How to Sign a Painting – The Ultimate Guide With Examples

In Acrylic Painting by Chris BreierLeave a Comment

In this post, I explain why you should sign your paintings, and how to go about it. I include examples of signatures from famous artists, and give pointers for signing your name in various mediums. 

A signature that’s well done has many advantages. It can help others to identify your work, and find you online. Signatures are useful in combating art forgers. In addition, a good signature can even complement the design of your painting.

Affiliate Disclosure: all of the text and photo links in this post that lead to Blick Art Materials are affiliate links. This means that if you click on them and make a purchase, I receive a commission at no cost to you.

Why You Should Sign Your Paintings

The signature is an important aspect of a painting even though some artists don’t give it much thought. 

We’re living in an age that’s quite different than how artists lived during the Renaissance or any other period in art history. 

With the advent of the internet, anyone can easily Google your name and find out more about you. Perhaps they may follow you on social media and even purchase some of your work.

Additionally, signatures are often used to help identify fakes. A good signature can make it more difficult for forgers to copy your artwork. Copying a signature with all of the subtle details is difficult to do in a convincing manner.

At the end of this post, I include a few examples how signatures have played an important role in authenticating paintings by famous artists. The difference in value between a real and a fake painting can be millions of dollars. 

While not every artist will become famous, signing your paintings will help others authenticate and study your work in the future. Your family or members of your community may collect and appreciate your work. A signature can help them with their efforts in locating and identifying your paintings.

How to Sign a Painting

Hopefully, you’ve come to the understanding that a signature is an important part of the painting. So now you may be wondering–how do you create an artist signature? Below are some tips for creating your own signature and some inspiration from famous paintings.

Make Sure Your Signature Is Legible

Many famous people sign their names in a unique style that’s often illegible. Presidents, professional athletes, and actors often have signatures that look like squiggly lines or symbols. Perhaps you can read the first initial, but the rest of the signature is indecipherable. 

Unless you’re ultra famous, an illegible signature is a bad idea. Even then I’m not sure that it’s a good practice.

For one, a legible signature is good marketing. Every painting you send out into the world is an advertisement for your work. 

You might be underestimating how many people will see your work when someone hangs it in their home or office. 

A simple glance at a legible signature will allow anyone to Google your name and find your website, or follow you on social media.

People have to become aware of who you are before they can purchase your art. They may then follow you on social media for months or years before they make a purchase. 

The point is, none of this will happen if they can’t figure out who you are because of an illegible or missing signature.

It’s a trap to use an outlandish signature. The best approach is to keep it simple and legible–save the creativity for the painting itself. 

Sign With Your Full Name

You want to sign the painting with your full name instead of signing with just your initials, stamp, or a symbol.

I think artists use their initials as their signature because it’s easy and takes up a lot less space than their full name.  

On the other hand, using just your initials makes it exceedingly difficult for others to determine who the artist is. As a result, your work may become one of the many unidentifiable works of art that exist in the world.

If you insist on signing with your initials, then you should at least sign the back with your full name. 

People Who Share Your Name

Have you ever Googled your own name? It’s more than likely others have the same name as you. 

One of them may also be an artist. If this is the case you may want to consider adding your middle initial to your signature, if you have one.

Now, think about how many people share the same initials as you. A 26 letter alphabet provides 676 combinations of initials that contain 2 letters. 

Currently, there are close to 8 billion people in the world.

In short, signing a painting with initials provides very little information that will help others identify it as yours. 

Don’t make it difficult for people to identify your paintings in the future, sign with your full name.

Be Consistent

Once you come up with your own signature, you should use it consistently. It’s okay to change your signature over the course of your career, but don’t change it too frequently.

The reason for this is the deviations from a valid signature from an artist are often what helps identify a fake. A consistent signature helps with the identification of forgeries. 

Below are three Monet paintings with an enlargement of his signature below. His signature is consistent among all three of them.

Claude Monet
Sunrise (Marine)
Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program
Claude Monet
The Portal of Rouen Cathedral in Morning Light
Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program
Claude Monet
Wheatstacks, Snow Effect, Morning (Meules, Effet de Neige, Le Matin)
Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program

Where to Sign a Painting

You should sign the painting on the front so people can easily identify who you are. 

But where on the front do you sign it?

The most common location to sign a painting is in one of the bottom corners. This is where I usually sign my paintings.

Which side I sign depends upon where the center of interest is in the painting. I usually choose the side that has more free space. Obviously, you don’t want your signature to overlap or obscure any important element in the painting.

It’s less common, but I have seen a few examples of signatures in the center, along the bottom edge. The corners seem the most popular place to sign.

The top corners are another location for a signature. 

Another, creative option is to place it somewhere slightly within the painting itself. As an illustration of this, see the painting below by Chardin. His signature is on the edge of the table, at left.

Jean-Siméon Chardin
Still Life with Peaches, a Silver Goblet, Grapes, and Walnuts
Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program

Similarly, in the following painting by Turner, you can see his initials on the boxlike object in the lower right corner. In the enlargement below, you can see see the letters “JMWT” which stands for Joseph Mallord William Turner.

Turner signs his initials in perspective so that it looks like it’s on the box itself. I don’t know if this is a cargo container from a ship, or a feature of the dock but I like how it blends in with the scene.

The turner is also another example that goes against signing with your full name.

Joseph Mallord William Turner
The Dogana and Santa Maria della Salute, Venice
Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington
This is a close up of Turner’s signature from the painting above. His initials are in the lower right. His initials are placed in perspective so it looks like they’re printed on the box.

Leave Room for the Frame

Most picture frames overlap the canvas by a small at least ¼” so you don’t want to sign the painting right at the edge. Otherwise, the frame may cover over part of the signature. 

Floater frames are the exception because the edges of the frame don’t overlap the painting. You can read more about floater frames in my in depth guide to framing canvas panels.

If you know which frame you’re going to use, measure the depth of the rabbet. The rabbet is the recess in the wood frame that holds the painting in place. 

In my example, the rabbet is ¼” deep so I would leave ¼” and then add some more space so there’s some room between the frame and the signature. The extra space is so the signature doesn’t end up too close to the frame. 

In the example below, Van Gogh signed his name at the bottom right and it flows off of the edge of the painting. While Van Gough can get away with this, I don’t recommend signing your name in such a way that it falls off the bottom of the canvas.

An example of Van Gogh signature
Vincent van Gogh
Irises
Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program

Can I Sign a Painting on the Back?

Yes, you can sign a painting on the back, although it will make it more difficult for others to identify you as the artist. This is because signing the back requires the viewer to take the painting off the wall to see your signature. Obviously, it’s not acceptable to take a painting off a wall in a museum or gallery.

While you will lose the marketing advantages of signing on the front at least others will be able to identify your work when necessary. 

Again, make sure to sign the back with your full name and in a legible manner.

In the painting below by Cezanne, there’s no signature on the front and there’s no information about whether his signature is on the back. You can find other examples of famous paintings that aren’t signed on the front. 

An example of a Cézanne painting that doesn't have a signature on the front.
Paul Cézanne
Still Life with Apples
Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program

You may want to add additional information to the back of the painting, other than the date and signature. 

For instance, if you’re a landscape painter you can add the location to the back of the painting. 

In the painting below by Rembrandt, he apparently left a reference to the philosopher Democritus. It’s signed in the upper left corner with the monogram “RHL” (Rembrandt Harmenszoon Leidensis).

Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn
Rembrandt Laughing
Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program
Close up of Rembrant's signature
This is a close up of Rembrant’s signature in the top left corner, from the painting above. It’s faint so it doesn’t stand out that much.

Should I Add the Date to My Painting?

It’s a good idea to add the date to the painting. You can add it after your signature or on the back. Adding the date to the painting will make it easier for those who have an interest in your work to study how your work evolved over your career. 

I find that adding the date also helps with my own records. As you get older, it becomes more difficult to pinpoint the exact date that you completed a painting. That is, unless you record it somewhere.

You may keep a separate log where you record this information, especially if you sell your work.

Another important point is you should sign the painting itself. Labels can lose their adhesive qualities and fall off.

How Big Should the Signature Be?

Your signature should be large enough so that people can read it, but not so large that it becomes a distraction. Most of the examples of famous paintings that I share in this post have signatures that blend in with the painting.

I suppose this is a preference, but when you step back from the painting, the signature shouldn’t stand out very much. 

Paintings that have oversized signatures often gives the impression that the signature is more important than the painting.

In my opinion, the painting should speak for itself. 

Use Colors From the Painting

Another aspect of the Monet signatures from the paintings above is he used colors from the painting for his signature. For example, in the haystack painting he uses the color of the haystacks to sign his name. 

The warm brown color is dark enough so that you can read it but it’s in harmony with the rest of the painting. 

While the color doesn’t necessarily have to be from the painting, it should at least be in harmony with it.

Keep in mind that signing with an odd color will draw the viewer’s eye to the signature instead of the subject matter. 

Sign With the Same Medium

You should sign the painting in the same painting medium as the painting itself.

For instance, sign an oil painting with oil paint. Acrylic paintings should be signed with acrylic paint, and sign a watercolor painting with watercolor paint.

Below are the reasons for using the same painting medium for the signature. 

First, it’s easy. You already have a variety of colors on your palette from the painting itself. Choose one of these colors for the signature. Doing so will automatically create harmony with the rest of the painting. 

Second, it’s more sound from an art conservation perspective. For example, you don’t want to sign an oil painting with acrylic paint. 

That’s because painting acrylics over oils is an unsound painting technique. The acrylic paint may not adhere properly to the oil paint and flake off as it ages.

While you can technically sign an acrylic painting with oils, I’m not sure what the benefit would be. 

Finally, signing a painting in a medium that’s different from the painting itself may call the authenticity of the signature into question. It makes it look like the signature was added in later by someone else. 

How to Best Sign an Oil Painting

There are two basic methods for signing an oil painting that I describe below. They both work well, which one you choose depends upon your preferences.

Scratch Your Signature Into the Wet Paint

One common approach to signing a wet oil painting is to scratch into the wet paint with a sharp point. This is popular among plein air painters who paint on location. 

Paint brushes that have handles that come to a sharp point are useful for this technique. Or you can sharpen a wooden dowel or wood stick for this purpose.

Basically, you just scratch into the wet paint as if you were signing it with a pencil. The pointy tip of the paint brush handle removes the wet paint, allowing the white of the canvas to show through. 

Another benefit of this technique is that your signature is actually scribed into the paint. This proves that the signature was added when the paint was wet and not added by a forger years later.

If you don’t like the starkness of the pure white canvas below, you may want to consider toning your canvas with acrylic paint before you begin paintings with oils. Of course, you have to allow the acrylic paint to dry before you can paint over it with oils. 

Most artists who tone their canvases with acrylics do so in advance instead of on location because it’s convenient. 

Since the acrylic paint is dry, it should stay in place as you scratch through the oil paint on top of it, revealing the color of the acrylic paint instead of the white canvas. 

Sign With Thin Oil Paint

If the paint is still wet and you don’t want to scratch into it, you can sign over it with thin oil paint. 

Use turps or your favorite oil painting medium to thin the paint out a little. Oil paint straight from the tube is usually too thick to flow off the end of your brush.

A small brush with a fine point is good for signing your name. The fine tip will allow you to make all of the curves, dots, and straight lines that make up your signature. 

It’s difficult to keep a good point on a small brush so I usually use the less expensive synthetic brushes and replace them often. Below are some affordable small paint brushes by Princeton.


Princeton Select Series 3750 Synthetic Mini Brushes

from: Blick Art Materials

It’s easier to sign a painting when it’s dry, but you can also sign over a wet layer. This is trickier because the consistency of the paint has to be right in order for the wet layer of paint to grab the paint off the brush. 

Another option is to sign over dry paint with an oil paint marker, which I cover later in the sections about paint markers.

How to Best Sign an Acrylic Painting 

Acrylic paint dries fast, so you’re more than likely going to be signing a dry painting. Below are the common methods I use for signing an acrylic painting.

Before you begin, you’ll need to thin the paint out with a little water in order to get it to flow. You can also use an acrylic paint that already has a thin consistency.

For instance, Golden’s High Flow Acrylics have the consistency that’s similar to ink. I often use it to sign my paintings. You can just buy a few colors that you use most often for signing your name. They’re available in plastic bottles as shown below.


Golden High Flow Acrylics and Sets

from: Blick Art Materials

The benefit of using this paint is that you don’t have to dilute it so the colors should still be vibrant.

You can sign with a small brush that has a fine point, see the oil painting section above for an example of such a brush.

Another tool for signing your painting is a crow quill pen as shown below. This is one of those old fashioned dip pens that you can use for drawing with ink.

You can use it to sign with thin acrylic paint too. 

I usually dip the pen into the high flow acrylics and practice signing on a scrap of paper. This allows me to practice and get the paint flowing well.


Speedball Crow Quill Dip Pen and Nibs

from: Blick Art Materials

This tool works best on smooth surfaces such as wood panels or canvases with smooth textures. Otherwise, the fine point of the pen may get caught on coarse canvas textures. This can cause the paint to drip out of the tip and create a blob on the painting.

It’s possible that this may happen even on smooth surfaces, it’s a disadvantage that’s inherent in the tool and it’s a risk that you have to take. 

Acrylic markers are another option and they’re easier to use, see the section below.

Fixing Mistakes

Sometimes the signature doesn’t turn out well, but here are a few ways that I deal with this.

If the painting below the signature is fully dry, you should be able to wipe off any wet acrylic with a damp rag. Allowing the painting to dry for a few days before you sign the painting will ensure that the acrylic paint has had a chance to fully cure. This should allow you to wipe off the signature without damaging the painting. 

In my post about how long it takes for acrylics to dry, I discuss the difference between “touch dry” and fully cured acrylics.

If you’re using slow drying acrylics, you can also sign a painting by scratching into the wet paint as you can with oils. I use this technique when I paint with Golden OPEN acrylics.

When I make a mistake scratching my signature into wet acrylic paint, I can sometimes fix it by brushing over it with a clean brush. This action has the effect of smearing the surrounding paint into the signature, which covers over it.

Whichever technique you use, it helps to practice before signing an important piece

How to Sign an Acrylic Pour Painting

Most of the acrylic pour paintings that I’ve seen aren’t usually signed on the front. However, there’s nothing to stop you from signing an acrylic pour painting or any other type of abstract painting on the front.

All of the tips for signing an acrylic painting also apply to signing an acrylic pour painting.

Signing with a fine tip acrylic paint marker is probably the easiest method though.

Signing a Painting With a Marker

Aside from signing a painting with a paint brush, you can use paint markers to sign an acrylic painting.

Acrylic Markers

Liquitex makes acrylic markers that contain the same lightfast pigments they use in their heavy body acrylics. These pigments should hold up as well as their line of professional acrylics. 


Liquitex Professional Paint Markers

from: Blick Art Materials

You can buy a few of the colors that you use most for signing your name. They’re available in a variety of colors and sizes. As for the size, the 2mm tip is great for signing small paintings. You may need a larger point for signing larger painting.

In case you’re not satisfied with the available color options, you can also buy empty paint markers and fill them up with your own color mixes. 


Montana Black Paint Marker Empty Markers and Replacement Nibs

from: Blick Art Materials

Golden High flow acrylics work well with these empty markers. You can mix the colors in a small plastic container and then fill up the markers with it.

Oil Paint Markers

Pebeo makes oil paint markers which you can use to sign your paintings, but there are a few issues you need to take into consideration.

For one, you should conduct some testing, especially if you varnish your paintings. A solvent based varnish may dissolve or lift the oil based marker as you apply it. I strongly encourage you to conduct tests to make sure it’s compatible with the materials you use.

As for the ability to resist fading, Pebeo’s FAQ claims the colors are lightfast and permanent so they shouldn’t fade with age.

I have yet to try oil based markers for signing a painting. If you have any experience with them, feel free to leave a comment below.

Can I Sign a Painting With a Sharpie?

The regular solvent based Sharpie marker will fade with prolonged exposure to UV light. The water based poster paint Sharpie didn’t fade in my testing.

In the photo above, the left side of the paper has been kept in darkness while the right side has been exposed to direct sunlight. The two lines at the top are drawn with a regular solvent based sharpie. After 5 years of exposure they’ve faded considerably. The thick line at the bottom is the water based poster marker from Sharpie which doesn’t show any signs of fading.

My own tests show that the regular solvent based Sharpies fade when you expose them to sun for extended periods. This is visible in the photo above. Fortunately, the water based Sharpie poster paint markers performed well in my lightfast tests.


Sharpie Waterbased Paint Markers

from: Blick Art Materials

Sign the Painting Before Varnishing It

The most important reason for signing a painting before you varnish is that some varnishes are removable.  If you sign on top of a removable varnish, the signature will lift along with the varnish when you remove it. 

Signing a painting before you varnish it will allow you to remove the varnish without disturbing the signature. Having the varnish on top of the signature will help protect it from damage.

It also helps to make it look like a part of the painting, especially if the varnish has a different sheen than the paint.

For instance, imagine signing over a glossy varnish with a paint that dries with a matte finish. The matte signature would stand out in comparison to the glossy varnish.

In addition to making it stand out, signing a painting on top of the varnish makes the signature look as though it was added after the painting was complete. This can be a red flag to someone who is trying to authenticate a painting. 

How to Sign a Copy of a Painting

Copying the works of famous artists is a valid way to improve your painting skills. It has a long tradition and it’s still in practice today.

One question you may have is–how do you sign a copy of an original painting?

I have to disclose that I’m not a lawyer and nothing in this post in this post can be considered legal advice. If you have a concern regarding a copyright issue or art forgery you should consult with an attorney. 

While I’m not an attorney, there are some very obvious mistakes that you should avoid in order to avoid breaking copyright and art forgery laws. 

First, never sign a copy of a painting with the original artist’s signature. 

According to the FindLaw website, forgery requires deception. Painting a copy of a painting and signing it in the original artist’s name is deceptive. It gives the impression the painting is by the original artist. While you may know it’s a replica and would never try to pass it off as an original, others may try.

It doesn’t take imagination to realize this could easily happen intentionally or by accident. 

For example, you decide to give the copy away as a gift to a friend or relative. Over the years it may change hands a few times, and eventually it ends up in an attic. Should someone else discover it, they may believe that it’s an original painting by a famous artist. 

So, should you sign your name instead of the artist’s name? No, because that becomes a copyright issue. When you sign your name, you’re claiming that it’s an original painting that you created. Essentially, you’re taking credit for someone else’s creative work.

Artists who copy famous paintings often sign the work in their name and include some indication that it’s a copy. For example, if I were to paint a copy of a Monet, I would sign it “Chris Breier after Monet.” 

Another important precaution that you should take before you begin to make a copy of a famous painting is to scale it by at a noticeable amount. Some museums suggest scaling it by 20%.

This step is crucial because checking the dimensions of a painting is a quick method for determining if a painting is a copy. 

This is because the dimensions of famous paintings are usually well documented, so if your painting is 20% larger or smaller, it obviously can’t be the original.

For example, the Mona Lisa is 30”x21” so a 20% reduction would result in a painting that measures 16.8” in x 24”. It shouldn’t be mistaken for the original if it’s a couple of inches in each direction.

Museum Copyist Programs

Some art museums have copyist programs where they will allow you to paint a copy of a painting in their collection, right there in the museum. The benefit is you can observe the colors directly and not have to rely upon photos that may not have accurate colors.

Of course, the museum will have restrictions on which paintings you can copy and what types of mediums you can use. The rooms that are small or have a lot of foot traffic will probably be off limits.

You can also expect that you’ll only have access during certain times of days and for a limited number of weeks.

Furthermore, some museums will conduct a background check to make sure you’re not a forger. They may even stamp the back of your painting.

If you have an interest in copying a famous painting, you can check with your local art museum to see if they have a copy program.

Here’s a link to the copyist program from the Metropolitan Museum of Art which includes a PDF of their terms and conditions, and the guidelines.

Real or Fake? A Difference of Millions 

In 1992, retired truck driver Teri Horton bought a painting at a thrift shop for $5. 

When she tries to sell it at a garage sale, a local art teacher tells her that it may be a Jackson Pollock. If she could authenticate it it would be worth millions–paintings by Pollock have sold for up to $140 million.

The 2006 documentary “Who the #$&% Is Jackson Pollock?” follows her struggle of trying to convince the art world that it’s real.

One obstacle to authenticating the painting is that it’s not signed. So she hires an art forensic expert who finds a fingerprint on the painting that he believes matches a fingerprint from Pollock’s art studio. However, the artworld is reluctant to accept it as proof.

I believe a signature may have made a difference.

In addition to authenticating original paintings, signatures are also useful in identifying fakes. 

In another case, a signature was what made it obvious that a Pollock was fake. Believe it or not, the forger left out the “c” in “Pollock.” While the collector didn’t notice it before the purchase, at least it’s not on display in a museum.

The bottom line is that signature, along with other elements of the painting, can help to identify a painting as being authentic.

Conclusion

To summarize, there are more advantages to signing your paintings on the front then there are disadvantages. Don’t overthink your signature. Keep it simple and remember to sign your full name. Sign using the same medium as the painting, don’t make it too big, and make sure it’s legible!

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