Finding your own signature, with inspiration from Matisse and other greats (part 1)

You see my artist signature at the top of my website and at the top of each of these e-letters. It's the same signature I use when signing my original artwork.

I’m often asked: Should I sign my art? How do I sign it? Where? What information should I include?

Here are my recommendations for adding a signature to original artwork...


Start signing your art as soon as you want. If your children or grandchildren want to sign their art? Encourage them to do so!

What to include?

Typically artists use only their name. Either a formal or informal version. First name or last name or both. With initials or not. It’s up to you. It doesn’t have to be your legal signature.

What style?

Your artist signature can be printed, cursive, a combination of the two, or even a symbol or a drawing. I share some examples of each below.

Can I ever change my artist’s signature?

Although it is recommended that a signature be consistent over the life of the artist, many artists morph their signatures throughout their careers. Some even create different signatures for various geographic locations for what we would call a marketing effort (Artemisia Gentileschi, I’m looking at you...and will be talking about you in my next e-letter).

​James McNeill Whistler used 12 variations of his signature. Renoir eight. And, as we will see, Matisse used many too. I don’t think I have found them all, but his legacy is a wide variety of signatures.

What do you use to sign your art?

It is often recommended that you sign your art in the medium you used to create the art: if oil, then oil; if acrylic, then acrylic; if marble, then chisel it into the marble.

Some say to sign in a Sharpie or other permanent marker. I don't advocate that. A permanent marker can seem obtrusive on a piece of art; calling too much attention to the signature. And, more importantly, watercolor and other works on paper absorb and release moisture over time. I’ve known “permanent” markers to bleed or fade.

I typically sign my two-dimensional art in pencil. Graphite, which is the “lead” in pencils, is extremely lightfast and can last hundreds of years. Plus one can write very finely, or with whatever pressure and density you desire.

For my textile art, I create a label for the back and sometimes incorporate my initials into the front of the piece.

Where should I sign?

Most artists sign in the lower right or lower left corner. But it is personal preference. Some artists, as we’ll see, tuck their signatures into part of the story within the painting itself.

Should I date my work or include the name of the artwork in my signature?

Generally, I add the date and the name of the painting on the back of the watercolor painting. Including the name of the art on the back allows me to make sure the name travels with the painting.

I often add a label of authenticity to a framed piece indicating the name and usually the date completed.

Does the signature add value? Does an unsigned piece of artwork have less value?

Not necessarily. But for me, adding my signature authenticates the piece. It helps me decide that my piece has met my expectations and I am happy to send it out in the world.

When I add my signature, I am “owning” the creative process that nurtured and nudged the piece into fruition. It’s a satisfying feeling of completion. Find a signature that empowers you.

If I don't feel a painting is worthy of my signature, I usually tear it up and use for scratch paper :-)

Examples of Signatures by Famous Artists

I love looking at the signatures of famous artists. Here are a few of them you will probably recognize:

Signature: Pierre-Auguste Renoir, French artist
Pierre-Auguste Renoir, French artist

Signature: Georgia O'Keeffe, American artist
Georgia O'Keeffe, American artist

Signature: Frida Kahlo, a prolific, Mexican painter
Frida Kahlo, a prolific, Mexican painter

Signature: Vincent Van Gogh, Dutch painter
Vincent Van Gogh, Dutch painter

Signature: N.C. Wyeth, American watercolorist. For someone who uses such precise strokes in his paintings, his signature is messy.
N.C. Wyeth, American watercolorist.
For someone who uses such precise strokes in his paintings, his signature is messy.

Some are printed, some script, and as discussed, some are a hybrid.

Signature: Dr. Seuss, American author
Dr. Seuss, American author

Signature: John Singer Sargent, American watercolorist, portraiture artist, and oil painter.
John Singer Sargent, American watercolorist, portraiture artist, and oil painter.

Signature: Gustav Klimt, Austrian painter
Gustav Klimt, Austrian painter​

French artist of the post-Impressionist era, Henri Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901), was best known for his posters for circuses and theater performances. He used variations on a theme for his signature.

Signature: Toulouse Lautrec
Toulouse Lautrec sometimes used his initials in a logo of sorts, sometimes his name, and as in this case, a combination of the two. This is his signature on the Divan Japonais, a cafe concert in Paris at the end of the 19th C. See my blog post discussing the Japanese influence on artists and social life at this time.​

Signature: Toulouse Lautrec
Toulouse-Lautrec often used his monogram, "H-T-L" inside a circle for his signature.

​Some use their initials...

Signature: JMW Turner
JMW Turner, English artist.
For more on JMW Turner, read "Did JMW Turner Really Use Bread in his Watercolor Paintings?"​

Here are some artists that used symbols or drawings incorporated into their professional signature.

Signature: Johannes Vermeer
Johannes Vermeer, Dutch painter

Signature: Wassily Kandinsky
Wassily Kandinsky, Russian painter

Signature: Albrecht Durer
Albrecht Durer, German artist

Signature: James McNeill Whistler
James McNeill Whistler used a form of a butterfly for his signature. We can almost watch the evolution from his initials into a butterfly. These images are from the Whistler House Museum of Art, Lowell Art Association, Lowell, MA. For more on Whistler, read "What's the Deal with Whistler and His Mother."

Matisse (1869-1954)

I enjoy looking at the signatures of Matisse. There are many “official” signatures for him. He's an example of someone using various styles and various media -- from pencil to paint to ink -- for his signature. These are the ones I found.

Signature: Matisse
Signature: Matisse
Signature: Matisse
Signature: Matisse
Signature: Matisse
Signature: Matisse
Signature: Matisse
Signature: Matisse
Henri Matisse signature on paper, "Nice, [France], October 29, 1931.
Signature: Matisse
Matisse signed this painting of his wife, Madame Matisse, in the upper left corner. His other signatures are placed at the bottom right of left. This painting, "Woman in Hat," is in the collection of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. To read more about Matisse, read "When Shape is the Thing-- From Matisse's Cut-outs to Silhouettes."​

Part 2 of this e-letter focuses on Artemisia Gentileschi and other artists!

Watercolor can provide a vast array of styles and improvisations. If you are interested in taking watercolor lessons from me, please contact me through my link at Or, if you have questions about lessons, call, text, or respond to this email.

Did you like this information? All of my blog posts start as an e-letter and my next e-letter is due out soon. Don't miss out!

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