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.
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.
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.
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.