The Value of a Signature: Sign Your Work!

Sign Your Work

“Mystery” by Unknown

I have a landscape painting in my office.  I love it because I don’t have any windows so it makes me feel like I am looking outside at the sky. I’m not kidding, it really works. Another reason I have it prominently displayed is – I don’t know who painted it!  I’ve had several visitors ask me about my mystery painting – some have wanted to buy it – but I can’t tell them any charming stories about the artist, I can’t explain when it was created or what exact mediums were used or what the creator was thinking about. It is unsigned.

A friend brought it to me and asked me to identify the artist but I don’t recognize the style so I couldn’t help.  We decided to leave it hanging in my office in case someone stops in and says, “Wow, that’s a nifty painting by Susie X – I love her work.” So far it hasn’t happened but I live in hope.

This mystery painting is one of the reasons I always encourage artists to sign their work and date it!  Seriously, why wouldn’t you?

I spoke to an art student who informed me that she was philosophically opposed to signing her work because that made it into a “commodity” and was thus, “selling out”.  I love the ideal of making work to clarify your unique and tortured soul in a world gone mad but let’s get real for a second.  Are you making work for yourself only or are you also hoping to communicate with other humans? If you plan to cover your walls with your work and never show it to anyone else, it’s your art – enjoy your delicious obscurity. But if you would like to pay an occasional electric bill or even become wildly celebrated and collected – signing and dating your work is very important.

An artist told me he didn’t feel as though he was “good enough” to sign his work because he wasn’t a “real artist”.  If you make art, you are an artist, you may be a horrible artist but you still deserve the description.  If you think you are terrible, keep making work until you are better. Take lessons from someone you admire, try a different medium, just decide not to make value judgments and enjoy making what you make. You are the only one who draws like you or puts colors together like you.  Celebrate your unique thumbprint.  Sign that painting!

What will a signature do for you?

A signature and a date signify all sorts of things:

  1. This piece is finished and ready to go out into the wild world.
  2. My name is Max and I approve this message.
  3. I made this in July 2013, twenty years from now when I am planning my retrospective;    I’ll know that this was an early work in my illustrious career. Dates help you and your fans to track your evolution as an artist.
  4. This signature is like a business card on your work of art, when it is in someone’s home and their friends come over and fall in love with your way of handling clay or paint, they will want to rush right out and search for more.  If you signed it, they will be able to find you. This is a good thing.
  5. This work of art is your heart presented to other humans. If you don’t sign it, how will it know it’s loved?  Ok that’s sappy but the point is – you made it so own that fact.
  6. If you do not sign your work, some jerk face scumbag can claim your work as his and you can’t prove otherwise.

Don’t just sign and date it, sign it so it is legible. If we can’t read your signature, it’s the same as not signing it – you can use a symbol or initials or a happy face with initials but no one outside your circle of friends will know what it means. Make it clear:

sample signature

Be consistent and if possible use the same media you used for the work, so we, your loving fans, can tell it’s a piece you created and there will be no doubt as to its authenticity.

If you are a shy flower, sign the back but sign it!  Sometimes people think that having an illegible signature is “mysterious” – it is, and the person who buys your piece will forget who made it, leave it in their garage when they move, and it will end up at a thrift store or in the dumpster.  That is a sad ending for something you spent time and emotion creating.

Here are few more tidbits about signing your work consistently and legibly:

  • For prints – most artists sign on the bottom right side and include the edition size if it is limited, usually in the center of the border.  Like this:

Print Signature Block

  • Try to sign the same way every time so your signature becomes your logo or trademark.
  • Some artists use an embossing stamp – this is legit and if you work in clay, it is a tidy way to mark all of your pieces easily if you are making multiples.  Also it is difficult to duplicate if you design it yourself.
  • Sign it before you apply varnish or fixative or the work is dry.  Signatures added later can lead to authenticity questions.

Besides, we want to know who you are, so don’t disown that art.  Sign it!

About Kristin Krolak

Kristin is a partner at the TaoAreYou Center for Arts & Well Being.
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