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Should I Sign My Digital Prints?

With the popularity of digital reproduction soaring, the personal touch of the artist may be more important than ever for selling digital fine art prints.

This article explores the background and purpose of signatures, as well as various dilemmas and rationales for hand signing your prints in the digital era.



For a how to guide and advice on materials to physically hand sign your prints visit our knowledge base article:

What Is An Artist Signature?

Artist signatures are intended to be uniquely personal, permanent physical evidence proving the authorship and authenticity of an artwork.

Signatures have long been used by artists to safeguard both their moral and copy rights. Indeed the first recorded intellectual property litigation in history centred on the unauthorised use of a signature  (Albrecht Dürer's famous AD monograph) in art reproductions by woodcut at the beginning of the 16th century.

The form of artist signatures can greatly vary from initials to cursive, or even characters, marks and symbols. Their placement and application varies as much as the artists employing them, from discreet to prominent, and are sometimes used to signify when an artwork is finished.

Today the artist signature remains as relevant as ever, though its application in the digital era raises new questions.

Detail featuring Dürer's monograph in 'Saint John before God and the Elders, from The Apocalypse'
Detail featuring Dürer's monograph in 'Saint John before God and the Elders, from The Apocalypse'

Analogue To Digital

A traditional physical signature on an original artwork by brush or pen creates an unproblematic mark of authorship and authenticity (quality forgeries not withstanding!) and is a norm expected by buyers in the art marketplace.

The same has long applied to analogue forms of printmaking where artists reproduce multiples of their artwork via physical processes such as stenciling, etching and engraving. These artists use 'matrices' (such as woodcuts, linocuts or copper engravings) to create the multiple prints (aka impressions) that make up limited editions. Since at least the 19th century it has been a norm for artists to then hand sign and number the resulting limited edition prints to communicate their authorship, authenticity and scarcity.

In the digital era many artists continue with this same approach, regardless whether the art is digitally generated to begin with or if it starts as a physical original and is digitised for the purpose of making physical edition prints. This is driven by demand in the marketplace that attributes value to an author having personally marked their print in some tangible fashion to make it unique (despite the unlimited potential of digital reproduction). So artists making prints from digital files continue to sign and number them by hand, typically using pencil or archival ink pens on the kinds of fine art archival inkjet papers that we specialise in printing on at Image Science.

However, when hand signing digital prints, several dilemmas can arise...

Editioning a digital print by hand.
Editioning a digital print by hand.

Digital Dilemmas

Physical Signatures On Digital Prints

The most common dilemma our artists come across when digitising physical artworks is deciding whether or not to keep the signatures in their original artworks in their subsequent reproduced edition prints.

The first school of thought here is that if the original artwork has a signature in it (and possibly a date and title etc.), and the goal is to create an edition print as accurate to the original as possible, then logically you'd reproduce the artwork signature included. This is a justifiable logic, and a route taken by a portion of our clients. However, given that a signature only performs as a mark of authenticity in the context of being hand-applied, the marketplace still demands that the artist hand-sign and edition each print in addition. This means that any edition print once signed, contains both the digitally reproduced signature and the unique, hand-applied signature.

There is no right or wrong approach per se - we're talking about art so rules can be anathema here! - but the above approach doesn't always satisfy our clients. Where the signature is stylised to the point of being part of the art, or is deeply entangled with it (typically paintings in our experience) then it usually makes sense to keep it. But when the original contains a signature in pen or pencil (particularly on white space in works on paper) the resulting double up of signatures can just look a bit odd. In these instances we typically digitally remove the original signature after scanning the artwork, so that the artist can then apply just one unique signature by hand. Alternately, some of our artists skip this step by waiting until their original is digitised before signing, dating and titling etc.

Note also that some artists like to keep digital versions of their artworks both with and without signatures. The latter to make prints and hand-sign to serve a higher value art market. The former to use in the production of cards, posters or other saleable items that don't require physically signing.

Digital Signatures on Digital Prints

Signing digital edition prints physically by hand is a great way to authenticate your work and communicate scarcity to buyers - but it isn't the only or most efficient way to manage authenticity.

For instance if you don't live near to your printer you'll need to pay for shipping on your prints twice. Once to have them shipped to you from the printer, then again onwards to your customers after you've signed the prints. It's a good problem to have, but once you start selling prints regularly these expenses add up, as does the associated administration and packaging time you'll be required to put into it. Frustratingly to many artists, the need to physically hand-sign prints is therefore an impediment to taking advantage of fully integrated drop-shipping services like ours.

So while it certainly isn't the norm at this time, and remains to be seen whether the marketplace accepts it or not, there is a growing number of artists who digitally sign each edition using devices such as the iPad Pro. Now this is still a unique signature and edition, and still applied individually by hand, but applied directly to the image file before each print. The act of doing this by hand and uniquely for each print does technically create the personal touch and scarcity that the market traditionally calls for. Doing it tastefully will take some practice and expertise however.

One artist who uses this technique is talented illustrator Anli Vuong, who uses the application Procreate on an iPad Pro. Her decision to sign digitally was influenced by the pandemic lockdowns curtailing her ability to travel to her printers in person.

Banksia Seed Pod by Anli Vuong, illustrated, signed, titled and editioned uniquely by hand using Procreate on an iPad Pro.
Banksia Seed Pod by Anli Vuong, illustrated, signed, titled and editioned uniquely by hand using Procreate on an iPad Pro.

Alternately, some artists instead digitally scan unique physical signatures and edition info for each print. They then strip the paper tone from the signature file and overlay it in the right position over the top of each unique edition print file. Our talented client Harley Manifold is one artist taking advantage of this technique. Being based in rural Victoria he finds it the best solution for managing costs while still signing and editioning each print uniquely.

I Pay For These Lips by Harley Manifold featuring a hand made but digitally printed artist signature, title and edition details.
I Pay For These Lips by Harley Manifold featuring a hand made but digitally printed artist signature, title and edition details.

Summary

In summary there are many ways to skin a cat when it comes to marks of authenticity on digitally produced prints! We haven't even touched upon non signature based methods such as chop marks (i.e. embossing/debossing etc.) which are covered in our article How to Sign Inkjet Prints.

There isn't a clear right or wrong way to go about things, so it's most important to make sure the approach you choose makes sense for you as an artist.

As always if have any questions on this topic feel free to get in touch.