Sign your work!


A certain billionaire just raised the ire of the Twittersphere for his blatant refusal to credit an artist’s work. The offending tweets have since been deleted, so I can’t link them, but it was a flimsy attempt to justify laziness and only conveyed a lack of empathy for the work artists do. My own feelings aside, I thought it would be a good time to discuss your artist’s signature, or in far too many cases, the lack thereof.

First things first, as the title of this post suggests:

1) Sign your work

You simply can’t guarantee that a piece you post will always show up on your portfolio or instagram feed where it can be closely linked with your contact details. If you’re lucky, and your piece is popular, it’ll wind up on pinterest, tumblr, twitter, etc, and rest assured, you can’t trust anyone, certainly not billionaire philanthropists, to assign proper credit.

And the rationale that “any fool can find out who an artist was in seconds” doesn’t always work, even if you are a master of the reverse image search. Sometimes, things don’t turn up in the results. And that’s putting a lot of faith in the viewer to actually take the time. More often than not, they’re going to move on to the next thing in their feed. If they really like it, they may even share it…uncredited.

Which leads me to the next rule:

2) Use your full name

Whatever name you use needs to be searchable, so Chris S, J Hernandez, or VNH isn’t going to cut it. And if your full name is common, use your middle name or initial, like I do. If you prefer to use a pseudonym, that’s fine, but make sure it’s unique. With every piece you release into the wild, you should be prepared for an art director to come across it, see your signature, and easily search and find your portfolio and contact details. When I do an image search for Jennifer Potter, I get a sea of faces I don’t recognize. But when I search for Jennifer M Potter, I see my art. Try searching your own name to make sure your work is showing up.

3) Write legibly

Make sure your signature is legible. I mean really legible. Every character should be clear and impossible to confuse for another, especially if you’re one of those lucky people with an unusual name.

4) Keep it small

I see some of you with signatures that take up an eighth of your image. I applaud you for your commitment to branding, but it detracts from the art. The fact is, your signature doesn’t need to be that big. It should be just readable at 72 dpi. Keep it noticable, but unobtrusive. People know how to zoom if they want a closer look.

Now, signing your work won’t always guarantee you get the credit you deserve—there will always be unscrupulous people who crop your signature off of your art—but it’ll protect you most of the time. And it’s much easier to do a reverse image search on the cropped version if the full, signed one is already out there.

On watermarks and buried signatures

So what about using a watermark or putting your signature somewhere within the art itself, somewhere less easy to crop? The answer is that it depends. You can add a watermark or logo as long as it’s done in a tasteful, unobtrusive way. But what constitutes as unobtrusive may vary from buyer to buyer, so I’d use caution. If someone wants to steal your art, they’ll steal your art. A watermark won’t get in the way of someone who’s really determined.

As for putting your signature somewhere within the art, I see this advice a lot, and it’s not bad per se, but be cautious. Just as with a watermark, it needs to be unobtrusive. In fact, a signature within the art will generally need to be much smaller than it would at the bottom. And people are trained to look for your signature at the bottom. If it’s buried in the art but no one notices, do you actually get the credit?

On signing physical pieces

For this section, I’m talking about hand-signing pieces…when to do it and when not to. Let’s face it, unless you are extremely famous and/or dead, your autograph probably isn’t worth that much. But signatures do imply value in the art world. This doesn’t mean, “if I sign it, it’s more valuable.” Instead, it means “if it’s more valuable, I sign it.” Don’t get those two confused!

If something is unique, it’s more valuable, so sign your originals, and sign and number your limited edition prints. By limited edition, I mean a planned series that you will never replenish. This might be a series of 10 lino prints or 1000 risos, but it’s most certainly not the giclées you’ll restock when the first batch sells. You can release another signed series based on a previous series, but something–typically the colorway–has to change. Keep in mind, just as with your digital pieces, your name should be legible.

This is a good guideline to stick to, but feel free to sign something for someone you know personally or met at a signing. A signed print for Mom or a signed dedication in a book you illustrated can make a piece feel more special to the people who support your work. Just be mindful that you don’t mislead someone into thinking they’re getting something they’re not.