer when they display them. Seeing my signature in a different corner and vertical, looks a bit strange.

  8. I’ve been thinking of this a lot lately. When i sell one on one I tend to sign and date (just the year) , my photography. I have been wondering though if i should also sign my work on my website, either by electronically adding my signature or if I should leave it with out, the only thing about doing this, is that it’ll add a bit more work for me, not much, but it’ll be an extra step to finalize my work.

    So it comes down to this for me, are the only customers lucky enough to have my work “autographed” the ones that I deal with personalty? and not the ones that buy from my site? Well, im still debating on that part, preferably I would love everyone to have my work signed, I feel as though it would be more complete and it’ll give every client that satisfaction and importance of owning a “great master piece” if you will and knowing that it separates my work from any other they already have hanging on their walls.

  9. Personally I prize anything that’s signed by the author, artist, or creator so I assume that’s what anyone who buys my work might like as well. R.

  10. Always sign the front of your artwork as a way of authenticating it. Can’t write in paint? Use a pen. Don’t like the look of your signature? This was my problem…make your initials into a rebus [representational logo-style image]. Mine is a 1cm rectangle in silver ink with a full diagonal and a half diagonal line= ‘K’ and a hoop= ‘P’. This you will find on the bottom left of all of my framed artworks. On the gallery wrapped artworks it is on the left edge
    BUT I sign, date & number the back of the canvas in indelible black ink.

  11. I also paint abstractly with the intention of the buyer to have to ability to rotate the paintings occasionally, so a signature in the bottom right would indicate only one orientation. I sign on the back. But this is a troubling question that plagues me still.

  12. I had someone buy a painting from me because he saw a painting of mine at an office. He was able to clearly see my signature and searched me on the internet. A few years ago I changed my signature so it was readable, glad I did!
    I understand some don’t want to sign the front, but you may be missing out on a sale. These days anyone can find you easly via internet, assuming you have a website.

  13. Sometimes judges prefer not to see the signature when judging…..I was taught to make the signature to blend with the image using one of the same colors so not to ruin the image.

    1. Jan, I heartily agree with what you were taught. As an occasional art buyer, I have been frequently turned off a painting I really liked by an obtrusive signature in jarring black. In my opinion, the signature should be discreet. If you look for it, it is there. But it does not call attention to itself, or directly overwhelm the painting it is on

      As a relief sculptor, I myself always sign on the edge of my sculpture.

  14. There are rare situations when a signature should be left off the face of a painting. Typically it is when there are large flat planes of color such as a Mark Rothko. In these instances it is always important to sign the back and document each work with a code as well. The code can include the year, along with the sequential completion of that work within the year. This may seem ridiculous to some artists, however it makes sense if you are serious about your work. Your signature is a part of the authentication process, and therefore should be consistent. It should be visible, yet not interfere with the work itself. Don’t use some sort of large, dramatic script, but rather something quiet and unobtrusive. Keep the hue and value close enough to the work so that it blends in some and does not jump out at you. Place the signature either at the left hand bottom or right hand bottom, depending upon where it looks less jarring within the composition. Do not sign your work at an angle as well. That tends to look less professional, and more challenging to read. If you do not like the look of your signature, then paint it in simple block format, and then sign it in script on the back.

  15. A few years back, I switched from using my full signature to signing my initials. It’s a more interesting calligraphic look, recognizable and easier to paint.
    I like the idea of also doing a full signature and title on the back, so I’m going to start doing that as well.

  16. I often fit my initials somewhere into my impressionistic paintings on glass, but only put my name on the back of my abstract paintings on canvas. And when i sell prints I usually only sign them if asked. I found some people don’t want writing on them at all.

  17. I always sign my work at the right side of my drawings or paintngs. But if the space between my work and where I usually sign is white I sign right below my work. On the object that stands out at the bottom. For instance if threr is a hand where it is hanging down I want them to see the drawing not the signature. As well as a painting. I do not want them to be pulled away from the work if my signature is sticking out more than the work.

  18. I would always sign my paintings as that identifies the artist. While I paint stories and figurative works I still play with the signature to make it part of the painting though in no way becoming dominant. And placement is not always easy depending on the piece. It is not always one color, it is not always in the bottom right corner etc. however it makes sense where it is placed. I have one painting that is based on a monopoly board and it is hung in a Diamond position and can be rotated. The signature is on an angle in the middle of the painting with the board game logo that runs through the center on an angle. This painting is supposed to be rotated to view and read the cards and the board squares. So orientation in this piece does not matter as there is always a part of the piece that is upside down with upside down writing. For those who paint abstract you could have a lot of play room to work with- painting it a very faint almost water mark color of the same background color particularly if you are painting a large single block of color. That way it is soft and only visible when viewing close up. Angling it and choosing a color that make it work as part of the piece no matter how it is rotated. Your signature is your final statement to your work. If you have a recognized style which is great for being identified, however many people may not be familiar with you as they are seeing your work for the first time, this helps them to ask to see more of your work. Personally I feel an artist is leaving something out by not signing. You are your work.

  19. Interesting read, my art is very textured and sometimes minimalistic I find my signature distracts from the composition as it is hard to sign on an uneven surface. I sign my paintings at the back and found that people recognize me by my style.

    At one point I signed and received comments from a gallery owner that the signature was a distraction.

    I have noticed some contemporary artists sign on the side of the canvas…I am curious what are the thoughts on this?
    M

    1. I sign only my small artworks, 6×6 or less, on the side, of gallery framed canvas which I’ve painted dark,in Gold. My name is quite distinctive and longish so on a small painting it would detract from the painting itself.

  20. Recently, I watched a documentary on National Geographic about Florence & Rome, Italy and the artists of the Renaissance. What I learned is that this was the age of recognition and self confidence… and when artists began signing their works of art on the front, visible to the viewer. If I recall correctly, Leonardo DaVinci and Michelangelo were the first to write their signatures and become “celebrities”.
    So, in my opinion- why not? Because once we become rich and famous, we’ll be glad we signed it!

  21. Artist! sign your work on the front!
    At least 1 inch up and over from the edge. That way your frame doesn’t have to work so hard not ot cover it up with the frame lip!
    And spend some time getting creative and still be readable with your signature! Those creative signatures become instant identifiers!
    Your humble framer!

  22. Since I paint abstract and often with textures, like some of the other respondents above and for the reasons given, I sign the back of my paintings. I thought about creating a symbol, but then there’s no name to read and the back would need to be signed anyway. So I haven’t done that so far. Too often, I see art signed on the front where the signature definitely interferes with the composition. Underneath my signature, I add the copyright symbol © and the year. I was told that symbol with the year and the signature provides some protection against infringement.

  23. Over the years I have painted many figurative watercolors which I sign with an HB pencil in the bottom right hand quarter. Being pale it is discreet but clearly visible.
    For oils, I sign as subtly as possible so that the signature does not distract from the work.
    I recently sold an early abstract at auction but because it was unsigned it was reproduced in the catalogue on its side. Fortunately it still sold though whether the buyer is now hanging it sideways remains unknown!

  24. I always sign the front AND the back. As an illustrator, my name would most often become part of the design of the piece itself. Now, as a painter, I have created a logo made up of my initials that always goes on the front, discreetly, and in a color that complements the piece. On the back I use a full signature, the title, and the year it was painted.

  25. I always sign on the front. I use the same signature of just my last name in a straight horizontal line, never at an angle as that is perceived as amaturish. I generally keep it to the lower left or right depending on the image and where it will be least obtrusive. Sometimes I have to vary the location because of the design on the canvas. I use a complimentary color that is visible but blends with the artwork.
    I also sign on the back with the title of the work and a code that unobtrusively includes the year of the work.
    Interestingly, I was recently put in charge of distributing some artwork on paper by an artist friend who had died to other friends of hers. Some of the works were signed and some weren’t. People took all the signed work first, and didn’t really want the unsigned work.

  26. My signature is part of my logo for my art enterprise. As such, it is part of my overall brand that makes my art easily recognizable as mine. The overall art style and my brand is consistent enough to help potential and current clients recognize my work and help build confidence (hopefully) to buy my art because they trust the name, style and quality. At least I’d like to think so. Wink, wink!😉

  27. Interesting perspectives, all. I feel that if you are proud of your work you should sign it. That being said, I do try to keep my signature tasteful. Some artists sign BIG and that can certainly detract from the work. I also am making one change .. for many years I’ve included the date along with my signature, but now I only do so on commission work where a date can have personal meaning. Paintings that I paint for sale can sit for many years, and that could be a deterrent to a buyer; ie: “why has this piece not sold for so long?” I believe good art speaks for itself, but like Jason says, why risk it.

  28. Hi Jason. Thanks for your comments as well as for posting this question. I always sign my paintings, but I do have some real aesthetic concerns about the signature. From one perspective, particularly on larger works, it is the hardest part of the painting. I often make several attempts, rubbing out signatures that don’t seem to work. The issues for me are size, location (either bottom right or bottom left), and color. I try for a size that fit proportionately with the painting, occupies a place right or left that doesn’t compete with the art, and is done in a color that is neither obscure or less than visible nor so obvious that it detracts. I also add my full name, the title of the painting, its dimensions, and my own tabulation number (no date) on the back.

  29. I understand how some might not like to sign their work. I always have: small, fairly legible, and in a color used in the painting. It makes collectors comfortable and it tells myself that the painting is complete. With an art history background, I appreciate signatures.

  30. I am an abstract artist and when I have a great deal of texture to my work. When I paint a piece when put the texture background on I make sure there is a fairly smooth area that can take my signature either horizontal or vertical. This allows the piece to be sold for every situation. If the buyer wants it signed, If I am at a showing I will sign it in the direction it will be used in permanent marker. If I am not available I will go to the gallery and in one instance to a home to sign the art. I have worked on my signature over the years and have developed a handsome signature, I learned that from P Buckley Moss who’s signature is a pretty as her work. I think it gives a piece more sizzle and sizzle sometimes is what sells the work like getting to meet the artist.

    1. This seems like a reasonable approach, though extra work for you once the work is sold! I agree that a well-refined signature can be a part of the art and a selling point.

  31. I sign and try to be subtle, usually on the right-hand side a half inch up and in. Lately, I have had some vision issues, OLD EYES and I find that my signature is getting a bit large! I have glasses just for signing (I can’t paint with them )but I am seriously thinking of getting my signature made into a stamp! Perhaps something I could paint with acrylic and press onto my canvas?

  32. Many of my pieces have large ‘blank’ spaces and a signature would visually intrusive on that intentional open area. Script, writing, is not part of my art-work so I sign on the back.

  33. I love a barely decipherable last name only on the front done in paint. I feel minimal Art looks more interesting with a signature.- Imperfect, modest in size. Full name, title and year on back. For me, the signature is part of an artful presentation, and one of my favorite details to discover when seeing masters’ works in museums.

  34. I sign my stone, wood, and bronze sculptures. This comment is about signing in general.

    I love the story, I think in Irving Stone’s The Agony and the Ecstacy, about Michelangelo and his signing his magnificant Pieta, in St. Peter’s in Rome. According to the author, Michelangelo was all pumped up about himself and considered that a sculptor as famous as he didn’t need to sign his sculptures at all, because they were so far out ahead of anyone else’s work that it was obvious who carved them. So he didn’t sign the Pieta and it was installed and unveiled that way.

    Soon after, he stood in St. Peter’s watching a group of tourists admiring his new sculpture and speculating about whole work it might be. They named this sculptor and that sculptor but none of them mentioned him. That night he snuck back into the cathedral with a hammer and chisel and signed his name in giant Upper Case letters streching all across the banner running over Mary’s shoulder, across her breast, and down and around her body to the other side.

    Whether or not Stone was the source of that story about the stonecarver or whether or not it is true, I think it’s a wonderful testament to the value of signatures on sculptures. Not being a painter myself, I can’t speculate on signatures there. But it seems like pretty much the same deal there.

    Sign it for crying out loud! Think of the dozens of women sculptors throughout the history of sculpting in the US, who couldn’t afford to sign their own names but used their husbands’, just because a man’s signature was worth more than a woman’s. I don’t see the point of not signing.

  35. I can understand why this raises a question particularly with abstract art: putting a signature automatically imposes how the artwork should be displayed whereas if there is none, it’s the buyer’s choice to position it as he/she prefers.

    I using my artwork in the front. I have varied the color of the signature depending on whether or not I want it to blend or stand out a bit..

  36. I go by instinct on this one. I too do abstract and have signed the edge of the canvas at times and then once I was asked by the collector who wanted to buy a piece, to put my signature on the front. So I did! I try to not have the signature too loud and very often use a dark shade taken from one of the colors in the work when signing the front which is most of the time.

  37. You created the piece – own it! Of course I sign my work. I use a pen to sign so the lettering is quite small and neat. I have quite a number of pieces on display in galleries but also in restaurants and bars (I do lots of cocktail paintings). I want people to know who created the work.

  38. I sign all my abstract paintings. How does one sign an abstract painting? With an abstract signature of course. 🙂 One of my college papers was on the art of the hand – no one has the same tilt of hand and so I know my paintings can always be identified as me with a good handwriting analysis if it is ever needed. Cool!

  39. I’ve thought a signature detracts from the work. I do sign, title and give the dimensions of my work (not the date) on the back. Should I re-think my signature practice? –> signature is a piece of art by itself and overlays the main one !

  40. If there were two paintings by Picasso side by side, of equal size and style (blue period or cubist etc) and of equal value but one was signed and the other not (and assuming you could afford to buy one of them) – which one would you purchase? I think it’s a no brainer. The signed one ofcourse.
    Now an artist may say to their self “well I’m no Picasso” and I would be inclined to say to that artist maybe he/she’s in the wrong business.

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