What Is In a Title?

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A group of paintings waiting for titles.

As I prepare to deliver a group of paintings for an annual gallery feature, I’m faced with the job of giving them titles. Many years ago, that seemed easy. There were so many unused possibilities. Now it can take me days and considerable mental effort to come up with something appropriate and unique.

Each painting is like a child. It deserves a suitable name before going out the door. Often these titles are utilitarian, merely serving as a means of identification for future reference. At other times, they may provide a bigger purpose as a component of the painting’s intention. In fact, some paintings are titled even before starting. We’re so motivated to paint the subject that we know its identity in advance of placing pastel to surface. The concept is formed and it becomes a critical part of the process, providing a reminder of the purpose and motivation behind the painting.

Other times the title comes to us while painting. All of a sudden it has an identity and the phrase pops into our head. These titles are often the most poetic in nature. They’re formed in the initial concept and best identify our intentions. If I know the title in advance or while working on the painting, I write it down on the border around the painting, or on the back as a reminder. If I need to finish the painting at a later date, I can remember the motivation behind its start and often slip back into the mindset I had.

Then there are those times when we can stare at a finished painting for days without being able to place an appropriate title. These are the times when it’s best to remind yourself why you were drawn to the subject in the first place, asking what it was that you wanted to make the viewer feel. Analyze the time of day, time of year, lighting effect, regional area of the scene, and mood you felt when you looked at the subject. Let these help you in the process.

Words have power. We all understand the implications of words such as journey, introspective, quiet, joyous, dance, rhythmic, etc. Using such words in our titles evokes a human response. We influence our audience to look at the painting in a certain way. A couple of examples I have used with simple tree subjects are: Listen, They Whisper and The Poetry of Trees. Both of these titles relate how I felt about the subject matter and, when read by an observer, should influence them to look at the painting in a certain way.

Artists have strong opinions concerning the titles of their paintings. Some feel no need to title a work, feeling that they don’t want to influence the observer with a title and preferring to allow them to make their own associations. Others believe it’s a vital part of the presentation, helping to advance their concept. Personally, I like to influence the viewer whenever possible with the title. It doesn’t need to be a mundane description but a means to make them look deeper, beyond the superficial for a more profound notion.

What are your thoughts? Please post your comments here.

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24 thoughts on “What Is In a Title?

  1. Carole Buschmann

    I highly agree and spend sometime thinking about an appropriate title. I have taught my young elementary students to expect to title their work. I tell them they would title a poem or a story- so I was delighted to read this article.

  2. arole Buschmann

    I highly agree and spend sometime thinking about an appropriate title. I have taught my young elementary students to expect to title their work. I tell them they would title a poem or a story- so I was delighted to read this article.

  3. Kathy Howard

    I think naming your piece is an opportunity not to be missed, to add a final layer of creativity and beauty, the same way the perfect frame does. Probably a lot of people who appreciate art are not all that creative enough to think up their own titles. The title is an extension of the creativity of the artist.

  4. Joey Like

    I prefer to give my art simple and to-the-point titles. Sometimes I name them during the process, other times much later. I give my paintings identifiable titles for my own benefit. After the sale, the buyer can rename the piece if they wish. I kind of liken it to adopting a pet, you can either keep its shelter name or give it a new name to suit your lifestyle.

  5. Patricia Lynne Harris

    As an artist, I agree naming works is difficult. I have a tendency to use the "series" name along with the chronological "numeric number". I added the year to the current series as it now includes work over a two-year period and is expected to extend for more years. This sits on the fence. There is a title and at the same time no title. Occasionally there is a sub title because the abstract representation painting shouted to me. I was sorry to read the person who thought the artist "was being both abrupt and almost dismissive" and do not agree in defense of those artists and of myself. Thanks to the person who visited the Ontario Art Gallery in Toronto. I live here and have not visited yet. I am just back from visiting the National Art Gallery in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, and one exhibition was a filled with an American artist whose work was all "untitled". Very disconcerting. Hummm

  6. Mars

    I used 2 think –no titles– let the viewer decide. But–found every person wuold give it a different name!! Now- is that good or bad??? Most shows insist–we give a title– so I do–now–but still think it would be best left to the vewier–as people that do not paint– look at the world in differet perspective– I look at a tree- see 19 shades of green– where a person that doesn’t paint– sees only –a tree!! Same thing with sky & other objects. so I felt– let each pick & choose –what they see– in ones painting!!! I’m afraid –many will-of course– dis agree!!! M

  7. Anne Dentler

    I think the title is the final creative effort we produce when we paint. It is the "period" at the end of the sentence, narrating the thought of the artist.

    "Untitled" is boring to me as a collector, and as an artist.

  8. Patricia Lindley

    Perhaps this discussion begs the question of what to make of those pictures that are simply labelled "untitled #1" Having just spent half a day in the brand new (stunning) Art Gallery of ONtario, which has works by many reknowned artists, this cropped up over and over… I confess that the immediate impression it creates is that either this was just a study (never intended as a finished work) or it is part of the conceptual framework of abstraction (i.e. what name can you apply to something that was never intended to be representational?). However it also felt as if the artist did not wish to invite the viewer’s interest and it was both abrupt and almost dismissive. It would be an interesting little project to expore the provenance of those works (and there are a lot of them)that are entitled ‘untitled’.

  9. Nat Friedman

    I agree that titles are important. I think it definitely sets the mood for the observer. In many cases, I also like to use "word games" in my titles, e.g. in a painting of Times Square, NY, there was a square newspaper dispenser with the NY Times logo repeated many times on the container, and I title the painting "Times Squared". I also like to add humor in some titles. In another painting of an elderly woman on the beach eyeing a beautiful model passing by, I titled the painting "You stole my body".

  10. Larry Lewis

    I was impressed with the issue of titles and agree with much that was said. I usually employ a short descriptive title e.g. "reclining nude" or "sunflower 2" or even "woman in red oxide". I may have to rethink this practice in consideration of all the comments. Thanks for the thought provoking issue.

  11. madge scott

    Whenever someone views a painting they should be able to identify the painting and understand the artist’s point of view. The name of my paintings is one of my strategies in marketing and it works.I must confess though that as a folk artist a few titles do come to my mind after the painting is done, but I almost always have a plan so I always sketch the subject and name the piece before I begin.It’s quite a clever approach.

  12. Cheryl Metzger

    I absolutely agree that the title is important and needs to convey our feelings about the painting. When the viewer reads the title they should be able to interpret our feelings about the painting more accurately. The title needs to "grab" their attention.

  13. Lindy Gruger Hanson

    I love choosing titles for my paintings. I think it’s fun and never a chore. I like them to be a bit poetic and they’re often giving a little piece of the story about the painting. I’ve noticed that when some people buy my paintings it is because the title has hit a chord with them. I did a blog post about titling my paintings at http://ow.ly/ktMb

  14. Robert Sloan

    A lot of times my titles are just descriptive so that I can remember what that painting is when I’m looking at a list of files. So they’re things like Two Trees or BlueJayCP and so on. Sometimes though, I do come up with more poetic titles — usually just as you described, while painting it’ll come to me. On my OPS show entry, I couldn’t call it anything but "Ari On My Knee" — it was as much about my relationship with my cat as it was about my cat himself.

  15. Stacey Marie

    I think it is helpful to look at other artist’s work and see how you react to their titles (clever, poetic, simple, etc.) – then take some sort of inspiration from it and apply to your own work. 😉

  16. Judy Wilder-Dalton

    I really enjoyed your post about titles. I agree with you that the painting is like a child and deserves a name before it goes out the door. I asked the question in a Facebook group a few months ago. I was surprised to hear how many artist felt titles were not necessary. I feel that the title is extremely important in engaging the viewer to look deeper into the painting and the artist. I love to see titles in all kinds of paintings, especially abstract work. I am first attracted to a work because of color and shapes and the feeling they evoke, but with a title it completes the story by letting me know what the artist felt about the painting.

  17. Marjorie Rose

    I just finished a plein air workshop that encouraged us to title our thumbnails so that we would continue with the original concept through all the challenges of painting on location, such as changing light, etc. That has really helped me to stay focused. I guess that’s reason to title a painting, whether or not you keep that title if you decide to sell it.

    Thanks for your posts, by the way, such a help for learners like me.

  18. Ginny Burdick

    I agree titles can be the most frustrating aspect of competing some paintings. There are times that the title just happens and other times when it is like giving birth. I often ask my husband for suggestions but he just rolls his eyes. For those who buy the painting they want a title as then it feels special for them.

  19. monafic

    A title is more than a few words. It is the reason for the painting. It is the basis of what the artist has to say. I enjoy creating the title. I want it to reflect my feelings as I attempted to create a scenario at a particular time and place. To arrive at the title, I ask myself, " Why is this concept interesting to me?" I recently lost my 6 year-old cat Nick. I had recently painted him and I am so glad that I did. At the time I thought it would make a cute picture. I did not realize that it would come to mean so much to me. I simply titled it "Little Nick", the name that I always called him. A title for any painting is so important and it should be considered as such.

  20. michelle.wegler

    Naming paintings can be a chore for me, too. I’m glad it’s not just me! I find it helpful to use a thesaurus to come up with new and exciting words.

  21. Julie Hopkins

    I agree that the title alone is sometimes the thing that appeals MOST to a potential buyer! Go figure. But sometimes my paintings are the expression of whatever mental preoccupation I have at the time – in other words, a worry or sadness over something, or maybe just the energy derived from painting at a beautiful location on a great weather day with good friends. The viewer may not be able to make the connection between the painting and the title, but I can, and my most successful paintings are the ones I paint for my own reasons!

  22. Loriann Signori

    Good question Richard. You are so right that the title affects the viewer. The title of the painting can actually clinch the sale. But that is not the reason to title our works, is it? As you explain so well, the artist is responsible for making the mood and developing a strong concept. A title for the work is an important step in clarifying the concept, especially for the more auditory folks.
    When writing titles two things help me: writing about the connection of feelings and place and the constant reading of poetry and good prose (you know the kind that does not merely tell a story but touches it.)
    Good luck with your show!

  23. mike

    I usually go for either a location name or what the original inspiration was. Which goes back to a composition problem I’m often guilty of. I get on location and find a pretty scene to paint and dive right in. Instead of taking the time to ask myself, what do I want the viewer to look at.

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