Monday 9 June 2014

What's in a name?

For most visual artists, the final act of creating a piece of art is to sign their name to it. I got to thinking about this topic when I recently had the good fortune of viewing an exhibition of art by Miro at the Seattle Art Museum. I was completely engaged by his exuberant paintings and wildly creative sculptures. His profound enjoyment of art making was obvious, and it pleased me to know that right up until his death at the age of 90 he continued to create. Looking closely at his paintings, I noticed his signature. It embodied his distinctive style as emphatically as any of his artworks. It was positioned inconspicuously, but it was just as much an integral part of each painting as were the strokes of his brush.

This took me back to an art critique I attended years ago for a juried exhibition. The jury members invited artists who had submitted work to attend a session where they would discuss the selection process. The one thing I remember about what the jury had to say is this: they had seen several pieces of art that had been basically "ruined" by poorly executed signatures! They said the signature must be part of the artwork - unobtrusive yet intentional and never dominant or distracting. As a young artist with little experience, I was shocked to learn that a signature could potentially make or break a piece of art. I looked at my oil pastel drawing which had not been chosen for the show (I'll refrain from using the harsher word "rejected") and, with new eyes, viewed with horror my signature which I had clumsily scrawled across the lower right corner in large, black, block letters. Ooops!

Then and there I set about revising my approach. I worked on developing a way of signing my work that would be distinctly mine. I actually practiced what my signature would look like (and distinctly remember doing so during a math class in college; needless to say, math is not my strength). The result is this: my maker's mark that I have been using ever since:

It might look like nothing much, and it certainly lacks the style and flourish of Miro, but it's always consistent: uniquely formed capital letters strung together in a distinctive way that says "this is who I am."

I am also consistent about where I place my signature: normally in the lower right-hand corner of the artwork, leaving a bit of breathing space between the right and bottom edges, but sometimes switching it to the left it benefits the composition of the artwork. It's always written parallel to the bottom edge of the artwork. I make sure it's small and unobtrusive but I sign it deftly and with purpose.

You can barely make out my signature in the
lower right corner of this silk painting
"Blue Headed Parrots". (The watermark
in the left corner is applied only to photos
of art that I'm publishing on the Internet.)

My signature is on the left in this drawing, 
providing balance to the bird's intense gaze.

These days when I look at a piece of art, I nearly always notice the signature. What does the signature reflect about the character of the artist, about their professionalism, about their level of confidence? I find that I can usually deduce something. After all, how an artist signs their work reflects who they are. Each and every mark made on the surface of a piece of art counts.

Of course no rules are carved in stone, particularly in the art world! Some artists only sign their work on the back of the art, some like to break with tradition and put their signature on its side or at an angle (something that long-ago jury said was a poor option), others don't sign their work at all - a choice that puzzles me a bit. For me, my signature is the grand finalé of the art making process; it's that moment when I say, "this is finished" and "this is my work". On the back I write the title, the year and I sign it again. I've watched enough episodes of Antiques Roadshow to know that when a drawing or painting of mine shows up there 200 years from now, that information could be helpful!

The topic of signatures might seem totally trivial. On the scale of possible topics, it most definitely is! But my point is that even if we're not big-name artists, we can approach our work as if we are and make sure our art speaks to who we are, right down to the final, small detail of how we sign our names.

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