Untitled monotype collage with mixed media, 12 x 8 in
“Your admirers, and potential customers, want to be informed about the picture, and the painting’s title must resonate and evoke an emotional response, to keep them engaged.”
I’ve realized lately that I’m not the only artist who struggles at times to come up with titles for my pieces. As my work becomes deeper and the meaning more complex, tilting my artwork seems to get even more difficult. Also, having used up a lot of titles over the years, I don’t want to be repetitive. So I’ve put together a few thoughts on the subject, including advice from the experts.
Why is it Necessary?
This might sound picky, but one thing that bothers me about not titling an artwork is that it still has a title by default. I’ve rarely seen an exhibition, gallery, or museum that doesn’t require something to be filled out in the “title” field. So the work has a de facto title, albeit a meaningless one. Just sayin’.
“A good title will provide insight into your inspiration for the artwork and may help the artwork tell its story.”
The Practical Side
Looking at the practical side of the debate, it just seems simpler to give your work titles. Otherwise, how would you reference them when talking to curators, galleries, or buyers? ‘The one with the blue blob in the front’ may not clarify things any better than, “Untitled #43”.
“The art of naming titles of individual works of art and titles of series may be one of the most underused art marketing/sales tools. From an art business person’s perspective, it’s part of the artist’s branding message.”
I’ve completed sixty pieces in my Transformations series, and I can tell you that if someone asks about Transformation 38, I may have to check my files to see which one that is. But at least I only have one series that’s numbered, and most of them are sold, so that narrows it down considerably. If I didn’t title anything, I’m afraid it would lead to immense frustration, not to mention possible insanity! I don’t know how people do it.
What the Experts Say
During the course of my research for this article, I haven’t found a single gallery owner, curator, or other art professional who believes it’s best not to title your art. There were some who understood why an artist wouldn’t want to, as do I. But the general consensus was that best business practices favored titling.
Aside from practical reasons stated above, experts felt that a potential buyer’s response to the work partly depends on the title. To me, it’s another layer of meaning that can help viewers to interpret and ultimately form an emotional connection to a piece of art. This is especially helpful if the work has narrative qualities.
I also agree with Renee Phillips (left) that the titles we artists choose are an important part of our branding message. I hadn’t really considered this before, but it makes sense. Since my tagline is, “mystical mixed media inspired by nature”, it would be weirdly off-brand if I had called the piece below, “Mountaintop” instead of “Kalachakra Matrix.”
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The Last Nectar (?), monotype collage, 11.5 x 8 inches
How to Title Your Art
So, if you do choose to title your artwork, how do you go about it? Sometimes the title of a piece will become clear to me as I work on it, but other times, not so much. What do you do if you’re stuck, and just can’t seem to think of a good one?
A Few General Guidelines
Many of the articles on the subject recommend brainstorming a list of ideas and themes associated with the work. This is probably a very good starting point. Along these same lines, writing down titles as they occur to you also seems like sound advice. I always think I’ll remember some great idea that hits me out of nowhere, but almost never do.
- Consider what the viewer needs to know about the artwork. If the piece is meant to communicate an idea or suggest a story, the title should help with that.
- Don’t be too explicit – don’t hit them over the head with your exact meaning. Leave some room for personal interpretation.
- Instead of simply reiterating what they can already see for themselves, try to include some emotional context. My tentatively titled “The Last Nectar”, above, wouldn’t be nearly as engaging if I had called it, “Butterfly on a Pink Flower.”
Figures of Speech
Kevin Hayler of wildlifeartstore.com isn’t the only one to suggest using figurative language as a source of art tiles. While this approach brings back memories of standing in front of an eighth-grade language arts classroom, I think there’s tons of good titling material here. I’ve used some of these myself without really thinking about it. Here are a few examples:
- Similes and metaphors
- Idioms: Don’t Put All Your Eggs in One Basket
- Current/ common expressions: Time to Put on Your Big Girl Pants
- Proverbs, adages, and sayings: As Above, So Below
- Alliteration and Rhythm
- Humor: Deconstructed Reconstituted 3-Layer Buddha With a Cherry on Top
Literature, Poetry and Song Lyric Quotes
I’ve always thought a phrase from a book, line from a poem, or a good song lyric makes a nice title, if you find the right one. When I’m listening to music, I often hear a line and think, Oooooooo, that would be a good title! Song lyrics and poetry in particular tend to be emotionally evocative without being too specific. One of my own favorite pieces is named after a line from one of my favorite poems, The Second Coming by William Butler Yeats.
The Blood-Dimmed Tide, monoprint with mixed media, 22.5 x 15
What if you’ve tried all the ideas above, but still come up short? Never fear! Thanks to the magic of the internet, I’ve found a few more things you could try.
Online Title Generators
Yep, believe it or not, there are websites out there that will generate random titles for free. Who knew? Not me, obviously. I googled “art title generator”, tried several of them, and here are a few examples of what came up:
Pretty good, not bad, and OK
- The Purity of Desire
- Inverse Mechanism
- Projection of Childhood
- Impression of Meditative Joy
- My Kinetic Distance
And Even More
Just a few other random ideas to throw out there:
- If you have a general idea, but just can’t find the right wording, go old school and try a thesaurus. They can be tremendously helpful.
- Ask your friends and family. Not being artists, mine are sometimes hesitant to weigh in on things like this, but it’s certainly worth a try.
- Last but certainly not least, ask the online community. People in social media art groups, or your instagram followers, can be especially helpful. The title for the piece at right came from an online friend and fellow collager. I love it!
Terrible, nonsensical, and weird
- Wound of Luck
- Repulsive Fluke
- Silent Butterfly Decomposed
- Putrid Dictatorship
- Peacock Desiring a Briefcase
- Mystic Chicken of Hate (my favorite!)
Hildegard of Bingen Dreams in Contrepunto, analogue collage, 6 x 5 in
And so, dear readers, I hope you found this article helpful. You may have noticed that of my three new pieces posted here, one is only tentatively titled, and the other two not at all. Thought I’d give the crowd-sourcing idea a go, so please put on your thinking caps and throw out some good suggestions! Thanks in advance!
Wishing you all the very happiest of holidays, and, of course, peace, love and art!