Making Fine Art Prints: Signing

Making Fine Art Prints: Signing

Finally, we’re getting to the less discussed topic of producing fine art prints: signing. I’ve had a few people ask the same questions about where to sign, how to sign, what to sign with, etc. If there existed an official rule book, set of laws, or holy parchment that contained the answers I’d direct everybody to the web page. But I don’t think something like that exists, and I know the process of signing fine art is less than defined.

Even if these things aren’t defined in a strict technical fashion, there are some traditional ways of doing things. Tradition is fine and dandy, but there are also alternative methods to every aspect of signing prints. In this article, we’ll explore some of the options and discuss a few of the things you might think about while producing your fine art prints.


The biggest reason to sign a print is to show that you approve of it. Your signature is the thing that states “I made this print. It is of the highest quality, and it deserved to be viewed as fine art. I stand behind this print and I put my name on the line.” OK, so not everybody is quite so dramatic, but signing a print is a really big deal! It’s like signing a check — if you didn’t write the check, and you don’t have the funds to back it up, you wouldn’t sign it. Right? Same thing with prints — if you didn’t make the print, and you don’t have the confidence to back it up, don’t sign it! (Of course, “making the print” can mean many things. But basically, it means that you know who made it, how they made it, and you trust them — so this could be yourself or a third party.)

Another reason you might sign a print is to increase the value of the piece. Since the signature states that the print was truly produced and/or approved by the artist, it becomes more desirable to art collectors. Unsigned reproductions can work fine for decoration or personal admiration, but they won’t hold the same value as a signed print. Add in the option of limiting your work (which we’ll cover in a moment) and you introduce scarcity, which in turn produces a higher (perceived and/or real) value.

One more reason you should think about signing prints is to promote yourself as an artist. A signature is easily recognized by people viewing the print. Whether it’s legible or not, your name is still on the print and you’re promoting your brand. It doesn’t matter if the print is in a gallery, a private home, a bank, or a diner — the signature (brand) will be seen.


One thing you’ll want to think about is “extra room” when you print your photo. That means leaving a border around the actual print, whether it be white space or a printed color (including black). As you read through the rest of the article, this will make more sense. We’ll also talk about this idea of “extra room” in the next article when we cover mounting, matting, and framing.


Above all, if you decide to sign a print, the stuff you sign with should be of equal or greater archival quality to the print itself. There’s no point in producing a print to last 200 years, only to sign it with a Sharpie or something. Once you sign, that ink or paint becomes part of the print, and you want it to last. Art stores typically carry archival pens for signing various mediums. Some are ink and some are paint. Either way, make sure the contents of the pen are acid-free and archival quality.

I sign my prints with paint pens (archival of course). These things are easy to find at art stores, and they’re quite reliable. They lay down a good amount of liquid and the tips are quite gentile on the print surface. These things take a bit of getting used to, but they’re not impossible to use.

Another thing to think about is the color of your pen. Black is an obvious choice since it works for almost any situation, but it’s not the only option. I usually sign my black and white prints with a silver paint pen and my color prints with a black pen. Sometimes I’ll break that rule, depending on the situation and the particular print. The color you sign with can be as recognizeable as the signature itself, so find something that works for you and stick with it.

Pencil is also used by some artists, especially when signing on mats rather than print material. I don’t have much experience with this, but I can’t quite get into it because it seems so temporary compared to paint or ink — but to each their own. I’d be curious to hear the thoughts of pencil-signers in the comments below.


We have a lot of choices on what we write when signing a print. The most obvious thing would be your signature or autograph (or whatever you want to call it). This is the part that really matters — it’s your “seal of approval” and only you can put it on the print. Some people like to sign their real name, while others like to sign a pseudonym. Some like to sign in cursive, some with a crazy autograph, and others in plain text. How you do it is completely up to you — there’s no rule saying you must do it a certain way. I’d only suggest that you keep it consistent as much as you can.

fountain pen
Creative Commons License photo credit: [phil h]

Another common item found on a signed print might be the title of the print and the year it was taken. This goes beyond the “seal of approval” and is more of an artistic preference. A title is often important to the meaning of the print and if you feel your titles are important, by all means, put it on the print! Year of capture is another preference item — usually just adding a little extra context to the photo.

If you decide to offer your print as a limited edition or an otherwise limited print, an edition number is something you’ll want to show. If you have a predetermined number of prints that will be (or have been) produced, it’s a good idea to show the number of the print in relation to the limit number — so “5 of 40″ or “5/40″ might be a feasible option. Some artists also have open editions (so no limit), but still like to number their prints. This is totally okay too! Just be consistent.

There are other things you could include in the signed portion of the print, but it’s usually best to keep them to a minimum to avoid clutter. But as the artist, you can decide what is important to you. Things like date of printing, location, copyright symbols, camera used, etc. I don’t know… whatever you want to include on the print. Like I said, it’s totally up to you.

I choose to sign the title of the photo, the date taken, the print number and limit number, and my name. I’ll get into where I put those things in the next section.


The most common question that new artists have about signing prints is probably where to sign the darn thing. I think there’s some kind of misconception that there exists a book of rules and regulations for fine art photos. There’s not (as far as I know). Like the content that you sign to the print, the location of signature is totally up to the artist. Many people have strong opinions on this topic, but just remember that the signature is part of the art and you can do what you want — you’re the artist.

If I could give one piece of advice about signing prints, it would be this: PRACTICE! Use the actual pen or marker on the actual paper (but not the final print) and pretend like you’re in 6th grade again. Find your signature and write it over and over and over and over again. I go through this ritual before I sign each print because I don’t want to mess up the real one.

Back to the topic at hand… the most popular place to sign a photographic print will be below the print, outside of the actual print border. This is usually done on a section of white space and is clearly visible to the viewer. From what I’ve seen, this is a traditional method used by many artists. You’ll find many “old school” photographers condemning the act of signing directly on the print, and this is the method that they’ll likely suggest. The only thing about this method is that you have to allot extra space below the print — no 1/8″ borders will allow you to sign the print this way. I’d say that an extra 3/4″ to 1″ of space should be sufficient (depending on your personal style of signing). Here’s an example of this method — click to see the signed portion larger. Print by Joseph Szymanski

Sign on the paper, below the image

Another feasible method of signing is directly on the print. This allows you to frame or mat the print right over the edge of the photo without requiring extra white space or border. Like I said, some artists condemn this method, but that’s their own opinion. The upside to this method is that you don’t have to use a border if you don’t want one. The downside is that the signature is typically much more difficult to see. Black ink will work well on light prints, silver or white ink will work well on dark prints, but midtone prints and busy scenes will hide a signature quite well. Here’s an example of this method — click to see the signed portion larger. Print by Bryan Villarin

Sign on the print, over the image

The previous two options involve signing directly on the print material. Yet another feasible option is to sign on the mat if you happen to be producing a print with a mat included. This method allows you to sign below the print without producing and displaying an extra border or extra white space. It can be more aesthetically pleasing, but there are a few things to keep in mind if going this route. The mat is generally not a permanent addition to the print, so your signature may not mean much if the two become separated. Also, permanent adhesion of the mat to the print or the print to a mount will likely lower the value of the print in the eyes of a collector, so be careful how you do these things. Here’s an example of this method — click to see the signed portion larger. Print by Tom Webb

Sign on the mat

One final method that I’ve come across for signing prints is less visible. Writing on the back offers a way to be less obtrusive to the final display while also stating your approval of the print. Some collectors might like to have clean prints with no visible signatures, but I’m guessing that most would like to have it visible as part of the display (I know I do). Then again, not all collectors or exhibits will want or allow a signature on the front of the print, so this may be your only option for these situations.


We’ve talked before on the topic of limited editions here on the blog (and we even had a follow-up article), so I won’t get too much into this discussion. This terminology is defined by law, so just be aware of that if you decide to offer your prints as limited edition.

hidden despair
Creative Commons License photo credit: *MarS

If you don’t want to get tangled up in the legal stuff, you might think about offering your prints as “limited signed prints” rather than a true “edition”. This method seems to suit digital photography better because of the technology associated with making a print. In my case, I like to offer these limited signed prints which I can produce one at a time as needed. Whatever limit I choose for a particular print will be the maximum number of signatures that image can have — so if it says “37 of 50″, that implies only 50 prints of this image will have a signature on them, and this is the 37th one produced.

An even simpler solution is to offer “open editions” where there is no limit to the number of prints, signed or not. This method doesn’t produce the same scarcity that a limited set does, but at least it shows that the artist produced the image and they approve of its quality.

“Unsigned prints” have their place too, but one concept of fine art (photography or otherwise) is that the work has been produced by the artist and the artist approves of the final output. Without that signature, you can’t lay claim to these statements. I also offer unsigned prints of my work, but for decoration and enjoyment rather than collection or investment. I know this is also a heated topic among artists — do unsigned reproductions devalue the signed works? I tend to think not (and I’d use Ansel Adam’s photos as an example), but others will strongly disagree on this point. To each their own!


I’ve covered quite a bit of stuff here, some of it probably long-winded and unnecessary. If you’re still questioning any of the topics on this subject, do ask! Also, if I skipped something that you wanted to know about, bring it up in the comments.

In addition to questions, I’d like to hear from the rest of you “print signers” how you do it. What method do you use? What type of pen or marker? Where do you sign? How do you sign? What do you sign? You get the idea… let’s hear it.


28 thoughts on “Making Fine Art Prints: Signing

  1. Pingback: Making Fine Art Prints: Printing

  2. BeachsidePaul

    I just wanted to comment on the “pencil” signature.

    I received a gift from my mother years ago, a signed LeRoy Neiman poster. The poster was made of one of his paintings, the Hotel Del Coronado, which housed the gallery my mother managed. It was beautifully framed and matted, unfortunately, Mr. Neiman signed the limited edition prints in pencil, the signature disappeared after only a few years. The print is still beautiful but, lacking the message and signature, no longer holds the memories associated with having my mother’s name, in his handwriting, honoring her work with the gallery. This is from a sentimental perspective, if I had bought the art as an investment, I’d be much more upset I’m sure. Bottom line, don’t use pencil if your intention is to create a lasting piece of art or collectible.

    Thank you for your excellent thoughts and information on the entire process.


  3. My camera World

    I agree with you that there are no hard rules on how or what to sign for your prints.

    My own preference and for those that are pre-made for shows have the print signed on lower right bottom corner on the white space. I also sign the mat when matted and framed and this covers the signed print.

    I do ask customers when they request a print if they have any special preference for signing after stating my standard method.

    I have 3 types of images that can be purchased.
    Some from 3rd party web sites that handle printing such as Imagekind.
    Open edition prints that I sign but not number. For these I control the printing as with my limited editions. The same image may also be available through the 3rd party web sites but there they are not signed.

    I do have some limited edition prints, signed and numbered that are only available from me. Depending on size and paper I will either print myself or have printed at a very good printer in Ottawa.

    Niels Henriksen

  4. D. Travis North

    I had absolutely no idea there was so much to think about. I can’t believe i was so naive when it came to prints. Now I am afraid that I may not have used archival quality pens to sign my previous works.

    Personally, I like to sign with a silver pen. I have not come across a situation where I’d want to use any other color. I prefer to sign in the bottom-right directly on the photograph (matted or not), so I make sure to leave room for that. I have not really gotten into limited editions yet, as I am not producing a great amount (yet). But I plan to sell some of my work at an event in the fall, so I really like the idea of “limited signed prints”.

    I agree with you, I don’t feel having unsigned prints reduces the value of signed prints. And the more I think about it, I may be willing to also sell unsigned prints at that event if only to get a lower price point. I know some artists that still rubber-stamp the back with their studio address if only for brand recognition.

    Question: On the point of limited signed prints – do you sign all 50 at the same time and just keep those that are unsold around? Or do you set the limit and sign as prints are requested? I ask because it would seem that a print with a limit of 50 may actually not be 50 if you’ve only signed 37 of them to date. What if you never reach 50? Perhaps I”m over-thinking this.

  5. Brian Auer Post author

    You’re not over-thinking it… there’s a lot to think about. When I do limited signed prints, I’m saying that I’ll only produce up to that many prints with a signature. They’re made 1 at a time as the need arises. So yes, there may be only 5 in existence when they say “of 50″. This is the downside to this method, but at least it’s conservative in the fact that there will always be less than the limit in existence (or exactly the limit), but never any more than the limit.

    If you were to produce all 50 at once, that’s an “edition”. This is why I don’t do editions — too expensive, and it’s not necessary as was the case many years ago with fine art. But if I were to go that route to produce a true “limited edition”, I’d sign all of them at the same time.

  6. Justin Korn

    This has been an amazing series! I’ll be honest, I still have a few of these post “un-read” in Google Reader because I really want to dedicate sometime to read through them and absorb what they have to offer.

    Thanks for sharing all this information Brian!

  7. Andy Mercer

    I sign with a pencil because lead never fades away.. of course some one could rub it out and claim the work as their own but the other 99 who bought the print might have something to say about that. For me signed in ink is quite obtrusive and takes away from the original image.. and also has little visually to distinguish it from a printed signature.

    Perceptions are everything and pencil looks for me.. like its been signed there and then by the artist.

    And if they chose to rub the pencil out then it would lose value.. I like the permanent and impermanent combination.

    I thang u

  8. Kathy Burkman

    After much discussion with my photography instructor, I have purchased a Pigma fine tipped pin in sepia. I sign on the back, upper right corner. I use my name, where and when taken, and if it is part of a series, I include that. I also have a custom stamp made, that I use on cards and smaller pieces. I have tried signing on the front, and didn’t like it. Signing on the mat doesn’t do it for me either. There really isn’t the perfect answer, is there?

  9. D. Travis North

    Kathy: No, there isn’t a perfect answer. Everyone has their own artistic intentions and beliefs. That that’s because we’re artists first and foremost. But I am comforted by that. The day we all start to agree is the day art is no longer.

  10. RJohnston

    Painted in Acrylics a scene from my experience in Korea. It was published in an Art Magazine in Orange County CA along with an article. Was asked by a Gallery if Id be willing to have a poster made 24×36 as a fundraiser for the “Angels Network” an organization sending gifts to servicemen in combat. The printer donated his work and materiels to create 2000 copies. The Gallery had an Event publicized in TV and five papers and again in the Art Magazine.,..

    I was present at the event to sign the B&W Poster Titled “Etched on the Korean Wall”
    The original was painted in Black and a mix of pale gray & white which looked like an etching.
    A scene which in my opinion belonged on the Wall at the Korean War Memorial in DC.

    The posters sole unframed for $19.11 for 911 and signed for 29.11…
    We had many orders by mail before the event was even held. Many who bought the poster were parents of those who had been killed or wounded in Iraq or Afghanistan. Others the parents or relatives of Veterans of other wars, who bought them as gifts to give them. The images could have represented Soldiers of Veterans of most any war.

    In effect, just having my signature in Silver Paint Pen on the Poster raised $10 more for the Angels Network. This is just one example of why it is important to sign your work if you are proud of it. You never know what the future will bring. You can be unknown today, and 20 years from now famous as a photographer. Images you create today, may be much more important then, they you feel they are now.

    A friend of mine that I knew when he was young, did not think much of his paintings. Today he is known as one of the Top Ten Marine Painters who has existed with Paintings in the Louvre and other Museums. Today even though he has passed on, his wife and children still enjoy income from his estate. Sketches he made in preparation for his paintings go for more than his paintings did when I first knew him, in spite of the fact that he thought he had no talent..

    Look at your work today, do not put it down, accept it as your BEST with your ability due to your level of knowledge and experience. Next year if you study, leanr, practice, your work will be better. Always strive to create better images, in the future you will. Sign your work today, you never know what the future will bring.

  11. Pingback: Making Fine Art Prints: Framing

  12. Adirec Torytski

    My grandmother used to paint, she always signed and dated her works in the bottom right hand corner on the print itself. Very similar to the print by Bryan Villarin. Now her art was never considered to be valuable other than to those of us that she gave it to so there were no legal or financial issues involved. For her the decision to sign and date was purely I guess to make sure we remembered where the painting came from and how many years are constantly passing! Good old Granny!
    Very interesting article and points for artists to consider.

  13. Sean Galbraith

    Damn. Picked up a new pen/marker to sign a piece for a client… 2 days later and it still hasn’t dried enough to release. Going to have to have a new print made and get another new pen.

  14. Mark

    I have always been a big fan of signing directly on the image, exactly as a painter would if signing a painting. Like you mentioned, it is your “seal of approval.” Since I sell my prints that are mounted in various ways, this also makes practical sense. A signature on the back becomes useless if a print is dry mounted. A signature on a border is cut off if the print is gatorfoam or box mounted.

  15. TominOz

    It’s very early days for me in relation to selling prints. So I appreciate and value all the comments so far. I like the idea of leaving some space at the bottom of the print … but also have some prints that wouldn’t suit that style. I’ve also made some prints recently … a trio of three prints in a frame with a similar theme … and it seems to me that signing the matt might actually be the best option here instead of signing each print separately as they form ( I hope) something of a visual narrative where each is enhanced by the other … perhaps I’ll also put a stamp on the back of each print and future owners can contact me if they ever need re-affirming of the originality of their particular copy of the photograph. Just some thoughts …

  16. Angela

    Thanks so much for this article! I’ve been searching the web for info on signing prints and have finally found something that is helpful.
    I am a beginning photographer and have just recently started selling a few prints to family and friends. I’m not anywhere near professional, but I am wondering if I should start signing prints now. I’m hesitant because I don’t want to look like an amateur who is just trying to look good and important by signing prints.

  17. Jeff W

    Once again, kudos for this article. Naturally it came up on a Google search for this exact topic.

    I could never understand why some prints are signed on the mat, which isn’t part of the image and can be easily separated from it or even damaged. But this applies to other fine art prints as well, not just photographs.

    And yet, those who paint in oils or draw with other media such as charcoal, pastel or watercolor always seem to sign the original in the same medium, right on the work.

    I have been signing my photographs digitally with a stylized signature logo and the year at the bottom right of the image. It’s always a challenge to find the exact placement of the “signature” which may be partially hidden by the frame or mat. It can also appear in different places depending on the image size and the same logo may be almost illegible on a small print and way overemphasized on a large print. I should point out that I have not sold any prints to date, although I have given several away as gifts.

    The signature also moves depending on the print format. What works for an 8X10 photo will be out of place on a 13×19 print. Good luck trying to figure out where to put it on a gallery wrap.

    If it’s “acceptable” to sign in ink or paint right on the image I would much rather do that in the future. I did try that with a white paint pen I got at Michael’s but even after drying overnight it smudged. Some of these just don’t adhere to photographic paper. Does anyone have a specific brand or type of pen they can recommend?

  18. Frank Pryor

    I enjoyed reading your article and the responses. I have found that for me adding a title, signature, date and number in such a position at the bottom as to be a part of the image works best for me. IO this way it will not be cropped out when matted. I have always used a graphite pencil and it has lasted very well. I may start using a small stamp in addition, to distinguish my prints, but haven’t designed it as yet. Thanks again for your article! – Frank Pryor

  19. Curtis Miller

    Do the pens mentioned above (Pen Touch Metallic Markers) work on inkjet photo paper? I’ve tried metallic pens before and they flake right off.

    I would prefer a signature that didn’t distract from the print just as I prefer to sign very subtly on my paintings. But the only thing I’ve found that absorbs well on the coated photographic papers used in inkjet printing has been a fountain pen. Unfortunately, with black ink and even a fine point pen, this makes a very prominent signature, which I don’t like.

    I always sign a print. It’s a mark of authentication and is required by any gallery I’ve ever been associated with. I prefer to sign the print off the printed area on the lower right, just as one would sign an etching or screen print. I am trained as a painter and printmaker so I’ve carried over those standards to photography. I see no reason why it should differ from the conventions of the art world: Title, Date, Signature.

    I do sign the mats also, in the lower right, in pencil. I prefer to cover the signature on the print with the mat because I haven’t liked the strength of the signatures I’ve been getting with the fountain pen. Pencil is the traditional medium for signing fine art prints such as etchings, lithographs, etc. so I see no reason to do differently on a mat. It’s also a very subtle signature if you use a hard pencil.

  20. Brian Auer Post author

    The pens do work on inkjet papers — even gloss finish. Not sure that they absorb as well as some other methods do, but they seem to stick if you let them dry well enough.

  21. Jacquelyn

    This is a great discussion. I also hate the boldness of black beside the image – I don’t like my signature to detract from the print. I have found pigment inks (pilot makes one) in a 01, which I think is .1 mm) to be permanent on c-prints and ink jet paper (ie it sets quickly, and is archival). However, I also sign my giclees, which are on Hahnemuhle paper, on the back in pencil, and on the mat. I like the delicacy of the pencil which does not draw attention away from the work. Pencils are permanent – they just suffer from a perception of temporary-ness because they can be erased. But who would bother erasing from a print? And they cannot be smudged, so long as you use an HB or harder lead.

    I think the idea of a sepia or pale grey ink is interesting, then maybe I could make peace with signing on the front – I’ve know some clients prefer to be able to see the signature…off to the art supply store…

  22. Sarah Tomlin

    I use Pilot extra fine tip point markers. You can buy them at Walgreens in a package of 2 for $5. One silver/one gold.

    They have been most excellent….and I’ve gone through many. They are archival safe and acid free.

    I sign the print…..

  23. Terry

    I was just at a workshop last night on this very subject. The presenter was the curator of a VERY well know, high end fine art gallery in Seattle. I had the same question about signing in pencil because I have seen this done by some well know fine artists. The reason to sign in pencil is that the graphite in the pencil will never fad and will leave an indentation in the paper that can never be removed.

  24. Shawn

    This has been such great info thank you! Question for you I’m selling some photographs in a coffee shop and I’m going to have them on display for 2 months. I’m charging $75.00 for the 11×14 print framed to 16×20 and I sold 2 the first day. My question is should I just sell them and take them down and replace them or put a “sold” on each print and sell them at the end of the showing? I did not number them because I wanted to sell multiples of each print. Could I just add “limited edition” to the verbiage on my signage? Any advice would be great. Thank you, Shawn

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