The Laws of Nature

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Signatures, Styles, and Spelling

Imagine if I tried to sign all my paintings with my full name: Katharine A. Cartwright? There wouldn't be any room left for the painting! Sometimes I use my initials in a stylized way, but that doesn't seem to relay enough information. Sometimes I just sign K.A. Cartwright, but it really doesn't look great. Also, my penmanship with a brush is, let's just say, poor. Some artists don't sign their work at all. In contrast, some artists' signatures are so prominant that they detract from the artwork itself. And, others make up pseudonyms, which seems like a good idea.

And then, there's the perennial problem I face trying to help people spell my name correctly. I can't blame them much, there are over 20 ways to spell Katharine! Mine, unfortunately, has two a's: K-A-T-H-A-R-I-N-E. Most people turn the second "a" into an "e" and sometimes the "K" into a "C." I think that Cher had the right idea: one name, easy to say, easy to spell.

Anyway, back to signatures on paintings. I was taught to place my signature in one of the lower corners and make it blend in, but not too much. I was also taught to write neatly (not so good at that part). Here are some signatures by noted artists:

August Renoir signed this painting "A. Renoir - 74 ." on the lower left. He kept his signature small and used a color that blended in (I enhanced the contrast on the signature blow-up so you could read it). He included the year as well. As you can see, his signature doesn't detract from the painting at all.

Vincent Van Gogh (below) signed this painting on the lower right using only his first name and under it, the title of the painting. His signature blends in and doesn't contrast much with the picture field.

And then, there's the use of a pseudonym. Duschamp's urinal signed "R. Mutt" is a classic example:

One of the latest "fads" in this country is using the Chinese "chop" to sign paintings (in red on painting below). They're beautiful and you can order them online to convey whatever message you wish. However, I don't use them because they're not a part of my cultural heritage.

I'll try to avoid using too many images here, but will mention that I've seen huge signatures and signatures painted in great contrast so they stick out like a sore thumb. Some artists don't use paint at all when they sign a painting; instead they use pencil, a Sharpie, or scrape their name into the paint.
I guess there are all sorts of approaches. I haven't landed on anything that suits me yet. I'm still working on finding ways to help people spell my name correctly :-)


hw (hallie) farber said...

Signing the painting is one of the hardest parts. I'd like to use a pen or sharpie but worry that the varnish will turn the signature into a blob.

I use initials with my last name--it's easier, and I like it to blend in, if possible. In the early seventies, initials made it tougher to identify gender--some judges were surprised when we women showed up and claimed the prizes.

Mary Paquet said...

Kathy, I know I did not notice your second "a" until you mentioned it in this post. Wow, how observant of me.

I sign my first and last name, both rather short. Doing it in paint is always difficult for me, so sometimes I use a fine Sharpie. Sometimes I forget to sign, but I think most people like a discrete artist signature on the art they purchase.

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Dan Kent said...

Well "PAMO" I'm with you, but we have to plan ahead don't we? I came up with a stylized version of my name that is not a signature at all. Took me a few hours to get it, and it seems rather arty to me. But I have wondered whether it is truly appropriate on a piece. And I use it. No one - I mean, no one - could read my signature anyway. And then someone'd probably take it to the bank and forge a check or something.

I do agree that the color and size should be such that it should be unobtrusive. No one should be distracted from viewing my work. Blinders would even be better! (They could be in a little bin next to the painting).

-Don said...

Like Dan, my signature is unreadable. So, years ago I stylized a way of printing my name that I then started using on my work. Like you, KathArine, I prefer the unobtrusive, down in one of the corners method. Like Hallie, I consider signing the hardest part of a painting. For my own sake I also date the canvas.

Recently I ran into a new dilemma - how to write my full name on a little 4"x5" canvas without taking over the composition... I struggled with it a bit - even considered going to some form of initials - but then decided, nope, I'm going to use my full name. That's who I am.

I had a cool experience over the holidays. The painting I had donated to a charity auction was bought by a fellow artist who I later overheard telling one of his friends, "I now own a Don Michael, Jr." (it kinda rolls across the tongue nicely, doesn't it?). Did he buy it because of the painting or the signature? Either way, I'm glad both were on the canvas...


Unknown said...

Hi Hallie - I know what you mean! I would use my first initial, too, for the same reason. Thanks!

Hi Mary - Like you, I haven't quite settled on one way - yet! Thanks.

Hi Pam - I like PAMO! :-) I sign either on the left or right depending on the composition of the painting. Thanks.

Hi Dan - too funny! Blinders in a bin - that would make a great cartoon. Thanks!

Hi Don - cool! Owning a "Don Michaels, Jr" would be great. Recently I painted some 6" x 6" canvases that are gallery wrapped and 1.5" wide. I decided to sign them on the side. Small canvases are tough to sign!

-Don said...

Hey Kathy,

You just fell into a trap that has befuddled many people throughout my life. There is only one of me - therefore there are no (s)'s in my name. It's funny that you made this boo boo for the first time in this particular posting. :-D


The Artist Within Us said...


In earlier years I would sign artwork, but the last two decades I have decided that a signature distracts from the artwork and so I use a permanent Sharpie and with great freedom sign the back of the canvas.

All paintings are so signed, regardless if abstract or traditional, but there is one exception. Artwork on paper is signed in the lower front right and when it is framed, the signature is covered since I always leave a good white margin of paper around the artwork, never drawing to the edge of he paper.

I see the signature as authenticity and nothing more, therefore I like it out of view from the artwork.


Unknown said...

Don - doh!! You caught me. So sorry. Whenever I type your name I always mistakenly put an "s" on the end and almost always catch it and delete it. This time I was in a big hurry and forgot. So sorry Mr. Michael. The irony is not lost on me :-)

Hi Egmont - I agree that the signature is for authenticity. I like your solution! Thank you.

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Mary Paquet said...

Very interesting comments. I never really thought about the gender issue. Perhaps I will change to M. Paquet. I am also intrigued by Edgmont's approach, though the guy owning a Don Michael probably really likes that name visible.

During a large holiday party someone commented to Bob that we had a lot of great art in our home. The person was surprised when Bob stated that it was Mary's art. So maybe a signature isn't even noticed.

M said...

I'm signing in late to this conversation but it is one that I've had with various artist friends several times.

I started out signing my work M Ryall because there is only one M Ryall in this city so no problem (wasn't thinking that I'd move beyond St. John's then).I chose M. rather than Margaret because it was shorter to print. Unlike some of the responders to the post my printing is excellent (primary teacher) and I also do calligraphy. Unfortunately, I spent more time integrating the signature than was wise. Now like Egmont, I sign all paintings on the back with M. Ryall and the date using a black marker. I also put the title on the back. Titles are important to me and I wish more artists would include them on the back of their work. If I do a monotype or any other work on paper that needs framing, I sign on the front in faint pencil. I hate it when a signature interferes with the image.

Anonymous said...

Hi Katharine,
It's funny how important the signing is. I am fortunate to be the only person I know of with my last name. I prefer the somewhat blended in signing at one of the corners for me.

Mike said...

Few artists recognize the import of their signature. IT IS THE PAINTER'S TRADEMARK.

Trademarks are highly prized and coveted by those who have gone to the lengths of repeating them over and over and over . . . .and never changing them. The public responds to and trusts those things with which they are familiar. My advice is choose a signature, then NEVER CHANGE IT.

It is the key to being recognized, trusted and valued over time. I designed my signature on my paintings in the first few months of my painting attempts. I have never changed it . . . .and it has paid enormous dividends.

It is a detail which must receive your attention.

Incidentally, "permanent" sharpie ink disappears. No joke! It literally fades to nothing! Use cad pigments for your tradmemark.
My two cents.

Eva said...

I also think signing is the hardest part and I use a sharpie or pencil, anything but a brush. Once I forgot to sign a large 4 x 6 canvas and the client called me to their home to sign it on the spot. With shaking hands and sweat I manage to do it. I don't want to do that again!Mine is usually small. I think Picasso was the only egotist that could get away with making his signature as important as his paintings.

Unknown said...

Hi Mary - what a wonderful complement! You must be on "cloud nine" :-)

Hi Margaret - very interesting. Although I sign my paintings on the front, I also sign on the back and write the name of the painting, year, and where it was painted (location of my studio at the time). Wish I had your expert handwriting skills! Thanks.

Hi Peggy - it IS good to have a unique name. Unfortunately, mine is not unique so I've had to use my middle initial. Thanks!

Hi Mike - ALL good points! Thank you.

Hi Eva - I was looking for Picasso's signature when I posted this and didn't have time to continue my search. But, I do remember the prominence of his signature on some of his paintings. Ego is the correct word! Thanks for your story, too! I'd also be nervous is someone watched me trying to paint my name. I often have to wipe it out and start over. Thanks!

Celeste Bergin said...

Katharine...great post! I am so lucky that my last name is only 6 letters. I just sign my last name. There are a few other oil painters with my last name..but I figure 100 years from now..if it is important... my signature will clearly be attributed to me (instead of the other Bergins). It is an important thing to not sign too big! I know a very good landscape artist who ruins all her work by signing in 1/2 inch letters (on a small canvas!)! I wish I could advise her...but I just can't. Maybe I can just leave an anonymous "tip" that she should read your post!

Unknown said...

Hi Celeste - you're lucky, indeed! Wish I had a shorter name. Hope your friend finds a more effective way to sign her work. Good luck :)

Mark Sheeky said...

Like Celeste I'm lucky to have a quite short and quite unusual name. I wonder if anyone has considered a pseudonym for their art?

Unknown said...

Hi Mark - spoken like a true surrealist!

Unknown said...

Wow... I read ALL the posts because they were as informative and thought provoking as your great post on the subject. I have gone through 4 or 5 styles of signatures. I guess with my relative newness in this field, I'm still trying to find "the One". I do love the gallery wrapped canvases because I can sign away on one of the sides with abandon.