I was asked recently, upon giving a piece to a friend, to sign it. I have never liked signing works, and was taught at an early stage of my artistic development not to. The reason given then was to avoid bad paintings arising later when you are more successful and established that would ruin your credibility, market, or image.

So this then begs the question, what exactly is a signature, and why do we as artists use them? Musicians don’t sign the sound, chefs don’t sign their food, and some of the best poems are anonymous. Michelangelo himself didn’t sign the “Pieta” until he heard other artists saying, after it had been installed, that there was no way the Michelangelo did it. The anecdote goes that he stole into the church under the cover of night and carved it on the sash that fell on Mary’s chest for all to see.

  1. A signature is a person’s name as written by that person, as distinguished from how anyone else would sign either that person’s name or their own name.
  2. A signature on an artwork usually establishes the identity of its maker.
  3. Signing marks have sometimes been the initials of an artist’s name (a monogram perhaps), or an impression from a stamp (as in the chop marks of Chinese and Japanese painters, and many ceramic and metal workers), or a symbol (as in James A. M. Whistler’s butterfly).
  4. Expanding or accompanying a signature might be the title of the work, an inscription (a dedication or explanation perhaps), a date, initials signifying membership in an artist’s organization (“RA” for Royal Academy or “AWS” for American Watercolor Society for instance), or the receipt of an honor.
  5. Signatures have been placed in many locations on works. Most commonly on drawings and paintings, signatures have been placed just inside the bottom or top edge of the picture. Paintings have been signed in all other areas of pictures, as well as on their backs, stretchers, and frames.
  6. Typically artists sign works only when they’ve been finished. Signing a work is frequently the gesture marking a work’s completion — the moment, as Picasso put it, that it is ready to be “abandoned.”
  7. There are many reasons why an artist might neglect or refuse to sign some works. Often artists have left unsigned works that weren’t fully done. Similarly, artists have not signed works when the quality of those works did not meet their standard for signed works.
  8. We prize the appearance of the artist’s signature on a work for these reasons, but also because it helps to establish the artist’s participation in its making. It helps to establish the authenticity and the importance of a work. Consequently the presence of a signature tends to support the market value of a work. -ArtLex

So, when my friend asked me to sign, all of these thoughts ran through my head. In addition, my thoughts were, “Isn’t the gift of the drawing enough?” How will my signature bring anymore joy. For me that is what the painting and the process are about, it is about the gift of joy that I received by seeing and doing. It is also about the joy of giving the gift. All of this can be done without a signature, how does a signature help bring joy?

Secondly the question of who’s signature do I put? Do I record it as Yasami? What about “The Peace Artist”? Does the work have to be created with one mindset to receive one moniker versus another? What about a date? Most modern artists don’t date their works, because people don’t want to buy a work that has been sitting around an artists studio for years. In their mind, “Well, if no one else wanted it, I probably shouldn’t buy it either.” Illustrators, for the most part, don’t sign their works, because they are for publication. That is unless they were of that golden era like Leyendecker and Rockwell, when they were trying to brand themselves.

Inscriptions on the other hand, this is the only part that I do like. Because, it gets to say who I made it for, or why I gave it to them. This weekend while I was at a meet I was able to draw one of the other coaches that I’ve become friends with. He was grateful for the gift, and I was happy to do it. I inscribed it, “To my friend and fellow coach”.  That felt right. When I look through books on artists, I am personally far more intrigued by their inscriptions than their signature or date.

Finally, if an artist has truly come into his own, you can tell his or her work from any others. This ultimately is their true signature. Braque and Picasso worked very similarly for years, but one can tell the difference between the two. Mistakes are not made between Perugino and Pontormo nor are Bougereau’s and Gerome’s handlings similar enough to be confused. I feel somewhat assured that after documenting America, and working toward the 10,000 portrait project, my style will be so easy to spot, that it will be my signature. But, it will be the gift of my work that will bring happiness, and the inscription that will last in people’s hearts and give them lasting joy…I hope. 🙂