by Shirley Dougan You've spent hours on your artwork, absorbed in the process, and added your signature or mark. You're now standing in front of, what you've finally decided, is your finished piece...and then it hits you - what title should I give it? How often has this happened to you? For me, it's. Every. Single. Time. What to do?
WHY TITLE AT ALL?
A buyer/viewer's first connection is to the artwork, after which they look at the tag or label. They are not only looking for the artist's details and cost of the work but also for the title because it offers an extra connection to the artwork. It often helps them understand what they're looking at and gives them one more reason to initiate the want-to-know-more process. Titles help engage and encourage viewers to keep looking and learning. Titles can give tools to the audience to know how to interpret the piece. So, what do you want audiences to know about your artwork? Do you want your title to direct the viewer towards a particular interpretation? It has to be something that resonates with the work but gives additional information to the viewer. It must add to the artwork by allowing the viewer to bring their meaning and interpretation to the piece.
In a way, the work is 'completed' by the mind observing it. Everyone who approaches it brings their own 'luggage' with them - their memories, educated mindset and conditioned awareness - which translate and 'complete' the work through their experience. For example, a work of art of an older man sitting on a bench can be interpreted in several ways - calling the picture Alone gives a very different meaning to Enjoying the View.
A title helps that sense of completeness with the inherent suggestions and implications in the words that are used. Firstly, I would say to avoid stating what is known as "the bleeding obvious" by restating what the painting says. So, for example, if it's a painting of an elephant lifting logs, for goodness sake, don't call it Working Elephant because both the art and the title are saying the same thing, and it adds absolutely nothing to the artwork (I'm so guilty of this - heck I was the child who called her dolls Doll, Big Doll, Small Doll etc.). Avoid over-simplified titles that are just restating the category that the art fits into, such as Still Life, Seascape; instead, identify the feelings that you are trying to convey in the artwork and choose something that evokes that feeling - for example it may be a deserted beach scene with huge rocks which could relate to solidity and longevity as well as the feeling of insignificance, so instead of the title being Rocks it could be Storm Sentinels which gives the viewer something new in addition to rocks. Numerical titles are also to be avoided as they provide little or no information about the art and are difficult to search for online. Similarly, don't use the same title repeatedly, followed by letters or numbers to distinguish one work from the next, like Urban Landscape 1, Urban Landscape 2, Urban Landscape 3, and so on. These "titles" are anathema to gallery owners and curators, and art buyers like to feel like they're purchasing something unique. In a similar category is naming your artwork Untitled. So unhelpful, and whenever I read that one, I just think that the artist couldn't be bothered to name it because they don't value it at all - and if I, a potential buyer, feel that, then it's likely that others do too. Buyers want to buy what they feel is your best work; they'll have difficulty believing that if you've not bothered to name the piece. A major plus point of art with titles is that it's searchable on Google and other search engines. By not having a name for your artwork, you're making it a lot harder for people to recall your painting and making it very difficult to search for on the internet. The more opportunities you give people to discover your art, the more they will discover it. Of course, there are a couple of arguments for non-titles, for example, when an artist wants the viewer to put their interpretation on the piece and doesn't want to impose text upon the viewer.
Often small sketches and studies for a more significant piece might not need a title as they are simply working ideas and were perhaps never intended to be exhibited. However, should you find yourself fortunate to have an exhibition of your life's work that includes such sketches and studies, then name them for what they are - Study for a Fox, Sketch of Dad etc.
Sir George Clausen, Sketch of Landscape with trees, 1875-1944. Pencil on paper, 19.5 x 26.2 cm.
HOW TO TITLE
Start with key focal points and use those elements as a jumping-off point. What themes are there? Why did you create this artwork? Was there a driving emotion or inspiration? Is there an underlying story? What feelings do you get from the artwork? What words are associated with your artwork? Write down anything that comes to mind. This list could include colours, the names of things and feelings.
Go back over your words and expand - look in an online Thesaurus for words with similar meanings but be careful to choose words that are familiar and comfortable to read. Words that are difficult to pronounce can be offputting, as can words that are sesquipedalian* in a manner as well as spelling - use words your viewers can grasp. Be careful, though, and check whether your title can be interpreted differently. Read it aloud to a friend and ask them how it sounds. Try different combinations. Switch the chosen words around to see how they flow together. Unusual word combinations tend to attract more interest and attention than ordinary ones. Putting the words in a different order can shift the meaning slightly or make it easier to say. At the very least, they slow people down. Keep it short. While there are exceptions, if you need a thirty-word title, you are probably doing something wrong (and maybe you should consider becoming an author instead of an artist!).
Check your spelling. Unless it's deliberate, don't send your artwork to the world with any misspelled word in the title. Your error can make you look less professional or serious as an artist. Translate a title into another language. Sometimes keywords that reflect the topic or theme of your artwork might resonate better in another language, but check that the spelling and any accents or other markings are correct.
Still, life paintings can be challenging to title as they lend themselves to "stating the obvious". Creating a deliberate mood or theme when you set up your still life arrangement may help when choosing a title. For example, grouping objects with a theme in mind, such as baking, rest time, and Autumn, immediately evokes a feeling and set of emotions. Perhaps there is an object very personal to you, e.g. Grandma's old diary, the Necklace that my Mum gave me.
These titles add extra emotion and make stronger connections for the viewer. You can do this with landscapes and seascapes, too - The Oak Tree on Grandad's Farm or Our Coastal Adventure. Consider using time or season as part of the title. These add extra connotations and moods in the mind of the viewer. Sometimes the location doesn't matter, but people often want to know if that familiar coastline is the one they know, so letting the title tell the viewer where the landscape is - Storm Sentinels, Talisker - gives more for the potential buyer to connect with. Abstract Art can be tricky because viewers always try to "see things" in the work - they look for objects and things they recognise. You may be okay with this, or you may want to direct them towards a particular theme, and often, the title is the only key to the art other than the piece itself: Your title might reflect a focal point in the piece, or it may be based upon the emotions you felt whilst creating the piece. Remember that a good title will provide insight into your inspiration for the artwork and may help the artwork tell its story.
Ask your friends. Ask your Facebook friends; ask your Instagram friends - it's a good exercise in marketing and engages a lot of people. Offer a small prize if you want to. It's also a great way to gauge first reactions and feedback on your work. For example, your artwork might mean one thing to you but evoke some interesting or inspirational ideas you hadn't thought of. An interesting idea is to throw a "titling party" with other artists or friends. Display the artwork and ask everyone to give suggestions for titles.
Sometimes artworks are given a nickname by a critic or the public, usually for reasons of identification. For example, Jackson Pollock would often only number his paintings, e.g. Number 27, 1950. The art critic Clement Greenberg gave them names such as "Lavender Mist" or "Alchemy" to differentiate among them If you feel that your title isn't enough, beware of being verbose and consider the person who has to fit all those words onto the artwork tag. The most famous example is Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1, best known under its colloquial name Whistler's Mother. Van Gogh's famous painting called The Starry Night is often referred to as Starry Starry Night. This also brings up the subject of nicknames for artists, which is a whole new topic!
Jackson Pollock, Number 27, 1950, 1950. Oil, enamel, and aluminium paint on canvas, 124.6 × 269.4 cm. https://whitney.org/collection/works/2634
SOME WAYS TO FIND INSPIRATION
Look in these places to scan for words you like and use them as a stepping stone to integrate them into your titles.
Songs - lyrics, rhythms of word sounds and phrases
Literature - book titles and quotes
Mythology - names
Spiritual and biblical references
Colour names - in fashion, cosmetics, wall paint
Nature - things that have symbolic meaning, such as butterflies, pillars, mirrors, and clouds
Phrases – anything that's evocative, provocative, insightful, beautiful, mysterious, shocking, and whatever moves you.
Astronomy - terms and names
Times of the day - Dawn. Dusk. Daybreak. Nightfall. Gloaming. Sunrise.
Encyclopedias - if you find some. Especially the older ones, which have some beautiful descriptions of things.
On-site - where are you right now?
Try one of the numerous online artwork name generators, but beware. You might be there for a while.
*Even better is sesquipedalian loquaciousness!