What’s In An Artist’s Signature?

What’s In An Artist’s Signature?

Two recent events triggered this side-bar question “When did artists begin signing their artworks?” One is my reading The Art Forger, an entertaining thriller given to me over the holidays. The other is a news item about a group of artists filing a class action lawsuit in California on Friday, January 13, 2023, against the text-to-image generators Stable Diffusion and Midjourney for copyright infringement. The fact that artificial intelligence is being used to outright copy or render paintings in an artist’s style is unnerving.

The short answer “when did artists begin signing their artworks” is during the early Renaissance, that is, the 15th century. Artist signatures became prevalent as art production shifted from guild systems to individual artists. A signature was a means of differentiating one’s talents from those of lesser peers. The cultural climate was ripe for this shift as the combined influences of an increased awareness of nature, a revival of classical learning, and a more individualist view of man took hold.

My art history brain kicks in. Were there more reasons for signing artwork? How did artists sign their work? I discovered some answers that made me regard my artist’s signature from a new perspective.

The reason for a signature is that it’s a unique extension of the artist. An artist’s signature is like a calling card, the one consistent element given to each piece an artist creates. Signing a painting claims ownership and authentication, giving it additional value and marking it as a complete, sellable piece.

Signatures can be part of the artistic process. When an artist signs their work, it can be a note-to-self that the piece is complete and the artist has declared it so, therefore is no need to rework or retouch any part of it.

Signing with notes included. We typically think of artists’ signatures appearing in the lower left of a painting. However, some artists used their signatures as an extension for record keeping. Artists have used the backside of paper and canvases to not just sign their name but to include the time, place, medium, dedication (especially if it is a portrait), title, and list of colors used to paint the piece.

There is no shortage of how an artist might use their signature. Artist and renowned expert John Castagno produced 17 reference books cataloging artist signatures throughout history. For museums, galleries, and collectors, an artist’s signature is a way to date artwork. One of the more unusual signatures is that of James McNeill Whistler, who used a butterfly motif not only for his art but in personal correspondence.

Albrecht Dürer’s famous hare painting with his iconic famous AD artist signature
Albrecht Dürer’s famous monogram signature

Of course, some artists’ signatures become as famous as the artists themselves. Albrecht Dürer’s famed monogram is seen prominently on everything he created, from printed masterpieces to quick sketches. His “AD” trademark was so admired and popular that Dürer went to court in both Nuremberg and Venice in a successful bid to protect his authorship. Perhaps this is the first notable case of an artist’s copyright.

There were conditions when a fake artist’s signature could be used for good intentions. Works by Jewish artists doctored their signatures to non-Jewish names so that their work would not be destroyed by the Nazis during World War II.

Contemporary artists have equally varied reasons and ways of signing their work. I love it when an artist works their signature into the composition instead of opting for the classic lower-left placement. Artists will sign their work on the front, others sign on the back, and some do not sign their work at all. Other artists, like street artist Banksy, are so famous they no longer sign their work. To sign or not to sign is the artist’s personal statement.

My Own Artist’s Signature.

My own artist’s signature is a monogram that began to emerge right around the time I started drawing. I use the block letter K (for Kristin) in the hand-drawn block letter style my father used when I was growing up. Later I added the double circle to give it a symmetrical symbolic feel. I drew this monogram signature on finished watercolors with a No. 2 pencil. Not all were successful, and rather than feeling like I spoiled the painting with a botched circled K, I standardized it by digitally rendering it.

cropped view watercolor of japanese persimmons tree showing artist’s signature style and placement
Signing placement on one of my watercolor paintings of a Japanese Persimmon Tree. It’s “anchored” and aligned with the tree branch.
cropped view watercolor of native prairie plants showing artist’s signature style and placement
My artist’s signature placement is chosen to work within Prairie Jig’s composition. Yes, that would be a ladybug shown lower middle.
cropped view of bird nest drawing showing artist’s signature style and placement
My artist’s signature placement is visually anchored to the twig sticking out of Temporary Housing, my bird’s nest drawing.
rubber stamp design of a block hand-drawn capital letter K in a double circle used as an artist signature
My artist’s signature is made into a custom rubber stamp I use to sign the backside of framed, original works.

I only use the digital format to sign scanned images I post online, as shown in the above examples. For original pieces, I sign with my circle K rubber stamp on the backside alongside my name spelled out in No. 2 pencil. As the common practical marketing practice of today’s artists, I paste my business card on the back of each framed piece.

Then I declare the piece finished. (But not complete. The work has to be shown, seen, and experienced by others to feel it’s complete.)

There were moments when I thought I would change my artist’s signature and move away from the double circle K. Then I had to ask myself why get rid of something with history, ties to my father (who is also a practicing artist and art historian), and is uniquely me. Right.

Your Turn.

Do you sign your artwork? How do you sign your artwork? Do you think an artist’s signature is still relevant in today’s art world? Has your artist’s signature changed over time and if so, why? Do you feel your signature adds value to your work? Do you look for the artist’s signature when viewing artworks at a museum or gallery? Post your answers in the comments. I would love to hear your thoughts and insights.

Thanks for reading. Till next time, keep the creative spirit, be kind to the earth, and especially be kind to yourself.

How to Begin A New Year

How to Begin A New Year

How do you know where you are going if you don’t know where you’ve been? One of the best ways to start a new year is by reflecting on the year you just lived. This has been particularly important to me as I moved from graphic designer to full-time visual artist. I no longer live the same. I’m building an art practice and an art business. Paying attention to what I have achieved, listening to my heart, and writing stuff down, helps me get clear about what I want to see happen in the year to come.

A few years ago, I discovered a simple, three-part, a year-end assessment that has me listing all my accomplishments, milestones, and achievements I managed to make happen during the year. Life goes by so fast we sometimes forget to acknowledge, let alone celebrate our successes. Taking the time to review all that you did in 2022 lets you do just that.

Next, I reflect on the six biggest insights I gained throughout the year. This does take time. I don’t always have an answer which leads me to perhaps formulate it as an intention for the next year.

I’ve never liked the concept of resolutions. The psychology and data all point to why resolutions almost always fail. A better approach is to think of what you want in the next year as intentions. These might be in relationships with people in your life, how you take care of yourself, how you take care of your work life, your immediate environment, etc. This is the last part of the year-end assessment and one that gives you the mental head space in which to find focus and clarity for 2023.

Here’s To The New Year!

I’ve put together the assessment into a beautiful, short-and-sweet PDF for you to download and work your way through. I hope you find it as valuable as I do.

OK. I’ll bet you’re wondering why the drawing of the panfish and what it has to do with starting the new year. Good question. I honestly have no idea. It’s just a drawing I did back in 2019. Fish appear to know where they are going. I’ll update this post when I have figured out a better answer. I’m writing this on a Sunday, New Year’s Day, and my brain is on vacation, albeit, in reflection mode.

May your 2023 be filled with creativity, opportunities, love, and, of course, peace.

Please, Give It A Title.

Please, Give It A Title.

I’m visiting an exhibit of an artist I don’t know yet. The artist’s work is powerful and moving to me. I read the label beside each piece. Many of them read Untitled or Untitled No. VI.

I kind of feel cheated. I want to know what the artist was feeling and thinking to motivate this person to create such a stunning work of art. Since I am not at the opening where the artist would likely be attending, I have no way of asking.

That’s the trouble of leaving artwork designated as Untitled, dear fellow artists. It’s a bit like not naming your children. You spent the time and energy creating the work, yet do you care enough about your art to give it a name?

Please, just name your work, dear artist.

I will say for many artists naming their work is painfully difficult. The “right” title refuses to present itself. If an artist commits to a name for their piece, they may develop different feelings and interpretations towards the work in the future that would require a new title. I can understand the desire for an authentic connection between the work and its name in an artist’s mind. As an artist, it’s important to me, too.

Perhaps I can be persuasive in asking, dear fellow artists, to name your work. Titling or naming your work is just one of many vital touch points you have with others and your work. A title helps make the work relatable and gives the audience a deeper connection to your work.

On the flip side, titling helps artists form a story around their work. We, as artists, all need to talk and write about our work. Again, I will acknowledge this is painfully difficult for many artists.

I consider myself incredibly lucky on this front. My love of stories and pictures starts with the art of children’s picture books. For a picture book to be a success, words and illustrations must dance together, creating a page-turner. I use this same mindset when titling, writing, and talking about my work.

That wasn’t always the case. When I ran my graphic design business, I did my art practice on the side whenever time and energy allowed. I drew lots of birds and watercolored fish and potted plants. I drew sheep, cows, and the occasional toad. My artistic skills improved, yet my work wasn’t saying anything. The work didn’t hold any real significance or meaning other than being “nice.” It didn’t give me enough meat for a compelling artist statement, nor did my work get me accepted to show in juried exhibits.

All this is to say, if your work has meaning to you, name it. Jot down your thoughts about it. It’s fodder for artist statements. It’s valuable content when you have the opportunity to talk about your work, either in an artist’s talk or with individual buyers and collectors.

Today, when I am working on a piece, a title will come to me well before it’s finished. The title may not have much to do with the subject matter but leads into the story I am formulating in my head. It’s a process that has become part of my art practice.

For my first solo show, I created story labels* to display next to each piece. People attending my exhibit told me they enjoyed the stories I had written about my work. My stories gave them a deeper understanding of my work, a chance to learn something and appreciate the work even if they didn’t particularly like it. (For example, insects of all kinds fascinate me with their designs, colors, patterns, and the mechanics of their legs, eyes, feet, and wings. But most people do not like seeing “big bugs” on the wall).

So, dear fellow artists, if titling your art and writing and talking about your art feels daunting, do not despair. Your art is a practice, and so is this. It gets easier each time you do it. Research how other artists name, write and talk about their work. I most appreciate it when an artist is genuine, speaks, and writes in plain language and from the heart about their work versus the esoteric prose I have come across. Frankly, I have no idea what that artist is talking about. Talk about a disconnect.

After all, I believe art can change the world. Artists are creators of culture and community. Generation of this is made possible through connecting with others through your art. And that starts by naming it.

ABOUT STORY LABELS: Because I wanted my solo exhibit to have a professional “museum” quality to it, I designed story labels using Adobe InDesign and the typography I use to represent my studio. I printed these story labels out on Professional Photo Matte paper (for Epson printers, mine is a WorkForce Pro 4630) and mounted the story labels on to .25” thick white foam core. (I have mentioned before I am not good with glue so this exercise had its moments). In the end, the story labels looked and worked beautifully. The trick was to keep weights (lots of big books) on top of the glued story labels until the glue was thoroughly dry and set. A lot of work for twenty-four pieces but well worth it.

OK, your turn. How do you feel about titling your artwork, writing about it, and talking about it? Has it gotten easier over time? Do you go it alone or do you ask for help when it comes to titling your work, etc?

Tools I Use For Framing

Tools I Use For Framing

I Frame My Artwork.

This is for two reasons. One, custom framing retail-wise is expensive. At the moment, I am preparing for my very first solo exhibition with twenty-three pieces to frame. If I used local framers, my budget would be exhausted before half my pieces were ready to hang. Two, I like to frame my pieces with a certain aesthetic that I don’t think I would be able to control using a local frame shop. I feel bad about not supporting local frame shops but an artist has to do what an artist has to do.

When I first started my own framing process, it took more than half a day to get two pieces framed. Full disclosure, I order frames from Custom Picture Frames. They carry a simple natural pine frame that’s perfect for presenting my work. I had a couple of hiccups with them, like busted or scratched non-glare acrylic. They immediately sent out a replacement at no cost.

art framing tools assembled on wooden butcher block tablelettered for description
My art framing tools.

My Framing Tools List

Following along with the lettered items in the photo, here are the tools I use and the reasons I find them useful.

A. Artist’s Tape. For adhering artwork to matting. If needed, I can remove the tape without damaging the artwork.

B. Measuring Tape. Hanging hardware should be placed one-third down from the top of the frame. I use the measuring tape to measure and mark where I should place the hanging hardware on the back of the frame.

C. Kneading Eraser. Sometimes the matting can have some scuff marks and a kneaded eraser can remove marks without damaging the mat.

D. Glue. This is the only place I dare use glue (if you’ve read my About page, you’ll know I am a disaster when it comes to using glue. I use a bit of glue to adhere my business card to the back of a framed piece.

E. Old Hand Towel. I could use something better but this works for holding onto the edges of the non-glare acrylic. I chose to use non-glare acrylic because it’s lightweight and I am really afraid of handling glass. I can just imagine the blood, the damaged artwork, the dispair! Anyway, an old towel (clean, by the way) is handy for managing the acrylic and removing bits of stray stuff that can get caught between the acrylic and matting. Framing in the dry winter air and its static cling made the process especially trying. (Insert lots of swearing under my breath here.)

F. Philips Screwdriver. Why is it called Philips anyway? Simply put, I need a Philips screwdriver to screw in the little screws that mount the hanging hardware on the back of the frame — one-third down from the top of the frame.

G. Gimlet. This is such an important tool. I am sure it has saved me from additional swearing under my breath. The gimlet allows me to create starter holes for the little screws so I don’t end up slitting the frame’s wood.

H. Little Stubby Screwdriver. Maybe it’s called a Steve or Stuart screwdriver. I don’t know. Anyway, this little guy saves my fingers from bleeding by prying up the metal prongs holding the foam core backing. I need to turn the prongs up to remove the backing, matting, and acrylic, next position and tape my piece to the matting, then put it all back together, turning the metal prongs back down with the screwdriver before adding hanging hardware and wire.

I. No. 2 Drawing Pencil. For marking where I should mount the hanging hardware on the back of the frame.

J. Scissors. Scissors will cut through the excess hanging wire. They always send a generous amount. Hanging wire should never be pulled taut across the back of the frame between the hanging hardware. Instead, there should be some slack to allow the wire to hang the artwork comfortably from a wall hook.

K. Personal Stamp. Not at all necessary for framing but rather my way of signing my pieces. My initial letter K for Kristin developed when I was very young and it stuck. I found a place that makes stamps from a graphics file so I had my own made to stamp the back of each framed piece and then sign my full name next to the stamped K.

L. Business Card. This has my studio name, contact information, website URL, etc. It’s important for artists to market themselves where ever they can. My work often has to stand alone and speak for itself as to who created the piece, how can the artist be contacted, and where can I find more of her work. I always glue a business card to the back of my framed pieces.

The obvious key to making my framing process go smoothly is to have all my tools assembled and easy to reach along with a clean tabletop. It’s helped reduce my compulsion for swearing under my breath.

Was this helpful? What would you add? I know some of this stuff could be terribly obvious. I also know I should probably show photos of the framing steps as listing the uses for the tools isn’t enough visually. Hopefully, you were able to follow along. My thinking is to help elevate the trepidation of framing your own works if you have never done it before.

What Kind of Artist Are You?

What Kind of Artist Are You?

ABOVE: This is a photo taken inside my studio. As you can see, I am a very tidy artist, even with work in progress.

Under my breath, I mutter that I am not a botanical or floral artist to no one in particular. When looking at my work, I’m certainly not a botanical artist. When looking at historical and present-day botanical paintings and drawings, I don’t think people would think of me as a botanical artist if they knew the precise definition. 

These are lovely people and dear friends who think of me as a botanical artist. I don’t correct them. It’s human, we label. We like to place people into tidy categories, like filing cabinets and recipe books.

The truth is that the subject matter that interests me has to do with ecology, the environment, biodiversity, and climate change. These are what I try to depict through my art, accompanied by stories. It’s a work in progress, and I hope it leads me to become a better artist and storyteller. 

I am thinking of the definition of an artist, too. I believe all people can be artists and are artists without knowing it. There was a time I fed into the idea that being an artist was an elite status — a gift bestrode to you by the gods. I don’t subscribe to this notion anymore.

Let me give you a definition of who I consider an artist. An artist is someone creative in their approach and open to ideas. They like to collaborate and value community. Making things, discovering things, or making something work better makes them feel alive. That pretty much accounts for most people. 

I have been thinking a lot about identity, too. It’s a topic written and spoken about widely over the past two years (or more). I’ve been thinking about how important it is to acknowledge one’s identity for oneself. I think of it as a form of self-care. (I know, dear reader, self-care is a term dashed about and overused to the point that I cringe when I hear it mentioned.) In this case, the self-care I am talking about is taking care of one’s self-confidence, self-worth, and purpose.

Think about it. While it’s not your business to know what other people think of you, artist or otherwise, it’s essential that you know who you are and have the words for it.

I am not going to go into gender identity. I don’t have any authority or experience to offer other than I believe in the importance and significance of pronouns and people should be able to love who they love. Where I think acknowledging one’s identity for oneself is essential, women especially, artists, or otherwise, need to claim this. 

I’ll give you how I identify myself as an example:

I am a post-modern ecological artist (thanks, Dad, for that. I’ll take it.)
I am a woman artist, apprentice poet, writer, designer, and beauty hunter.

At one time, I was not brave enough to say any of these things for fear of the classic “who do you think you are?” response or having people look at me like I was nuts, puzzled, not knowing what to do with that information. Now at 61, I am claiming who I am. It’s time to shed that Scandinavian reservedness of “toe the line,” “don’t make yourself stand out,” or what? What will happen? The earth has not stopped routing on its axis and people are still talking to me. There is both bravery and vulnerability in being an artist and this is just part of the package.

I will continue to let people refer to me as a botanical artist until I find a gentle way to break it to them that I’m really not. It’s what they understand. It’s an entry point, a way for them to get to know my art. I figure, over time, they’ll refer to me as a post-modern ecological artist and the rest of it, too.

Another way to approach one’s identity I learned is rooted in poetry and storytelling,* George Ella Lyon’s “Where I’m From.” It’s a rich expression of telling who you are to others that invite exchange, connection, and understanding. We are a blend of many things and many experiences that shape who we are.

Now Your Turn.

I would love to hear how you identify yourself either as a human, as an artist, or as both. You can do this as I did in my example or as in George Ella Lyon’s “Where I’m From.” Totally up to you. I know we will all be enriched and inspired by the words you found to say “this is who I am.” Write your answers in the comments. I try and reply to all.

I first heard about “Where I’m From” through Springboard for the Arts. The second time I experienced “Where I’m From” in practice was through a recent live workshop I attended at the Minneapolis Center of Book Arts (MCBA) called Water Wayfinding and Cut-Paper with artist Cynthia Weiss and story facilitator Angie Tillges. Yes! MCBA is now officially back open as I write this!

Angie Tillges is currently working on the Great River Passage Initiative and Conservancy project. Cynthia Weiss’s exhibition, Mismatch/Memory/Refuge, is on display in the Outlook Gallery at Minnesota Center for Book Arts from March 25–July 3, 2022, viewable from the sidewalk along Washington Avenue and inside The Shop at MCBA. A must-see!

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