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Thursday, 15 May 2014


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My son once made a living obtaining and selling autographs. He used a blue Sharpie for signing photos because they are least likely to fade over time. For things like helmets or hockey pucks he used gold or silver pens. Your pens might look good now but what about 10 or 20 years from now.

[Sharpie is a brand name (owned by Newell Rubbermaid) that encompasses dozens of products. In general, standard Sharpie permanent markers are not recommended for photographs. I've seen them fade, bleed, and also damage papers. Not recommended. Any of the pens I've mentioned here would very likely be a safer bet. --Mike]

Why not use a pencil.

[Because a pencil won't write on these papers. Canson Infinity resembles air-dried glossy photographic paper. --Mike]

Mike, this post reminded me of this old (but new to me) post on the lensrentals.com blog :)


[I don't think your analogy is a good one. This is a serious issue for printmakers, in the same way that making the print itself archival and lightfast is a serious issue. And it's not trivial because it's so difficult for people to test. --Mike]

Yeah, left handed and technical pens, a learning experience missed by most of the population. Years ago in photo school where multiple assignments (each week!) had to be neatly dry-mounted (on 16x20 grey boards) and labelled appropriately with a technical pen and lettering template. I learned to write captions backwards to control the whole smearing issue. Alas, a skill not much used since the advent of personal computers and printers in the '80s. (My darkroom notebooks are still in pencil because I don't have to deal with the smearing issue.)

Am I wrong to be alarmed by a statement like, "Extremely lightfast (on smooth surfaces: black for 7 years, red for 1 year; on paper considerably longer)"?
After seeing things like Sharpies just fade away I am rather worried about signing prints with something that equates permanent and 7 years.
I hate signing prints with my Rapidograph, but it is permanent, not just 7 years.

I've had good success with Zig Memory System Ball Archival pens, which are available in different colors and widths.

I have had a good experience with Pilot's "Precise V5 RT"

(Sounds almost like a sporty car model. F1 competition does that.)

I remember reading or hearing a while ago, not sure where, that it is best to sign prints with pigment based ink, not dye based ink, for the same reason it is best to use pigment based ink to make prints.

I purchased a few of these:

I don't sign my prints on the front because once long ago I was told the only proper way to sign a print (etching, silk-screen, etc.) was with pencil and pencil just doesn't work on photo papers.

I sign my fibre based prints with India ink and a fine nib on a caligraphy pen. Cheap & safe.

The Pigma Micron is a staple in the art supply industry:


I use these in the 005 (.20mm) size on RC paper.

Light Impressions has a pigment liner sketch pen. Would that work?


Having inspected thousands of prints in museum and private collections I can make two observational statements.

1. Recto signatures [i.e., on the front, as opposed to "verso," which means on the back —Ed.] have been relatively rare and are not generally desirable to collectors. It seems there was a period during the 1970s and early 1980's when face signing was popular, mostly by middling names. Earlier, Bill Brandt was a notable exception in that he took to recto signatures with black marker in his later years. But he is rather an exception. Generally it can devalue a print and can make mounting a pain in the ass.

2. The writing instrument of choice for verso signatures and inscriptions is overwhelmingly the humble pencil. Of course pencil doesn't work well with today's coated papers. So the first runner-up is the equally humble ball-point pen.

[No, do not use ball-point pen. If they could have heard you say that, Ken, all the world's paper and photo conservators would have just let out a collective groan. Not only is the ink in ballpoints an unknowable quality, roller pens can easily emboss paper and show through on the other side. Bad option where best practices is concerned. --Mike]

Last weekend we were cleaning out (OK, rearranging) the basement and found an old photo album -- heavy black paper pages, photos held in place with mounting corners.

Annotation (Palmer Method*) was in white ink using a dip pen. Still clear after 65 years.

*Wikipedia tells us that Left-handers were usually made to use their right hands.

i wonder if "Kaiser 202041" at B&H is the pen you are looking for?


after trying several pens, my father (someone you have name-dropped here a few times) used ZIG Millennium pens back in the mid-aughts when he finally signed his trove of vintage black & white fiber prints from the 1960s

the pens say all the right things on the barrel ("pigment ink, acid-free, archival quality , waterproof, fade-proof, non-bleeding, ASTM D-4236, certified by Art and Creative Materials Institute")

a bonus feature: one well-used ZIG pen i have, close to ten years old, hasn't dried out

Try here…..http://goldspot.com

Re pens for signing prints. I've settled on the Zig Painty (fine tip) black markers, and after a dozen years and probably a thousand prints I have no complaints. They make a lustrous black mark that doesn't morph into magenta-tinged characters after a few weeks. Letters/numbers remain on the surface rather than being absorbed into the print. I've used mine on Fuji Crystal Archive paper. I'd recommend that you audition one to see if you like the way it drives.

I have yet to find the perfect pen for signing prints, but I wanted to share some great advice from a good friend of mine. He recommends using a gray ink instead of black, so the signature isn't the darkest tone on the paper. Especially with black and white prints, this makes the signature less distracting from the photograph.

For what it's worth - I use the Sakura Pigma Micron 005 (0.20MM) in black. The papers I have signed are Epson Premium Luster, Epson Cold Press Natural, and Hahnemuhle FineArt Baryta. I have not had any smudging, but I am right handed, and always wait a few seconds before trying to smudge my signature.


This probably isn't much help, but I have found the Pigma Micron pens to vary one from another. So I'm still using that brand because I haven't found anything better. I suggest trying them in the store and getting one which writes smoothly. The poor examples seem to run out of ink right when you have almost finished the signature!

In the art world, pencil is a traditional tool for signing prints. Of course pencil will not work on glossy paper.

Michael, you might want to try the Faber-Castell Pitt artist pens. They claim to be archival and come in varying widths and colors. I don't know how they will work on the paper you're using but your local art supply store might have them in stock. I've used them with some success on some of my prints.

Is it not done to sign in pencil?

Mike, it's really not very hard-

Step 1: hold the pen roughly vertically between your thumb and forefinger, and resting on your third finger, with the nib pointing down.

Step 2. Place the nib of the pen the paper where you wish to sign.

Step 3. Move the nib laterally about on the paper in the form of your name.


In Douglas Adams' So Long and Thanks For All The Fish, a character - from memory, called Wonko - decided that the world had gone insane when he read instructions for the use of toothpicks on the side of a packet of them. It seems to me that a discussion of the adequacy of pens solely for the purpose of signing prints is getting awfully close.

I thought pencil graphite was the preferred medium for signing art prints?

Was the old issue with ink pens due to an acidic base and the ink fading? I could see where the acid in inks, like skin oils from handling, can damage paper.


I use Sharpie's "Industrial" line of extra-fine point markers. I bought the first one at an art supply store, recommended by the clerk there. When I read your post this morning, it prompted me to check the signature on a print that's been on our wall for ten years. The title and signature done with the Sharpie seem unchanged. For matte surfaces, I like signing with a mechanical pencil.

My wife and I were visiting Timothy Martin's gallery and workshop in NJ. Tim is a very original painter , who sells inkjet prints of his paintings. I asked Tim which pen he was using to sign his prints.
He recommended the 1.0 Uni-Ball Jetstream Quick-Drying Gel Rollerball Pen. Then he gave me one. They do not smear. His web site is http://www.timothymartin.com/


My solution is to use printer ink in a fountain pen. The Epson large format cartridges often have considerable ink remaining (I believe that was the subject of a lawsuit); you could also use a new cartridge if you have a lot of signing to do.

This is easy. Sharpie for good RC prints and greasy pencil for really good FB prints.

For many years I've used the Staedtler Pigment Liner in the 0.3 size. It is archival, won't bleed or smudge - it dries almost instantly - and makes a rich black, non-iridescent (like a Sharpie) line. It was first recommended to me by an archivist. The only problem is that in recent years they've gone up in price quite a bit. You can currently get a pack of 5 on Amazon for $20.00. I'd have to say that they're worth it.

I have been using the Mitsubishi UniPin drawing pens. They come in various tip thicknesses under one millimetre and I have the 0,2 and 0,5 sizes, depending on the surface.

They are described as "Permanent and Fade-proof" pigment markers. The Amazon price does seem to be a lot higher for the US than I pay in the local art shop here (in NL) though.

Got a Pigma Graphic 1 by Sakura from that art supply store down by the UW campus in Milwaukee. Stop in there some time with a piece of the paper you want tu use and they will help you out.

Rotring nib with Rotring pigment ink.

Looks cool, writes like magic, lasts at least twice as long as your average IIIrd Reich.

Does not work on glossy.

I've been using a Faber Castell Pitt pen in the smallest available size (XS). It contains India ink so ought to be sufficiently permanent. Works great on all the silver gelatin papers I've tried, even glossy RC. Available at just about every arts and crafts store I've been in locally.

On 24x24 inch to 10 foot square , I have used Krylon paint pens.
It's essentially spraypaint in a felt pen. Also Good for touching up photo equipment and automobiles too

Elmers makes an acrylic based paint pen as well.

Otherwise Rapidograph with india ink.

I hate signing prints on the front and only do it if requested.

"No, do not use ball-point pen. ... Bad option where best practices is concerned. --Mike"

I was not -necessarily- endorsing ball pen. Merely reporting what I've observed as very commonly used on later 20th century prints (some valued well into the deep 5-figures).

I should also have reported that I've observed a remarkable number of (similarly valued) prints that bear no signature of the photographer whatsoever. Sometimes this is due to later/posthumous printing, or printing in-absentia. But prints signed by the photographer were not necessarily the norm even in the top-slice of the photo world during most of the 20th century. I won't offer a figure I can't defend but I can confidently claim that a walk through any major art museum photo collection will reveal a "substantial" number of unsigned prints.

Even today the signatures found on prints by high-value artists are often far more casual than this discussion would suggest.

Ball point pen? Well it's not nearly as potentially hazardous as some of the wetter instruments suggested here, even the pigment markers. It really depends on the paper. Personally, I make most of my annotations with a broad-tip ball point pen lightly stroked on the verso of prints (usually a surface such as Ilford Gold Fiber Silk). It doesn't penetrate, sets quite permanently and cannot smear to the face of a print beneath it.

I'd go nuts having to sign my name umpteen times!

Popular Australian wildlife / nature photographer Steve Parish simply includes his "signature" as part of the image.

Sample here (a scan of a postcard?):


I was mad for a while after I was moved from California late in elementary school to the east coast and forced to learn how to write all over again with my right hand because using my left hand was some how not allowed (1960s). I sympathize with your efforts and will accept a screwed-up signature on any of your prints at anytime. My signature is right-handed mush and everything else I write is done in block letters with a slant to the left. When I sign prints, I sign them on the reverse and it does not look real pretty, but it is, what it is.

[Ah, sorry to hear that. I was right at the end of that era. They actually tied my left hand behind my back in first grade to make me write with my right hand, but when they untied me, I just wrote with BOTH hands. Seriously, I went through all of first grade writing with both hands, often simultaneously (when copying from the board for instance). When I got to second grade--new school, new State--they just let me write with my left hand. And look, now I can't write at all. :-) --Mike]

Adams dry mounted and lightly signed using pencil on the mat - lower right hand corner. The passpartout was then cut to reveal the maton all four sides and the signature. This is a refined manner in which to sign a print meant to be dislplayed.

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