Yesterday B.J. Wright asked, “What about titling artwork? I’m asking which comes first — the chicken or the egg? I have paintings that are still untitled, in spite of trying several titles, as one would try on prom dresses. Other works were a title first — then the painting emerged.”
Thanks, B.J. Most of us paint first and title last. Sometimes, about the middle, a title just pops out of the ether. And there are a few of us who get a title in our heads and figure out the work to go with it. Particularly with whimsical and didactic art, this last system is worth considering. The right title makes a difference as to how a work is seen and understood. Not only are titles a bridge to the viewer, they are also part of the art. I’m a believer in giving your titles some careful thought.
There are five main kinds of titles: Sentimental, Numerical, Factual, Abstract and Mysterious. For comparison purposes, take a recent painting of weathered totems near a snowy, deserted village. The somewhat sentimental title I chose, The Long Winter, attempts to comment generally on the current state of our native peoples. Following my five main kinds mentioned above, other titles worth considering for this work might be: Habitations 17, Late Light — the Village of Skidegate under Snow, Pattern, December, and Billy Martin’s Haida Wife. (She’s not in the picture.)
Artists do well to set up their works and run them by a series of title possibilities. Ask yourself: “What am I truly saying here and what might be the sub-text of this?” Consider the implications of your proposed titles and how they might add or subtract from your purposes. Like cut-lines to newspaper illustrations, titles serve to confirm what’s seen but also to add knowledge, insight, and a glimpse into the author’s mind-set. On the other hand, art titling is often used to obfuscate or evoke irony. J.M.W. Turner is an example of an artist who used ironic, compound titles — e.g., The Fighting ‘Temeraire,’ tugged to her last berth to be broken up, 1838.
Abstract art can present titling challenges. The formal values of the work itself may be mentioned — e.g., Red on Blue. Titling can also give viewers a clue that might help them on a voyage of imagination and discovery — e.g., Talisman. Sometimes, in this direction, you don’t want to say too much. Brevity is enigmatic.
PS: “Titles do not give a just idea of things; were it otherwise, the work would be superfluous.” (Gustave Courbet) “I’ll play it first and tell you what it is later.” (Miles Davis) “Only connect.” (E. M. Forster)
Esoterica: “What, where, when, why and how,” are basic questions journalists try to answer. In titling art, it’s different — not all questions need be answered. Having said that, a tried and true system is to give your work a sense of place and possibly time: Peggy’s Cove, January 9, 2006. Simple and unpretentious, this sort of title gets across — in a no-nonsense way — what viewers are looking at and satisfies the basic human need for labeling. If you’re interested in telling more about your own personality or methodology, consider adding a “floater.” For example, Peggy’s Cove with Stravinsky.
(RG note) Below is a selection of alternate titles for this painting. Thanks to everybody who contributed. If you look at the painting and read some of these titles you’ll notice how some of them monumentalize and even anthropomorphize the subject further. Others seem to trivialize the work; yet others enhance and invite the viewer to think and dream — still others add yet another dimension. Very few of the ones submitted gave further information such as Chief Williams’ Wolf Poles at Kitsegukla but that was understandable for obvious reasons. Ask yourself if it is valuable to repeat what the painting already tries to say to the viewer, and also, in what cases should humor or cute stuff be used.
Standing in the Winds of Change — Jill Paris Rody
Triumvirate — Dave Wilson
Old Wind From the North — Jim Larson
Haida Dance Over the Snows — Patricia Peterson
Legends Lost — Diann Haist
North Wind, Old Friend — Jim Larson
Tales of the Past
Lest We Forget
Frozen in Time
Frozen Tales — Lesley White
Three watcher’s west — Georges Lamarck
The Gatekeepers — Arnold Bloch
Snow-Covered Skidegate — Mary Wiley
Silent Vigil — Bonnie Hearn
The Gods at Rest — Len Sodenkamp
Silent Watch — Suzette Fram
Silent Watchers — Jack Newton
Sentinels of the Soul — Warren Beals
Eternal Paternal — John Fitzsimmons
Ray of Hope — Tony Melcher
Dawn, Heckate Straits — B. L. Noble
The Ancient and The Timeless
Cold Memories, Warm Dreams — Eleanor Blair
All Flights Cancelled — William Puryear
Dawn but not Forgotten — Jennifer Weber
Totem Jury — Carol James
The still souls — Rose Ritson
Left out in the cold — Betty Newcomer
Homage to Teotihuacán, the Sun God
Space, the Final Frontier — Luz Maria Perez
Damn, where’s my Jacket? — Beaman Cole
Evening Sentinels — Kay Hansen
Looking Beyond the Present — Jeanine Fondacaro
Good Night Fair Friends
Another Day Gone — Linda B
Skidegate Winter — Inga Nykwist
Stories in Snow
Tales in Carved Cedar
Skidegate Stories in Snow — Liz Runacres
Tales the Totems Tell — Arnold Pitzer
Golden Stillness — Billie Carr
Totems in the Cold — Sue Boies
The Spirits Awaken from Winter — Alice Berkshire
Titles are like punch lines
by Asterio Tecson, Cape Coral, FL, USA
After a recent trip to Key West, Florida, I started to work on an oil with a title already in mind. It’s not common for me to do that but the title crossed my mind while in Ernest’s museum and kept bugging me on our trip back, so I decided to go for it. Most artists feel constrained and boxed in when trying to work within the framework of the title. It’s best to just let loose and feel free to paint and not worry about the title. Most viewers, however, seem to give the title more importance and judge the artwork on how close the images were to the title. In some occasions, the title could make or break an art piece. Art is utterance and titles are like punch lines that guide the viewers for better understanding and appreciation of the art.
Titling of photographs
by Tina King, Ajax, ON, Canada
Many photographers title their artwork and I have been doing it for years by either writing on the glass of the framed photograph or on the matte surrounding the picture. In the last year, I have started to place the title onto the photograph in the digital darkroom of Photoshop.
Titling provides further insight to the photograph and characterizes the photographer’s creative intentions. Many times, the title is with me as I’m taking the photograph when I am “feeling the shot” or inspired by a particular moment. It is also beneficial to review pictures with “new eyes” in order to refresh the senses before titling. Titling can also extend the longevity on artwork where a particular title resonated with the viewer and visualization of the photograph stayed with them.
Time calls for change of title
by Alex Nodopaka, Lake Forest, CA, USA
Titling any artwork including poems is problematic as it pigeonholes the viewer/reader into a preconceived subliminal allegory. I find that, with time, many of my own creations would like a change of name if not of personality. I find that despite the viewer’s desire to ‘know’ the title, the title should only be vaguely suggestive and open-ended of what the artist intended the artwork to mean. For instance my example of the toreador could have a multitude of titles. One of which could be Veronica, the name of a bullfighting cape pass but also the name of a woman.
Free association valuable
by John Fitzsimmons, Fayetteville, NY, USA
I had the biggest block against titles until recently, choosing to leave everything untitled until so many people asked for titles and told me it was a negative when they considered art to see Untitled. The Painter’s Keys really helped me approach this and I gave the whole subject considerable thought. What I decided was that it is best to allow free association so the viewer can make his own connections between the art and the title. This avoids many issues and I think is proving very effective. The other half of that is where do the titles come from? I basically steal them, and make a list and simply take the next one in line for each painting and it is amazing how well this works. Don’t tell anyone.
by Sheila Grabarsky, Long Branch, NJ, USA
When I first evolved into a painter of abstracts, I wondered about titling. I had come across some works of Richard Diebenkorn entitled Ocean Park, followed by consecutive numerals and I understood that these particular paintings were done during the time he lived in Ocean Park, California. I took that concept and ran with it — titling my paintings in series, numbered consecutively, but based upon the times in my life during which they were created. In other words, my titles become diaristic for me; I can look at a work and remember that period of time. Consequently my titles are cryptic for a viewer, but I’m usually willing to ‘splain. (For example: JAG series was when my first grandchild was born — those are her initials. Pirate series, was when I adopted my cat. The best, I think is the UI series — stands for the time I collected Unemployment Insurance). It makes my studio time easier and more productive to not have to be ruminating on titles.
Titles represent a persona
by Kim Rody, Dallas, TX, USA
I just finished Playing with fire coral, which influenced my decision on the frame, by the way. I sold it almost immediately and I give a lot of credit to the title. Naming pieces gives them a personality of their own. I especially see how this works well with giclees… galleries and shops email me saying, “We need another Damseland, or Her Majesty.” Titles give the pieces their individuality — a persona perhaps. Something people can get attached to.
‘Untitled’ for the ‘uninspired’
by Jace Mattson, Denver, CO, USA
At a gallery opening of my work a while back I was asked why I titled certain works the way I had. When I had finished explaining to the potential buyer about the title of my piece Wavy Gravy, I was then asked why some artists don’t title their works at all. The buyer indicated that she was tired of seeing “untitled” on the wall as it wasn’t very informative and didn’t give her much of a feeling about the thought process of the artist, especially if the work is abstract. She said that a starting point would be nice and that a title can often give that to the viewer. After chatting for a while (and making a sale), we agreed that in our opinion artists who don’t title their work appear to be going through the motions of making art and that perhaps their work has stopped speaking to them. Maybe they need a break to allow the work to have something more to say than “untitled.”
Title adds interest
by Cheryl Tinsley, Mechanicsville, VA, USA
I frequently come up with a title during the very beginning of a painting. Many times it is related to the mood of the painting or some memory that relates to the subject I’m working on. It seems that the more strongly I feel about the subject of the painting the more easily the title presents itself. My paintings are narrative quite often and I believe that a good title adds to the narrative, making the painting more interesting. When I look at other artists’ work, I’m always interested to see the titles. I think I am trying to gain insight into their reasons for choosing that particular subject.
Titles stashed for reference
by Carole-May Coty, Tumbler Ridge, BC, Canada
I have a stash of titles that I’ve created from reading inspirational articles or a lovely piece of poetry. I keep lists of titles with my inventory numbers and assign both number and title together. If I see a phrase such as ‘Inner Journey,’ or Life’s Bounty, or ‘Rebirth of Wonder,’ I add it to my stash of titles. I often use one word titles like Jubilation or Surrender, that seems to fit what I’ve expressed in the painting. Once in a while I like to give a geographical title but I’ll add a descriptive word that fits my state of consciousness expressed in the painting.
Image statement for each artwork?
by Janet Lee Sellers, Monument, CO, USA
I tend to title my paintings with the idea that it will spark some interest in deeper thinking or at least more attention. But, this week an artist I interviewed (for my local arts column) mentioned that besides his artist statement and titles to his art works, he also puts in an “image statement” for each image. He said that since he has been doing that, his sales have soared. He plans to continue doing that. Hmmm… I may give it a try. And I thought titles were the inspired prose on visuals.
Title increases viewer’s knowledge
by Gene Black, Anniston, AL, USA
Giving a title to a painting is the “work” of art for me. Painting is a joy; on a rare, golden occasion, a title jumps into mind. Mostly I title the paintings for the viewers, not for myself. I know the work so intimately that names are irrelevant. In contrast, once I name a painting I know its name immediately. I collect words and phrases for naming the children of my brush. I do hope to illuminate the viewer with the title. At the very least I want to make the viewer hungry to learn more. In an interview I was asked about the title of my work Tesseract #2. The interviewer did not know the concept of a tesseract. Thus, by asking, her knowledge was increased and my art accomplished its purpose. A tesseract is the fourth dimension, a cubing of the cube. In the children’s fantasy novel A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L’Engle, the term is used for the concept of a wrinkle in the space/time continuum.
Let’s do better with titles
by Michael Jorden, Langley, BC, Canada
I have always thought most titles are banal and boring — can’t we do better than Nature’s Grandeur or The Canadian Rockies to crown a really worthwhile work. I first had this thought after seeing two very attractive figurative pieces, the first titled Too Good For You Spot, the second Dad Says No. The first title added an element of ambiguity — mystery? — to an otherwise straightforward scene. The second created a storyline that added dimension to an otherwise static scene. I have always had in mind doing a series based on lines from Ian Tyson’s music.
Humor stops the viewer
by Betty Newcomer, Mt. Gilead, OH, USA
I love to do whimsical titles because many of my scratchboard and oil paintings are animals, and can relate to human situations. An instance would be a painting of several chickens on the run with a rooster after one of them, titled Run Henny Penny!! or, an animal carrying its young on its back, titled Are we there yet?? People enjoy the humor and stop to notice the painting. I guess I love to bring out the human touch, so people will consider animals one of us, or one of God’s creatures, just like us.
Andrew Wyeth guides titles
by Paul Massing, Amelia Island, FL, USA
Andrew Wyeth’s titles have been a guide for me. I recall Wyeth’s hillside scene of his wife, Betsy, and their dog with an alerted expression entitled Distant Thunder. Also I recall the inside-outside scene of a cold, February morning titled Ground Hog Day. I sense that Wyeth spent considerable time arriving at the titles for his work. I have done a series of portraits of a Pirate who in “Pirate Days” captured the fort on the Florida island where I live. I have titled the paintings after him. The first was of the Pirate Aury and later works after his “imagined” relatives. First was Luis Aury, second Aury’s Brother, next, Aury’s Other Brother, Aury’s Sister, Aury’s Uncle. Another Aury Brother. Incidentally, all the paintings were purchased by the same collector and were installed in their home in Ohio, Recently the Aurys have returned to Amelia Island.
Wild titles in a flash
by Jackie Strickland, Brunswick, GA, USA
I do get the biggest kick out of my titles. As you stated, they come at all different times, but for me they come in a flash, almost like the inspiration for a painting. One of my favorite pieces is of me sitting on a bale of hay in a barn, age 10, all prim and prissy. It’s called Feed Sack Dresses and Dime Store Shoes. Another is of several bras, obviously for well-endowed women, and it’s called Busted but Not Flat. A sad painting showing a crying clown is titled Grief Satisfied. The last work I’ll mention is a melancholy one also, called Me and My Mama and Angeline, but depicts only two figures. My titles are very important to me and extremely personal.
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 105 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2006.
That includes Marianna Browett of Victoria, BC, Canada who wrote, “A creative title makes all the difference to the viewer, evoking the imagination and the memory.”
And also Rev. Angelica Jayne of Langley, BC, Canada who wrote, “Something is lacking when a painting is titled something like Abstract #22. It doesn’t give any sense at all of what was in the artist’s mind. Of course, that might be the point.”
And also Andrew Sookrah of Toronto, Ontario, Canada who wrote, “The name of a piece can arrive at anytime during the process, and that timing is of no import to the final decision. And from that same position I have been afforded a glimpse of my process.”
And also Deirdre Fox of Chicago, IL, USA who wrote, “One word or a single enigmatic phrase is perfect. The title is a mood-setter.”
And also Sandra Quinlan of Albuquerque, NM, USA who wrote, “Titles are harder than the painting itself.”