This morning, BJ Adams of Washington, DC, asked, “What are your thoughts on changing the names of artwork to fit a venue, exhibit, or buyer? For example, is it okay to modify my often generic titles to more specific places, particularly when sending things off to shows? Is this wrong or deceitful? And, if changed, should new titles stay that way?”
Thanks, BJ. Let me first commend your insight on the importance of titles. Very often a title is the bridge that carries the viewer into the work and helps provide a significant “Aha” moment to make the connection. While you have a wide range of styles and media, you generally opt for direct titles. Yours are often the “factual” type. Your title “Teapot triptych,” for example, is pretty obviously three teapots.
Artists need to select titles with the most punch — titles that give added value to the work. As discussed in my book The Painter’s Keys, there are five types of titles: Sentimental, Numerical, Factual, Abstract and Mysterious. Matters of locale can be added to factual titles to beneficial effect. I would not recommend renaming a mountain or a river to build appeal or garner localized sales. Truth in provenance and respect for your history are too valuable.
On the other hand, if the subject matter is fairly obvious, a mysterious title can do no harm. Conversely, mysterious works of art often benefit from the simple disclosure of facts — what, when, where, why and how are all questions the artist may consider. Sentimental titles are the last bastion of scoundrels, and can add significant barf to an already barfy work.
And, yes, if further insight dictates what you think is a more evolved title, go for it. But let that title stick with the work for posterity.
PS: “When exhibiting in Washington, DC, I would like to change ‘Contemplating Chaos,’ where the Washington Post is shown, to ‘Contemplating the Post.’ Okay?” (BJ Adams)
Esoterica: Okay, but stick with it. In my experience, the world is made up of two main kinds of titlers — those who name their work before they start and those who try to figure out a title afterward. Further, even though a title may not be written on the back when the work is started, a title may already be chosen in the artist’s mind. As you have suggested, the better titles give greater specificity, without letting the whole aardvark out of the sack.
Not enough punch
by Karen Snider, Aiken, SC, USA
I have been painting in oils for the past 5 years. I find that I had a problem then, as well as now, of coming up with a title for each of my works. I find that I’m excited in the process of creating the painting, working in my mind in images as I go. I don’t get around to naming it until completion and then it’s a struggle. Maybe others have this problem too. It doesn’t matter if I’m painting scenery or figurative. I think it might be due to the fact that I’m right brained (left handed) and not strong in transferring images into verbal descriptions. When I finally get around to naming a painting it tends not to have much punch and to be lukewarm as a hook. Maybe someone out there can give a good suggestion for overcoming this.
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Title-change by gallery
by Amanda Jackson, Lincoln, UK
I have found over time that galleries will often change a title they find puzzling or specific to one which is more obvious, or to which they feel a larger range of potential buyers might relate. I’m certain this is the reason for the profusion of paintings entitled “The Red Dress” and “Sunday Morning.” Often I never get to know about it until an invoice comes in which I simply can’t match up. I am generally pretty laid back about the practice though; viewers see an image first and have made all sorts of decisions about it before the title comes along. Like a frame, the title should enhance, augment, but never usurp the image.
Influenced by book, film titles
by Caroline Simmill, Morayshire, Scotland
Titles for paintings have always been an important part of the creative process for me. I am not sure what people think of the titles I give to my paintings but I do search for an unusual name that is descriptive of the general feel that the painting has. I sold a painting last year called Storms of Silence as I am always interested in naming my paintings after a great story I have read. I have no idea what the buyer thought of the name but he certainly loved the painting. I have changed the name of a painting to fit an area on two occasions but they were not the paintings that sold at my exhibition which is interesting. My favourite name for a painting has been called Remains of the Day. It was influenced by the book and film of that title as it illustrated the great peace of acceptance of one’s life’s journey after making an attempt to try and change it. The painting is a warm-coloured seascape of calm and peace.
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Title relative to the experience
by Sheila Psaledas, ME, USA
In response to your letter about changing titles, I sometimes change a title because I never liked the title I arrived at to begin with. Often, the subject is a rural local landscape. Recently I painted the historic stone bridge and falls near my home. Originally I called this Gleason Falls but later, rather than stay with the Gleason Falls title that others have used, I changed the title to Morning Rush. I realized that I did most of the piece during morning hours on location. I’m now happy with the title and won’t change it.
Award for the best title
by Lyn Cherry, Maryville, TN, USA
Titles! One of my favorite things to do is choose titles for art work. In fact, I won a painting on WetCanvas! for choosing the name Bull Market Mayhem for a wonderful abstract piece in which a bull’s head had emerged from a chaotic background! I did a small watercolor of a nest of baby robins, which I painted a red wool thread woven through it, and chose the title Thread of Life, which appealed to many viewers. (Particularly to the patron who bought it!) The title for the painting attached escaped me for a while, but as several people who viewed it couldn’t identify what it was, I decided to go with a version of the question about Superman. By the way, youngsters under 18 can tell you what it is immediately; it takes adults lots longer and sometimes they don’t “see” it at all!
There are 15 comments for Award for the best title by Lyn Cherry
Influenced by Dali’s titles
by Henryk Ptasiewicz, St Louis, MO, USA
It is rare that I change the title of a painting, and it usually takes a couple of days after it’s finished before I settle on a name. I was influenced by Salvador Dali’s titles, Giant Flying Demi-Tasse with Incomprehensible Appendage Five meters Long, for example: witty, pretentious, but attention grabbing, which made me realize that the title is a large part of the painting, specific and not interchangeable. There is always an exception though. I have to tell you the story about a quick-thinking gallery owner. I had an exhibition about jazz, and one of the pieces was 36 squares of glass which, when assembled, was an angel. It was based on Joe McPhee’s LP of the ’70s called Tenor and the track Fallen Angels. Someone came in buying art for a hospital and showed interest in my piece. The owner instantly changed the name to Guardian Angel and sold it on the spot. I wasn’t arguing and everyone went home happy.
Be a little cryptic
by Linda Dumas, Kingwood, TX, USA
I love the process of coming up with a title. I’m kind of a wordsmith, so it’s usually pretty easy, but if you do have trouble, invest in a copy of the works of Shakespeare, a music dictionary, a Bible, and a book of mythology. You will have material for quite a while. Don’t be obvious, don’t use clichés and don’t be schmaltzy. Be a little cryptic: Tango for Trees, Medea’s Regret, Crimson Sonata, Tamar My Sister, Tomorrow and Tomorrow or Struts His Hour.
The attached work is called A Tuesday Thing, because that’s when I made it, and that day my words weren’t smithing so well, so I punted, and it seemed appropriate. It’s mixed media and 20″ x 24″.
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Naming no names
by Bill Hibberd, Summerland, BC, Canada
After coming off a five month burn, painting fifty-odd paintings in preparation for two shows this summer; I just can’t name any more art. For those of us who are prolific, naming every piece seems a bit much. I just name larger studio work like the attached The Orchardists. All the rest will be date-coded. Also I think naming a painting deprives the viewer of an individual connection. A skyscape done from my South Okanagan yard has been “recognized” by viewers as many diverse places around the world.
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by Dennis Marshall, Paterson, NJ, USA
I find that when it comes to titles for my landscapes I prefer a more general reference than a specific one. When I began a series of paintings back in 1992 I entitled them Hackettstown Trees to note the place where I first became inspired. As I continued with the series I kept that title. Now I title paintings with this subject matter, North Jersey Woods, since my paintings are the result of observation and memory based on a few particular locations that I go back to draw or certain areas that I usually drive by. Titling the paintings North Jersey Woods allows the viewer to be drawn into the painting and even though there is no specific geographic reference the general title helps to make a connection with the painting. I do write though the location of the place on the stretcher bar of my plein air studies. With abstract paintings there can be more latitude given to the title. One should be careful not to make it too “personal” since viewers have to find their own reference point that will enable them to engage with the painting. Reading poetry is a wonderful way to help generate ideas for titling abstract paintings by helping one create connections by playing with words and phrases. Referring to a geographical location provides another source for titles. Additionally, besides not being too personal, I think that an artist should not be too artsy when titling an abstract. It would seem to me that an artsy title means that the artist probably thinks that I am too stupid to deal with abstract art and therefore I do not get it. If one has to be a snob, it is better to do so regarding wine than art.
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by Jan Rosgen, Sointula, BC, Canada
A few years ago an incident involving renaming a painting brought home to me the importance of trusting the titles that seem to be “given to me” intuitively without my having to think much about it. Often, a title would pop into my mind, along with the strong feeling that this is what the title needed to be. Sometimes I wouldn’t even understand what it meant. Take, for instance, Medieval Contemplations. I didn’t have a clue about that mouthful. Nevertheless, that is the title I gave to the painting. Not long after, being represented by a commercial gallery, I was told the painting needed to have a title the public could relate to. For instance, something like Spirit of the Forest. That made sense; so I changed it. During a public exhibit at which this painting was being shown, I happened to be within earshot when two ladies were pondering my work. One said to the other, “You know, there’s something medieval about that painting.” I was astounded, it verified for me that when titles arrive in that mysterious but strong manner, they need to be trusted just as much as the visual matter that was also given to me — through me.
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Marinating the title
by Lesley White, Prince George, BC, Canada
Titles often roll around in my head like marbles in an empty jar and from there, a suitable image may surface. Kind of putting the cart before the horse but there are times I’ve received more comments about the title than the work and I’ve decided that this is not necessarily a bad thing. Titles matter. I understand BJ’s desire to change a title to fit an exhibition/location etc. but wouldn’t recommend it for the reasons you suggest and because it would throw cataloguing records into chaos. How would one keep track of the changes without creating confusion? — it is commonly the title that identifies the artwork being discussed in all areas of communication.
My preference is to allow a finished artwork and its title to marinate a while. At this stage the title may change two or three times, but once the piece leaves my studio, it sticks, regardless of twinges of regret that may come to haunt later on. Western Art is my genre and often domestic animals dominate my work. If, in the title, I can suggest a similarity between the animal and the human viewing it, the connection to the work is strengthened.
I have attached the painting, The Nonconformist, which could metaphorically relate to the viewer, and would make no sense at all without the title.
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Places East of here, No. 5
oil painting 32 x 32 inches
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Brad Greek of Mary Esther, FL, USA, who wrote, “If all works were untitled it would be like all of us without names. How would we know which one we were talking about?”
And also Jean Stromnes who wrote, “Titles can be humorous or ironic, too.”
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