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.
WHY SIGN A PRINT?
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.
BEFORE YOU PRINT…
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.
WHAT TO SIGN WITH
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.
WHAT TO SIGN
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.
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.
HOW AND WHERE TO SIGN
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
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
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
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.
SOME THOUGHTS ON “EDITIONS” AND “LIMITS”
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.
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!
NOW YOU GO
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.
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