To sign or not to sign (your artwork)

Question from Patrice Erickson:

Is it preferred or not preferred to sign and date paintings on the front of the canvases rather than on the backs? I have always signed and dated on the fronts. On a recent visit to a high end gallery I noticed that none of the paintings were signed this way. I asked the gallery director about this and she simply said none of these artists do, however they signed on the backs. Does this have to do with how well known the artist is?

Patrice, I think this is a question of aesthetics and preferences. If a signature on the front of a surface interferes with the artist’s intent, the artist might prefer signing on the back. As far as I know, this was the case with Mark Rothko and is the case with Ellsworth Kelly. A signature would look very much out of place in Rothko’s ethereal canvases or on Kelly’s flat, all-over colors.

At the same time, Jackson Pollock easily incorporated his signature into his webs of paint and many other contemporary artists do the same. There is nothing wrong with signing the front and many, many highly regarded artists embrace this tradition.

One thing I know for sure: Sign it somewhere! Like the gallery director mentioned–signing on the back (verso) is an option. You’ll drive future curators and historians crazy without the signature and date.


Image (c) Patrice Erickson, Behind the Trees

I selected this image of Patrice’s because her signature is so large compared with the size of the canvas. And she has made it in a lighter color so that it very much stands out in the dark foreground. This is neither good nor bad, but the signature becomes a design element when you do this. It doesn’t fade into the background, but stands out as part of the composition.

Where do you sign your art?

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21 thoughts on “To sign or not to sign (your artwork)”

  1. Thank you, Alyson. Those were some good examples you gave. It’ll be interesting to see what comments you get. I will keep signing on the front, trying to do this so that it’s less obvious than the example you show. When I sign the front after I finish a painting it gives me a feeling of completeness, for lack of a better word. Patrice

  2. Nowadays I try to incorporate my signature into the painting so that it’s part of the design, and if I can’t then I sign the side or the back. I really think there are no rules but personal preference.

  3. Last year I was signing paintings on the side, but now I think I prefer signing the back better. It probably has to do with the relatively small scale of my work – I don’t want the signature to be too large in relation to the image, so I don’t sign on the front. If I start working on canvases that are 15 feet wide, I might reconsider.

  4. While it is true that signing on the front is out of fashion in some quarters of the “high end” art world, I personally think it remains a good idea. How many times have you run across a painting you’ve really liked and found no identification on it at all. Even in shows identifying labels are sometimes non-existent. Our job is to do excellent,memorable work. Part of that is helping people associate your imagery with your name. Of course your signature should be subtle, easy to read and not interrupt the flow of the painting. Just like any other skill in painting, this requires practice. I think when people tell you they don’t like the look of artists’ signatures on the front of a piece, what they really mean are the oversized signatures of beginner artists. Yeah, those can be pretty hard to take- but if you look at good modern or contemporary work in a museum, you’ll find plenty of tasteful examples of signatures. One of my favorites has alwasy been Edward Hopper’s- easy to read, but modest, just like his paintings.

  5. I have always signed, dated, titled & made additional notes about the painting on the back…Oil pastel or oil sticks are handy for writing…the few exceptions where I have signed on the front, the signature fights with the subject for attention & I find, ruins the peace…(but customers like it)…

  6. It’s always a quandary. I never want my name to intrude upon the experience of viewing the painting. It is essential to sign SOMEWHERE. On the back is an option, but not one I usually follow. I sign in a color that is visible but blends in inobtrusively. On sculpture (clay) I carve my name somewhere that can be found, but has to be searched for. I know I should date but rarely do so. That could be done on the back I would think. Well, that’s my vote.

  7. I’ve always signed my name but never dated them on the front. About seven years ago I started stamping my work (especially commissioned pieces) on the back with my name, a copyright symbol with the date, and my phone number, as well as signing them on the front. Putting my phone number has resulted in additional commissions as well as referrals when my business card was lost. Wish I’d done it earlier. I’m one who always looks for the signature of the artist, especially when it’s art that I like. In our busy world I like information readily available, so I agree Alyson…sign it somewhere!

  8. When I paint I work the signature into the painting somewhere, as well as the date – it’s been a while since I painted regularly and sometimes even I have trouble finding the signature! and I always sign and date on the back too. In clay I sign and date on the side of the piece or the bottom, and have several designs where I worked my name into the piece like painting. Interestingly enough one of my shops had a piece for over a year without realizing it was signed and dated on the side. =]

  9. I sign my work on the back and include the title and the year completed. I work on panel, so I sign with a Sharpie. I like Nicki’s idea of a stamp with a copyright symbol and phone number. I might consider doing that as well. A friend in grad school had a stencil that she would paint her name with on the back. I always liked the way it looked.

  10. Hi Alyson, For several years now I have been signing and dating my work on the back. I feel it is intrusive to my imagery to have it on the front. I have no problems with other people signing the front except when it becomes so loud and large it overwhelms the painting.

  11. Signing artwork has always been an issue for me. I try to keep my signature as unobtrusive as possible so as not to detract from the artwork. I’ve always liked Whistler’s signature of a butterfly on many of his pieces. My signature is a stylized monogram of first and last initials, softly rendered on the front of the piece. On the back I include the info: title; full name; date. This seems to work to make everyone happy. It allows the viewer to recognize the piece as my work – although they may have to search a bit to find the “LP”.

  12. I read this story once about Picasso. Asked by a young artist for a review of his work, the great master looked over the painting and after a few moments of silence had only one thing to say: “Sign your name larger.” I think it’s good advice, especially if your signature is distinctive. Look at Fabian Perez and Pino, two highly successful artists, who signatures are bold and very noticeable on the canvas.

  13. I always thought the signature was a matter of preference, mine runs up the side of the work & is almost a logo on my website. But because my work is abstract, I am finding that many buyers, want to hang it in other directions, leaving the signature floating on a wild corner. With this happening more often than not, I have gone to signing on the back. I am questioning more about other info. I have had requests from rep’s & galleries to leave off my web address. How does anyone feel about that?

  14. On the back, I write the title,copyright symbol, my name, and the year. On the front, I write my name, small and subtle – it’s there if you look, but doesn’t distract from the work that way. I wouldn’t include a phone number (because it may change) or a website address – it’s easy enough for people to run a search on the web and find you.

  15. On the back I stick on a label I make in Photoshop that includes the following information: title, medium (detailed – for example: oil on linen mounted with BEVA 372 on gatorfoam), size, date completed, varnished date including the type of varnish used, my name, phone, website, email, physical address. The detail regarding the medium and varnish is important down the road for conservation sake.

  16. AnnaMaria Windisch Hunt

    Just did a walk though the gallery to see where my featured artists signed. Each has signature in front bottom right, in an unobtrusive manner. The subject intrigued me as my husband for years has signed with a fish, yes with a fish. It seems many years ago there was a well known flamboyant artist who had a fabulous name and signed with flair much like Picasso, what could he do? He had a two four letter name Fred Hunt. Talk about shooting yourself in the foot. How does one look up a fish signature. The one identifying signature is his color palette. I’ve always found that large signatures was more about the artists personality than the art.

  17. I sign my paintings on the front as small and tastefully as possible. Whenever possible I make the signature part of the design. I never date paintings. People don’t want to be buying an ‘old’ painting and dating them makes them harder to sell.

    Whenever I look at arwork, I find it annoying if there isn’t a signature. Let’s remember that you can’t pick up a work and look at the back for the signature when you’re in a store or gallery. Besides, I find a work without a signature incomplete somehow. To me, the work needs a signature, it’s like the period at the end of a sentence. Necessary.

  18. Curious as to why the date is included. Do you think the collectors should sign as well? They do become part of the “legacy” of the artwork too, and are often part of the means that allows further generations to have the opportunity to consider the artwork as well ….

  19. I have a strong preference for signing the back. For me, it’s about the work, not identity. 99% of the time, I find a signature obtrusive, regardless of how small. The only exception to this are those who sign with a symbol. I find that intriguing somehow, like the examples given above. Judith Leyster used to sign her works “J” and a “star”. I also heard that story about Picasso and, given his personality, I always assumed he said that because he didn’t like the work, that he was being sarcastic!

  20. With regards to dating the piece. I come from a printmaking background and used to add the date to the front of pieces with my signature until told by another printmaker that it could be detrimental to sales. Basically, people can be put off sometimes from buying if they think that the work is ‘old’. So now, to avoid this prejudice, I sign and title + edition on the front (under the image) and then date the back and add here the process used for that print. That way, people are not influenced by the age of the piece – only its artistic merit.

  21. Alyson B. Stanfield

    Gam: No. Collectors shouldn’t sign unless it’s some kind of collaborative piece or the “thing” the artist does to be different. Otherwise, it’s kind of strange. Jay Dee: That’s fine. I guess the historian in me wants to know the dates–always.

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