How to Sign Artwork: Detailed Overview and Best Practices

how to sign artwork

Art has been part of human culture since the pre-historic age. From cave drawings to modern canvas and digital screens, we have witnessed art’s journey through ages and time. Art fills our senses and thoughts unlike any other, and the complete credit for that goes to the artist.

So it’s natural that an artist would leave their mark on their artwork. But the question is, how to sign artwork in the best possible manner. This article will focus on exactly that. There are all types of different mediums for artwork, and each has its signing method.

There is also the matter of size and time of signing. We will try to detail out every possible aspect of signing an artwork so that you can perfect your craft for the next great piece. Read along to find out more.

How to Sign Artwork

Now you might think, what’s so different about signing an artwork? After all, it is just like making a signature on a piece of paper. The obvious credits aside, there are different forms of artwork. And these different types of artworks use different materials and paints.

So naturally, the signing process also differs significantly. Let’s look at some popular art types and the correct way to leave your initials in them.

Oil Painting

colorful oil painting bird

Oil painting is probably the oldest form of modern painting. The earliest known oil paintings can found in a series of art murals in Bamiyan of Afghanistan. From then to the renaissance period to modern contemporary arts, oil painting has become a style revered by many. The most notable of its outcome? The Monalisa herself.

The process of oil painting is a fascinating one. It is done by mixing color pigments with oil to create a unique paint texture. The most common type of oil used for painting is linseed oil. It gives a unique tone and finishes the painting as if it’s brought to life.

Etching tool: There are a couple of ways to sign an oil painting. The first process is to use an etching tool to carve the initials in the raw painting. This is the most common method of signing an oil painting because it’s difficult to make small precise strokes with oil paint. This process works best if a layer of hardened paint is underneath the raw layer.

Brush: The second process is the more traditional one. You will need a sharp flat brush or a pointed brush to sign in this method. Wait for the painting to become completely dry. After that, choose a contrasting color and a light background for initials. It’s better to avoid cursive initials.

Turpentine: Use turpentine to dilute the color and make straight strokes for signing. A pro tip is to use the free hand as a hand rest as straight strokes can often be slippery in oil painting.

Water Color Painting

ships sea watercolor painting

When it comes to art, watercolor painting precedes the known history of man. At the same time, oil painting goes as back as 1500 years; instances of watercolor art date back to the Paleolithic age in primitive cave drawings.

Watercolor painting is essentially the technique of diluting the color pigments in water. The colors in a watercolor painting have a distinct pop to them. The pop is creating by the isolated pigmentation and water being a transparent medium, do not distort the original hue of the color in any way.

Watercolor techniques hugely dominated the renaissance period in Europe. The Young Hare by Albrecht Dürer is one of the oldest modern art style references with watercolor. Watercolor painting is done on cold-pressed paper, which is different from commonly used papers. The GSM ranges from 200 to 300, which puts them on the heavier side.

Due to the coarse nature of the paper, there are three common ways to sign a watercolor. They include – a pen felt tip and a permanent pen. Notice how watercolor itself is not using to sign the art. That’s because of the runny and diluted nature of the paint, which is not suitable for light and precise strokes.

The signing process with the three of these is similar to signing on a normal piece of paper. As a rule of hand, always sign on the left bottom corner. And make sure that the tip is not more than 0.5 mm in thickness. We do not want the sign to pop too much to contrast with the art itself. Also, make sure you do not stroke over the sign, spreading the ink.

Pastel Painting

rose seamless-pattern pastel painting

Regardless of whether we are an artist or not, almost all of us have used pastel paints in our childhood. What is often disregarding as a child’s play tool is a strong art medium for serious arts. Pastel painting was first introduced in the Renaissance and attained peak popularity in the 18th and 19th centuries. This was the time when pastel became a singular medium for art.

The base of the pastel consists of color pigments and a binder. The binder is usually a neutral material with low density. That helps the pigments to retain their natural color in the pastel stick form.

Artists prefer pastel sticks for their natural color burst. It is often comparing to oil painting regarding the color effect. There are all kinds of different pastels available as a medium. Some even combine the oil agent from oil painting to create oil pastels. However, soft pastels are the most widely used among all variants.

Because of the nature of the pigment and its binders, only certain types of papers are best suited for pastel art. And that includes – laid paper, abrasive paper, and velour paper. These are thick styles of paper with rough paper that is perfect for the pigment to hold in place firmly.

There are three different ways to sign a pastel painting regardless of the art medium. The first one is using pastel itself. Two things should keep in mind here – the contrasting color of the signing pastel and the thickness of the laid-down pastel on the paper. Choose a contrasting pastel color and a relatively less colored area for the signing.

The other two methods are using a pencil or direct ink through a fine brush. Use soft tip pencils like 6B to get the optimum result. The process is similar to pastel signing. Make sure the base has relatively less color. If that is not possible, smudge out a little part before signing.

Acrylic Painting

acrylic painting landscape

Compared to the painting style and medium discussed thus far, acrylic painting is perhaps the newest addition. The first invention of acrylic resin dates back to 1934. From the resin itself, acrylic paint was developed.

Acrylic paint uses plasticizers and polymer emulsions as the base for the pigments. The best thing about acrylic paint is its versatility. It can dilute with water to turn it into watercolor. Depending on the diluting agent, acrylic paint can become oil paint or even gouache.

Another fascinating thing about acrylic painting is that it is completely water-soluble, but it becomes waterproof when it dries. The paint becomes hard after drying. This makes acrylics one of the most combinable art mediums out there. Be it watercolor, pastel, or oil paint, and anything can use on top of it after it dries up.

There are multiple ways to sign an acrylic painting. But we recommend only one. And that is to sign the painting with the same acrylic base used for the painting. Now you might be wondering why it is that?

Most acrylic-based paintings are either abstract pieces or contemporary art. In an abstract piece, the signature is usually put on the back. For a traditional piece, it is usually on the left corner. Acrylic paints are famous for their archival quality. Meaning the painting will last for decades without any distortion. Pen ink or a sharpie doesn’t guarantee the same archival quality as acrylic.

The correct way would be to dilute the base more than the art piece and use a fine point brush to make the initials.

Digital Painting

deer walking across forest

Digital Painting is an up-and-coming art form that is increasingly popular among artists and art enthusiasts. It is still in its nascent stage and is yet to emerge as a replacement medium for traditional painting.

As technology paved the way to the future, digital art slowly gained traction. The main reason it’s growing in popularity among artists is its flexibility. A simple tap of a mouse or a graphics tablet allows an artist to try out hundreds of combinations that are hardly possible on the physical formats.

An artist can choose a base, medium, paper, strokes, and brushes as per their choice. It is most commonly used in fine art print.

But perhaps the greatest selling point of digital painting is the ability to undo stuff and draw by layers. A digital piece can multi-layer and stacked on top of each other to create a final piece. An artist can focus on individual layers without running distractions.

A proper graphics tablet allows for up to 200 different pressure points in strokes. The sheer accuracy and preciseness make it easy for the artists to get the desired intensity in certain patterns and strokes. Considering all of these, it is easy to see why digital painting is steadily becoming a thing.

Now the question is, how to sign your art? Well, you would sign it like any other painting. Since it is a digital version, stroke intensity and size can easily change in any medium. But the best would be to choose the same medium as that of the art to maintain uniformity in the painting. Select a brush and make your initials on the corner. Keep doing and redoing it until you get the desired signature.

Encaustic Painting

gold leaf encaustic painting

For people not familiar with the term, encaustic painting is the other name for hot wax painting. This is a relatively less popular form of painting first used around 100 AD.

The principle of hot wax painting is pretty simple. The process starts with mixing pigments with an encaustic medium. For typical usage, beeswax is using more and a few other components. The mixture was heating to achieve the liquid form and poured over a base.

Now the medium is essentially a liquid wax. So how to make art of it? Traditionally different metal tools like scrapers, knives, and other handheld tools were used to carve out the art in the hot wax. Some specially designed brushes were also used for the purpose.

Since much of the drawing is focused on carving rather than strokes themselves, many art connoisseurs like to put it under the sculpture category. Because the medium and base of this art form are different, the signing process is also significantly different here.

There are a number of ways to sign an encaustic painting. The best way is to make small incisions on the wax after it hardened. There are options like signing on the back or putting a wax stamp on the artwork. But for people looking to detail out their work, the best way is to put tissue paper under the artwork and put some clear wax over it to harder.

Then a contrasting color from a different medium can be chosen to make a detailed signature. Alternatively, one can sign on the main wax itself. But considering the archival nature of encaustic painting, it won’t hold up well over time.

Spray Painting

colorful urban wall spray painting

Spray painting is often referred to as the art of the street. This unique art form was popularized in the last 80s after the use of air pressure guns became popular. Different mechanisms run the basics of spray painting.

The main principle is that pigments are added with a chosen medium and diluted. It is then put in an air pressure gun and sprayed over a base of choice to create art. Alongside graffiti, spray painting is becoming popular in small-scale art as well.

Since it’s almost impossible to get a precise stroke with the spray gun, stencils are the best option for signing prints. Put a cutout stencil with the signature on the art and border it with masking tape. Use the same medium to spray over the stencil to get the desired sign.

When Should You Sign Artwork?

There is a long-standing debate on whether there should be a painting with a signature or not. Some argue that it moves away from the subject and creates a distraction, no matter how minimal it may be. But we won’t get to that debate here.

We believe that signing an artwork is like leaving your mark on your creation. It is like personal branding. A signature speaks of a distinct style and element that makes each artist unique from another.

Now it’s clear that signature, regardless of its placement, is important. But the important question is when should you sign your artwork. As much as we’d like to make things simple, there isn’t a single answer to this question.

For the most part, the time of signing greatly depends on the medium and base of the artwork. Every medium is different with different compositions. It also greatly depends on the base. The process of signing an artwork is essentially the same as putting another layer on top of the existing art layer.

Some artwork works best on signing on the raw paint. Some work best after the paint has dried up. But generally, the best time to sign artwork is after completing a piece. It allows to properly assess the place to sign and make sure where to sign to make the initials as unobtrusive as possible. We suggest you do it when the paint is raw as it better blends in with the art piece.

How Big Should Signature Be on an Artwork?

There is a consensus regarding the size of a signature on any artwork. Almost every artist agrees that the size of the signature on artwork should be small. Not just small, it should be as unobtrusive as possible.

We talk about how a signature is like an artist’s personal brand and identity. While that is true, it is also true that a signature is a completely irrelevant part of an artwork. Most of the artworks in the display have a separate plaque for the art title and the artist, so a signature becomes irrelevant either way.

But the general rule is, for abstract art, the signature should be on the back of the artwork, the placement should be preferably on the bottom corners. The size can be as per the artist’s choice because the signature remains on the back of the artwork.

For standard artwork, the best size would be to keep the signature to normal handwriting for a standard canvas. The letters should not be more than half an inch in height. An artist should remember that the artwork always holds the center stage. And it is at the discretion of the artist to make sure that the signature is as unobtrusive as possible.

Best Practices for Signing an Artwork

artwork sign bottom

Now enough is said about how and when to sign artwork. What are the best practices that you should follow while signing an artwork? Let’s find out.

Use Archival material

Beyond the scopes of digital painting, the traditional pieces use mediums and bases that can easily last a few centuries. That is what renders them the archival quality. But a standard pen or sharpie does not have the same. At least not the general ones. So while making a signature, make sure the signature medium matches the archival quality of the artwork.

Incorporate the Sign in the Artwork

This is not necessarily a best practice but a middle point between people who say the sign is unnecessary and people who think otherwise. Many artists prefer to blend the signature with the art to make it even more unobtrusive. It just enhances the subject focus and keeps things clean.

Add the Full Name

Most artists use a short signature or simple initials in their artwork. While this is common practice, it often fails to properly identify the artist if initials are used to sign a painting. To clarify the matter, the best practice would be to write the artist’s full name on the back of the artwork. Many even prefer to add the title of the painting, which is also considered a standard.

Make a Simple Signature

Do not opt for an eye-catching signature like cursive ones. Artists tend to make artistic signatures. While it might look good, it distracts from the main piece. To keep the artwork in the center frame, make the signature as simple as possible, so it doesn’t clash with the subject.


That concludes our article on how to sign artwork. We tried to focus on different types of art and its mediums. As it is clear, each medium and its base has a different formation and texture, making for a different signing method. There is also how large a signature should be or should an artist use just initials.

Artists often fail to recognize the archival need of the signature, so care should be taken while selecting the medium for the signature. Follow the best practices guideline to sign the fine art to perfectly complement the artwork.

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