Should I Sign My Artwork

 Should I Sign My Artwork – The artist survival kit part four!

art tips, practical art tips, Should I sign my art, tips for artists,
The Artists Survival Kit Part 4

I regularly write new articles to support independent visual artists and members of our four wonderful art groups on Facebook, The Artists Exchange, The Artists Directory, The Artists Lounge and The Artist Hangout. This week, we take a look at the art of the artists signature and the reasons why we should be focusing on those as much as we focus on our art.

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As always, I will be inserting some images of my most recent creations and any of my creations sold through Fine Art America and Pixels contribute towards the cost of updating and creating useful stuff to know on this site. You can view the range of work right here

Bigfoot art, ape art, fine art america, mark taylor,
Jazz Squatch - By Mark Taylor

Art is…

Art is full of moments where we think, should I do this, add this, take something away, and I don’t think there are always straight forward answers. It depends on the artist and on the work and to an extent, it depends on the buyers, but neither of those non-answers is very helpful. When we have those should I or shouldn’t I moments we need to have answers at the ready because we artists always like to be prepared don’t we!

Thankfully there are a lot of things that we do as artists, that we do have answers for, at least collectively, or at least, collectively we might have at least a better idea of the way we should be going with something. The hive mind is at its most powerful when it becomes a hive of artists.

So this week, we take a single-subject that we can add to the artist's survival kit, should I, or should I not, sign my work. I am planning on writing more of these single-topic posts if they become popular, think of each of these articles as a chapter within the book that is, the artist's survival kit! Don't worry, I am not going to write the book anytime soon!

Should I always sign my work?

Short answer – Probably! It's complicated!!

However, this is yet another one of those questions that have more than one single answer for. Some artists choose not to sign a work, at least not on the front and often the reason is cited as not wanting to detract from the artwork. Other artists never sign the work at all either on the front or the back, but I am firmly in the camp that you should sign it, at least somewhere.

You see, it all began a long time ago, during the early Renaissance, where art transitioned from collaborative works towards individual works, this transition from the gilds led to artists wanting and needing to become known individually.

There’s more to a signature than we might expect though. Whilst they might provide that all-important information to the buyer as to who created the work, signatures have for centuries been almost stories within themselves. They have been used as notes to record periods in an artists life, places where the art was created, they have been used to describe the mediums and yes, of course, they have been used to value or place a piece of work into the market.

I think for most artists we do often tend to see the signature as a CID, the acronym for ‘call it done’ and woe betides any artist who then adds a little bit more to the work after it has been signed. For some artists, there is a superstition similar to the one surrounding ships where once the ship has been named, that name goes to the ledger of the sea and renaming it is thought to mean that you risk the wrath of the Sea-Gods by trying to slip something past them. I have known artists who refuse to rename a work or add to work after it has been signed, just in case the Art-Gods think you are doing the same thing. I was one of those artists too at one time, today, if work needs a new title to help it sell or surface, well, I'll be honest here, it is getting a new title and the Art Gods haven't minded yet.

roots of nature, art print, mark taylor, Artist, abstract art,
Roots of Nature - One of my earlier abstracts and available from my Pixels and Fine Art America stores!

Just as an aside, not the first weirdness to come from an artist, Picasso was said to have held on to his old clothes, hair trimmings and fingernail clippings in fear of losing his essence. My weirdness today only extends to having some token sat next to me while I work, a plastic crab or a toy tractor usually.

Signatures can be part of the artistic process, with as much care and thought going into the signature as was put into the body of work, and sometimes artists will have more than one signature. I have three, each one a note to myself. M.A is used in the majority of my works, the final work in a series will always be signed Mark, and I have a particular scribble when I work on traditional mediums such as paper and canvas. Three signatures but each has its own meaning, more so for me than anyone else.

Artists throughout art history have used signatures and marks in different ways, some preferring to use symbols, and some using an underlining dash under the name as a symbol of completion.

Uncovering the signature…

It is not just signatures that artists leave beyond the work, there have been many instances of hidden inscriptions being found, often resulting in allowing the viewer to finally figure out the real story of the art and in some instances, the artist. There have been times throughout art history when artists have been less able to express their opinions through their work, indeed I believe there are many countries where doing this is forbidden even today, I can think of one straight off the bat where the regime would frown upon freedom of expression by the artist, but throughout history, artists have hidden messages within their works beyond the signature.

Often the messages would be political or moral, or they would be references to religion, but this isn’t always the case. I think often there are elements of pareidolia that really do jump out in some works of art which are thought to add meaning that really just isn’t there, but without a doubt, there are definitely messages in some pieces, even I have been known to leave an Easter Egg sitting around in a few.

Da Vinci’s Last Supper is allegedly filled with meaning and message beyond the artwork, musical notations, hidden astrological codes, and the day the end of the world will begin, apparently that won’t be until March 21st 4006, but back then I guess they didn’t think that as a species we would invent things like plastic to fill our oceans.

Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel is divided into nine segments, each telling a story from the book of Genesis. Van Gogh is thought to have recreated his own version of The Last Supper in his work, Café Terrace at Night, which as the son of a Protestant Minister, could indeed hold some semblance of truth.

Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa is perhaps one of the best examples to provide bafflement, the arch of the bridge in the background of the painting has an inscription which either reads 72 or the letter L and the number 2, behind the painting 149 is written, and a fourth number that has been erased, more than likely resembling the year of the painting, and there are symbols in Mona Lisa’s left eye.

Symbols and signatures have been a staple of the art world for centuries, but there are also occasions when works have been signed with false signatures, not always for entirely bad reasons.

A signature from Bernardus Johannes Blommers hid the true identity of a work created by the Dutch painter, Jozeph Israëls, and was probably created to obscure the fact that the artist was Jewish during the Second World War, saving the work from being confiscated or destroyed. In 2003, the real signature was uncovered in the bottom right hand side of the piece and the false signature was removed.

With that said, signatures have been intentionally added to artworks over the years to mask the identity for more nefarious reasons and they're a significant issue in the art world. Fake signatures are used not only for fake works but also works that have never previously seen the light of day in the hope that they will be thought of as lost works. We frequently hear the elaborate stories of how these works eventually turned up, the issue is that they are more commonly found to have been created by entirely different artists, perhaps in a similar style to the Masters, or in some cases have been found to have been created hundreds of years after the artists death.

Why? Because the money involved is significant. The downside is that for those who study artists signatures, they can be easily called out as fakes, especially given the technology used today in the art world for detecting fakes. We now have directories full of artist signatures too which can be referred to, and often, just shining a light on the signature will tell you all you need to know.

Monograms and initials are more easily faked than complex signatures, they don’t have the same fluidity of the signature that a full signature would have, but often when coupled with the brush strokes on a piece of work, the ruse falls flat even with those. Brush strokes really are just like an artist fingerprint.

seasons art, seasonal art, Mark Taylor, Fine Art America,
Seasons by Mark Taylor - Available from my Pixels and Fine Art America Stores

The craquelure (the cracks in the artwork) rarely stop at the signature, so examining a piece under something as simple as a microscope is always a good start when considering purchasing expensive works with questionable provenance, but signatures really are just a small piece in the puzzle of spotting fakes. I have been spotting Warhol's for a decade, and especially his digital creations which are said to be original files. I have seen a heap of these, some not even produced on the right kind of home computer. 

There remain many great artists throughout art history that never signed work, some for the reasons that I mentioned earlier, often because they do not want to detract from the work, and for some collectors, actually having a signature on a certain piece of art would be a red flag.

Signing Tips…

There’s a lot to think about when signing art. Do you go with monograms, initials, symbols, or do you use the same signature you sign a cheque or a contract with? The issue with that latter style is that we live in an age where identity theft is very real so it may be worth considering a slight difference in style when it comes to art, purely for reasons of identity security.

  • There is only one rule that seems to be etched in any kind of stone, essentially that any signature you do apply should not detract from the work and should complement the painting. I often hear that size matters but I really don’t think it does. Look at Peter Max’s work and his signature becomes essential to the art but at the same time, it matches the art too, everything about his work is big and bold so there is a precedent for huge sizes, although big also needs some careful planning.

  • The position of a signature is also something that seems to be common amongst every modern-day artist, bottom right. But this isn’t etched in stone, in some cases, the bottom right might not work for a particular piece and especially when you work with digital art and transparent layers. You do however need to consider exactly where the signature should be placed, too close to the edges and it runs the risk of being cropped out or squeezed when offering prints of the work.

  • There is also precedent for signing on the back of work and some artists only sign a sticker. The issue with the sticker option is that in the future, this lends itself more easily to being a victim of forgery should your work increase in value. You also have a responsibility not only to the collectors that you have right now but also to future collectors and those coming in from the secondary art market.

  • If you are signing the back of the work you could also do those future collectors favour and add some specific details such as the year of creation, the title of the painting, any inventory numbers, and if the work was only sold through a single dealer or supplier, you could also add those details in too.

  • The art world loves consistency, so the signature unsurprisingly has to be consistent too. Changing the colour to suit the art is fine, but not so much if every signature you create is very different from the last one. It becomes confusing for collectors and it will be even more confusing many years down the line when and if your work becomes found.

  • Personally, I avoid the use of symbols unless that symbol has references to the artist's name, in which case they really can add to the work, but this is very much dependant on your style of art.

  • It’s hard to fake your own signature. What I mean by this is that creating a bespoke signature that doesn’t flow naturally becomes obvious on future works. You do have to live with a signature for a long time, but if you do find that you have to change it, always document those changes and make them known.

  • A signature is really a confirmation as much as anything else. I dropped into an art class a number of years ago where the tutor had asked her students to copy one of the works from an old Master. This kind of exercise can be useful in developing your skills but when this is done, I am a little more dubious about seeing it signed by anyone other than the original artist. Unless you are adding significant and different elements to the work, the work isn’t from you and even then there is a debate to be had.

  • Haven’t got an art signature? I suggest that you spend time on developing one that has a fit with who you are if it is indeed different in any way to your official signature that you use when signing cheques and contracts. When exploring signature styles also try that style with different brushes and pens, a thicker rush or pen might lose some of the detail that makes the original signature stand out, and again, this is something that you do have to consider because you will inevitably change artistic styles as you evolve through your art career. A signature is for life, not just for Christmas as they probably say!

  • When working with digital mediums, consistency becomes easier but even when you work with traditional mediums, having a digital version of your signature is important. Digital signatures might be used in event flyers or marketing materials, and you might want to create a digital signature in a range of sizes. To do this, you ideally need to look at creating a vector file in an application such as Illustrator or Affinity Design so that you can enlarge and reduce the size without any pixelation in the future.

  • Sign the work when you know you are done, but don’t come back and sign it many years later, unless you absolutely have to. At the time you will have created the work you will have been in the zone of that particular work and the signature will feel and flow much better with the work.

  • Never sign the work with an art destroying substance. Some mediums lend themselves better to certain paints, pencils and inks. So, you need to consider what you sign your work with so that you do not cause short or longer-term damage to the work. Different canvases have very different levels of porousness, so signing with a marker that then gets absorbed into the canvas is perhaps something that you might want to avoid.

What you use should be lightfast, although it’s not always possible, you do have to avoid using any inks or paints or other materials that could cause long-term damage to the work. Acid-free substances are also a must. Painting pens are great, giving you more control than brushes for a more natural and flowing signature and the good news is that you can refill them with the same kinds of paint as used in the artwork.

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Pool Party by Mark Taylor - One of my earlier works and more popular today than ever!

Your Legacy…

To some extent, your signature is part of your story, and it is also a part of the legacy that you will one day leave behind. Whatever you create today will add to your legacy tomorrow and leaving a legacy is really what it is all about. We listen to that old adage of ‘my work will be worth more when I am dead’, the hard reality is that for many artists, and forgive me for being cold, it probably won’t. The ultimate scarcity of your work upon death is no guarantee that your work will increase in value, it does so only when it becomes found and people like it or you, enough to bother with it.

That’s kind of the elephant in the room in art classes and art discussions, and it has become the staple phrase of the starving artist mindset that is today so often misused to evoke people into buying the work while we are still alive. The reality is that money is actually more useful to us artists while we are alive if we are completely honest, and because, art supplies and food are really expensive. We can’t guarantee that our work will increase in value, but we can do everything we can to help it. But art, for many artists, is about more than the money, money is more temporary than great art.

Art more widely is never guaranteed to increase in value and any collector thinking that there is a solid case to invest with any guarantee of future worth, well, I would like to talk to you about a business idea I have which involves gullible people.

For those who do become found after passing and many will, your signature becomes a part of your legacy and it announces to the world that the work was created by you and it met your approval.

There is also one more elephant in the room while we are on the subject, and going back to my earlier remarks about not wanting to detract from work, there are a few artists who do believe that their work is so identifiable as theirs, that no signature is needed. Unless you will be forever and eternally known, and assuming everybody knows you right now, that work is more likely to become lost in time. At that point, art doesn’t have to just be rediscovered and resurfaced, it has to be saved, and much of it will at that point have questionable provenance.

tropical parrot, art, Mark Taylor, Fine Art America, wildlife art,
Tropical Parrot by Mark Taylor

Much of what we do as artists today will often come back in the future, not all of it, but what we don’t necessarily want to be doing today is making it harder for people in the future. I remember reading of a work purchased from an independent artist who never signed their work and it was later discovered that the work was suddenly worth tens of thousands of dollars. The owner hadn’t followed the career of the artist and had no idea at all that the work they had donated to a thrift store would have paid off the mortgage, or that it really should have been insured.

Things like that happen a lot, and I am sure there is an element of embarrassment that creeps in sometimes and we don’t always get to hear about the professional collectors who have mistakenly lost work and money because they either didn’t have or had lost the paperwork or the work was unrecognisable because there was no signature or at least no obvious signature.

So signatures, autographs, symbols, however you want to identify your work, really are much more than a name. They are claims to the work but they can also help those in the future to recognise that work. There are many ways to make that claim, even if you decide not to splash your name on the front, but works of art become so much easier to deal with when you know or at least have some idea of what you are dealing with.

adrift, neon sky, art, Mark Taylor, Fine Art America,
Adrift Under A Neon Sky by Mark Taylor

Have a work of art but don’t know who created it?

Over the years we have seen a few successes in the Facebook groups where the hive mind of artists come together to identify lost works. If you currently have a piece of art and want to figure out more about it, those kinds of posts always do well in terms of engagement and you might just learn something about the artist too!

Until next time, happy creating and best wishes!

Mark x

About Mark…

I am an artist and blogger and live in Staffordshire, England. You can purchase my art through my Fine Art America store or my Pixels site here:   
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