Dating your art: How important is it?

The question “How important is it to have dates on my art?” first arrived in my inbox from Catherine Arnold. Then, at my workshop in California last weekend, I got the same question. Must be others out there who want to know the answer so here it is.

Dating your artwork is critical if you’re interested in high-end galleries and museums. Curators are trained as art HISTORIANS. Strangely enough, historians like dates! They’re obsessive about dates!

Curators delve into the minutiae of an artist’s career. They build timelines and think about where a specific work came in the artist’s oeuvre and what that means.

If you’d like to see a retrospective of your art some day, you’ll date your work (with the year of completion) and keep track of it in an inventory. In other words, don’t just date the physical object, but keep a record of it as well. If you inventory your artwork as it's created, you'll also have a record of the months and days. The latter isn't as important, but it could end up being a bit of interesting data if you're quite prolific. And if you feel like putting the exact date (February 11, 2009 or 2/11/09) on the work, that's fine as well.

The date might not seem that important to you right now, but why risk it?  Plan for the future and the big dreams.

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20 thoughts on “Dating your art: How important is it?”

  1. Alyson, what kind of feedback do you get from artists about recycling old works? In other words, working on top of or over an old painting that didn’t quite work or maybe changing it completely. I’d be interesed to hear how other artists deal with this issue. Thanks! Tesia

  2. Alyson, I totally agree with you, dating is essential. There is a great quote from Picasso on this: «I never do a painting like a work of art. It is always a search. I am always seeking and there is a logical connection throughout that search. This is why I number them. I number and date them. May be one day someone will thank me for it. » (Picasso – in Alexander Liberman, Extract from « Picasso » in Vogue, New York, 1956) Benoit

  3. Dating ones work is very important. A painting,drawing ,sculpture or any art work is evidence of time and effort, the art is also like a journal or diary in my opinion. Once I found a Jane Peterson painting in a junk shop, the painting was signed and easy to read. On the reverse there was no information about the work. I always wished the artist had dated the back of the work. I did sell the work for quit a tidy sum any way. I sign and date all of my work on the front and reverse,just in case some one wants to know about the work and me. I am listed in Who’s Who In American Art.

  4. Tesia: What kind of feedback are you looking for? Approval? Dating earlier version vs. painted over version? I think it’s fine to paint over old works. Artists have been doing it for centuries. Just make sure you do it in an archival way–that the new painting won’t chip off because the materials are incompatible with the stuff underneath. Benoit: Thanks for bringing Picasso into the fold! Bob: Always good to hear from you. You’re right: We’re disappointed when we strike a good find that is lacking any sort of context.

  5. I agree dating your work for time line and inventory purposes is a must. For many years I simply painted and then put them into storage, as I created just for the love of it. Now that I am trying to become more serious about my art, I’ve looked back through many old pieces and it is difficult to remember when I created what. Especially when doing a series of similar images it can difficult to discern which was created first. I have learned and date all my work now with a hope of a great future!

  6. Another reason to date your work: There have been shows I wanted to submit a piece to that only accepted work completed in the last two years. And I remember at least one instance where I couldn’t recall if the work was two or three years old.

  7. Interestingly, I’ve heard the argument made for just the opposite; that one shouldn’t date their work because it’s harder to sell older works than “fresh” new works. In fact, I think it was here that this subject was previously brought up. Do you remember, Alyson? I used to date my works but stopped doing it after this former discussion. However, I do keep records of all my art, including date of completion and an inventory number. Now I’m confused about what to do.

  8. Like Karen, I used to date my works but no longer do. I have found that, more often than not, this formal date turns out to be a hindrance when wanting to exhibit, sell, or submit the work to a juried show. My pet peeve is the phrase “must have been completed in the last two years.” If a piece is a strong work, who should care about when it was completed? Why should I feel pressured to exhibit/submit a work before its “expiration date”? Often I need time to assess my pieces, decide how they fit into my larger body of work, and decide whether I want to work on them more, before I am ready to exhibit them. I would love to date my works, but find that the prejudice in the art world against older works makes this unpractical.

  9. Personally, I think that it is really important. I date everything, somewhere, even if it’s on the back, also sign too, so that I, and others, know when it was made. I don’t remember things that great even each piece, but I do remember time periods in my life, in the world and this helps to place them for me. I haven’t always done so, but after time, I realized it was important to me, and probably to anyone else who has an interest in my art, or just family later on. I hope that helps.

  10. Thanks so much for this tip. I’d never thought of this, although I do post my images on my blog as soon as they’re completed … so I just need to go through my blog to create a proper inventory. Chada, I know what you mean about exhibition calls that insist work has been completed within the last two years … it’s really frustrating when you have the perfect, yet older, piece. However, I totally agree with curators doing this because it stops artists from simply delving into their archives and throwing any old thing in. I was in a show a couple of years ago that specifically asked artists to create pieces to a theme … and it was really obvious who had simply dipped into their archives for pieces that were “close enough”. As a fellow exhibitor, I felt ripped off because these “almost there” works weakened the show. It was like their creators wanted to be profilic exhibitors, but didn’t want to actually do the ground work (um … which is why we’re artists in the first place).

  11. I used to date my work on the front until an instructor of mine advised not to. He suggested that often a piece can get overlooked as being “old” inventory. I did actually experience this feeling from a client who purchased a piece from me recently. After delivering it to her home, she took a closer look at the signature and date… it was from 2004, and she gasped! While this shouldn’t have mattered, I think it made her feel jipped a little that it wasn’t a current piece – though I creatively sold her on the idea of it being a piece that I had held onto for my personal collection in my home, which was actually true, it was one of my favorites. Now a days, as a compromise, I choose not to date the actual work, but instead keep a thurough record of when I started and completed each piece. Then when someone purchases a piece of art from me, I provide them with a Provenance form and certificate of title. These paperworks alow me to provide them with dates and other histories about the work they have aquired.

  12. I find dating my work has been problematic. Sometimes new work is more a protype and the series that develops from the protype pieces may span a year or more. I sign my name to my work and use a symbol for the year. (I chose a new symbol every year) I usually work in clay so I also have a letter mark for the clay body and sometimes I number the pieces with a permanent marker. So if a gallery owner or customer inquires about the year I am happy to tell them.

  13. I tend to like artists that are mysterious. Something about signing and dating your art in the lower right hand corner every time rubs me the wrong way. I try and incorporate any signatures or dates into the art itself. I would think that an art historian would have a field day with a piece of art that doesn’t have the exact date plastered in the corner. When I die I want people to see how my art has evolved by looking at the art itself. Maybe I’m just lazy, but I rarely date my work, and if I do it is only the year. @susannpc I like that you use a symbol for each year. Very cute. 🙂 Also, does the “npc” in your alias stand for “non player character”? If so, you are awesome.

  14. Pingback: Greatest Hits (Posts) of 2009 — Art Biz Blog

  15. Fabrizio Van Marciano

    I’ve always dated my work with the COA on the reverse, I do feel it is of great importance and something that you have spent many hours or days creating deserves a born on date. Thanks for sharing.

  16. I agree with Jennifer. Clients and galleries often don not want the date on the front of the painting for the very reasons she submitted. I use an inventory numbering system for all of my paintings that tells the year followed by the chronological number of the painting, ie: 09-64. I put this number on the back of my canvases (or paper) in two places along with my name and a copyright symbol. The number corresponds to my computerized inventory system.

  17. From a recent talk by a regional gallery owner: Do Not date the front of your paintings. If you want to date the painting, do it on the back only.

    The reason for this was because when potential collectors come into the gallery they are sometimes swayed by whether or not a painting was a more recent painting or an old one.The thought is that it might not be as valuable to them as a collector if it was old and had not yet sold and that more recent works could be purchased before the price might go up.


    I do personally keep track of the actual date in my inventory program.

  18. A very easy way to keep track of the dates…..Give the painting a number which is …the day, the month, medium, year and record on the back of the painting and on the page made for the painting. i.e. 0129P10 equals…January 29 Pastel 2010. I just finished catalogueing my paintings and make a page the day I start a painting, then add info as time goes by such as exhibition dates, and places.

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