Titles of paintings

May 2, 2006

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

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.

Best regards,


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 that 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 what
they are looking at--in a no-nonsense way--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."