Alaskan Artist - Elise Tomlinson
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08/25/2004: "Signing Your Artwork, a Question"

This question was posted in my guestbook tonight:

Question: I'm taking an art class and the instructor told us that we could not sign on the front of our work. She said that you can't sign the front unless you were an established artist. Does anyone agree with this and are there any rules justifying that statement? I think that if you made it and it is no one else's work than you can sign it even if you are a new artist. Who knows, maybe someday you will be famous and then you can't claim your work from when you first started. shell


My initial response is "what the F@*!?"

I've *never* heard that you can't sign the front of your work unless you're an "established" artist (whatever that means). I don't know what others have been taught but personally, I think for an instructor to tell a student not to sign their work is ridiculous.

The only exceptions I can think of are:

1. If you're doing reproductions of other famous works of art as a study. For example, if your instructor had you try and replicate a Monet or the Mona Lisa or something...then you probably wouldn't want to sign it because it would only be a study...but from how you phrased your question it sounds like you're talking about your own original work and that the reason you were told not to sign it is because you aren't well known yet.

2. I have read stories about well known artists who sell paintings for thousands of dollars only to have old crappy work from school resurface to humiliate them. My work has changed a lot since art school but I'm not embarrassed by any of it and I actually enjoy seeing the progression that my work has gone through. There were times I did stuff I thought was brilliant at the time that makes me cringe a little now, but not to the extent I'd want to disown it.

My advice would be that if you are happy with the work that you are doing and don't think you'll regret having it resurface when you get your retrospective at the MOMA, then tell your instructor that you stand by your work and that you would like to sign them regardless of your current lack of celebrity. After all, we are all students of art. No matter how "established" you are, we all continue to learn (hopefully) for our entire artistic careers. I have a feeling that 10 years from now, the work I'm doing now will make me cringe as well...that doesn't mean I don't want the credit for it. It may be crap, but it's my crap damn it!

What advice would the rest of you give?

Replies: 11 Comments

on Thursday, August 26th, Dio said

Oh, one of those art tutors... :angry:

How do they expect people to know who's work it is if you don't?


on Thursday, August 26th, Dio said

BTW Elise, I've been keeping up with events on my 'watch this page' email updates, so this is my first visit to see the new site. Looks fab. :D

on Thursday, August 26th, Anna L. Conti said

Another possibility - if the art instructor has set up a still life or whatever and everyone in the class is painting the same thing, it's not really an original work of art... but I never heard of the "don't sign it" rule.

on Thursday, August 26th, Elise said

Dio- thanks, the feedback I've received has been's one of those situations where I wasted an ungodly amount of time working on it and then had people say "I liked it the old way better". At least the code is cleaner and more accessible.

Anna, I think that even if it was a still life it would still be your original rendering of it. Each artist in the room would be seeing it from a different angle and (at least in the studio classes I've attended) everyone's painting of the subject is different...even if they're all trying to do realism.

At least that's how I would think about it...or do you think that because the instructor set up the scene, that it was more their work, conceptually speaking?

on Thursday, August 26th, holly said

"She said that you can't sign the front unless you were an established artist"...
CAN'T sign it? Here, watch me. Are the art police going to come and get anyone me? "You will sign no art before its time..." Seems to me that if you make it, it's yours- you sign it. Even in the case of a still-life: Pieter Aertsen, Picasso and Elise Tomlinson can paint the same still-life, but they're not going to look anything alike stylistically, thematically, or palette-wise. They are still original works of art reflective of their creator's individuality.

And what the hell is an "established artist"? I buy student works that I find aesthtically pleasing - they're signed! I suppose the only reason to *not* sign a piece is to keep 'em guessing on future seasons of Antiques Roadshow...

Sorry. Art teachers like this are the reason I'm an art historian and not an artist. Burns me up...

on Friday, August 27th, Anna L. Conti said

Well, first, let me make it clear that I think all artists should sign everything they do. But the reason I brought up the drawing or painting made in a class (when the instructor has set up the scene that everyone is working from) is because I have encountered prejudice against that kind of work when it is presented for sale. On three separate occasions I have been asked to show some of my "older" or "formative" work. So I drag out the old stuff, dust it off, pick out the best ones and present them. Then I watch as the gallery owner or patron looks them over. They come to one that they obviously like, they turn to me and ask, "was this done in a class?" If I answer "yes", then it's negativo, case closed, move on to the next one. Interestingly, if I say, "No, some other artists and I hired a model and split the costs. We set up in my friend Betty's studio," then they're still interested. So my guess (it's never been explicitly explained to me) is that the instructor who sets up a still life or model scene for a class "owns" it conceptually. What else could it be?

on Friday, August 27th, RR said

I'm with the, "If you paint it, sign it" camp. I've never heard anything so ridiculous as not signing unless you were an established artist. Even if you do a class still life it's your interpretation that your signing. Mabe this tutor wants to pick the best one and pockle it away, sign it themselves and sell it as a lucrative side-line!

on Friday, August 27th, Elise said

I have to tell you that that happened to me when I was a student in printmaking. We had a guy who ran a local T-shirt shop come and teach for a semester while our regular professor was on sabatical. He and I were in the studio one day after class, drawing ideas for t-shirts. I had two really funny, alaskan specific ideas along with drawings. He had zero input on them. I put them in my bin with everything else and forgot about them (unsigned).

A couple years later I was in a tourist shop downtown (I had visiting family as normally I wouldn't be caught dead in one of those shops) and I found both my t-shirt designs up in the store, signed by my former teacher (the *exact* same drawing, wording, etc.) and printed at his print shop.

I was so pissed off, I approached him about it and he said I had no way of proving it, a "who will they believe" kind of thing and threatened to blackball me so I let it drop. I forgot all about that until this signing issue came up...but let it be a warning to you...

on Friday, August 27th, Elise said

Oh, and I forgot to remark on your statement Anna, to be honest, I don't know what else it could be. I've never had a similar experience, but I'm not in the same league with you in terms of who you show your work to. I'm sure the standards change the higher up the food chain you go.

on Saturday, September 11th,">Deb said

:O That is the silliest, most pretentious thing I've ever heard from an art instructor!!!! No on forgives hubrus, and in my opinion, anyone demanding you don't sign your art work, is silly hubrus.

on Friday, September 17th, Elise said

I agree!