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Caroline Henry Art Blog

On Naming Paintings

by Caroline , February 14, 2009—12:00 AM

Topics: artists and their work, marketing and promotion, scratch, sea scape, titles, watercolor

A natural bridge formation arches over churning seas. Where the ocean meets the horizon a line of clouds meets blue skies. White surf washes the beach where an orange hues sea star lies in the sand. The entire painting is a mere 5" by 7". Details were scratched from india ink coating clay-covered board and colors were added with water color paints. Once the work was completed, it needed a name. Does one choose the obvious or go beyond that?

Real titles, as compared to the descriptions one puts together for E-bay, can invite the viewer to see the painting in a certain way. There are those who go the "Untitled" route on the grounds that the painting should speak for itself, but this seems to be a rather weak out. It may suggest a sudden loss interest on the part of the artist, and it certainly makes it hard to discuss the body of work by an artist. Not good for marketing. So "Untitled" it is definitely not.

Actually I have showed this once, under the rather descriptive and obvious title "Natural Bridges Formation". It does depict the last of the arches left in Natural Bridges State Park near Santa Cruz, California. Once there were three. The title I finally came up with is allegorical: Permanent As Stone. Any one familiar with the shore line action of water and wind upon stone knows that over time cliffs are worn away until we get formations such as this, which will wear away to stacks, and finally to sand upon the beach. The title suggests we should not have too much confidence in great, permanent things; just check the economy if you don't "get" what I'm saying.

Other titles can appeal to the emotional impact of the painting. Many of Paul Gauguin's paintings have descriptive titles, but some of his Tahitian works such as "Where Art You Going?" and "Alone" invite us into the grief in the scene. Other titles direct us into the pool of cultural myth and experience from which a work comes. Imagine a painting of a beautiful woman of uncertain age gazing from a rocky cliff out to sea. Regardless of how she was dressed or draped, with a second look different things would go on in our minds it the painting were called "Woman Gazing out to Sea" versus "Penelope Waits" . Titles can give significance to particular details: most people with an interest in art would know just what painting I meant if I simply said, "You know, the one with the Pearl Earring". If you are stuck for other possibilities, what can you do with the colors in the painting? "Blue Evening", "One Red Blossom", "Bright Yellow Slicker", etc.

Some of us find titling works easy, and others of us always struggle with it. The main thing is to paint well. If you struggle with titles, you might look to others for suggestions or just pick works you like. If you call you still life with lemons something like "Rugby Rotation" maybe people will think you are a divergent thinking genius!!




  Caroline Henry ( homepage )

02/26/2009 * 22:20:24

Peter, I too love word play. A clever title which ties to essential qualities of the work of an artist provides a powerful memory trigger for keeping that image alive in my mind.


  Peter Barnett

02/23/2009 * 08:19:02

Like Kelly I am a word fact a punster. With titles, I can create a "pun" not within the words, but between the words and the image. And this does give a new layer of meaning, "way of viwing the work."

A good example is my images of derelict trucks. I call a truck in the woods under snow "Winter Blanket", trucks mouldering next to a shed "Truckstop", "Work Stoppage" and "Palace Guards". The effect is lighthearted, but also thought-provoking. Other titles anthropomorphise them, emphasizing their human qualities.

Luckily for me, titling works is fun. It is a second creation. And as Mike says, it puts another piece of me into the work.


  Michael Mize ( homepage )

02/20/2009 * 22:18:31

I think titles can also be a great opportunity to hint at the personality of the artist. Duchamp, for example, had wonderfully absurd titles that immediately trigger narrative imagery in the mind of the viewer. (a topic I was just discussing today in a guest lecture with a couple AP Art History classes) Titles can be playful, quirky, or silly. Sometimes they're bold and confrontational or poignant adn touching. Othertimes they are completely random and unassuming.

I went through a period where I enjoyed giving my images purposefully self-absorbed and pretentious sounding titles that seem to suggest some sort of deep significant content when there was none. It was good for a grin when people tried to "unlock" the own form of Dada.

Thanks for a great article, Caroline. This is a topic whose importance I often forget to touch on with my students. I appreciate the reminder!


  ArtId Staff ( homepage )

02/18/2009 * 21:05:50

Well Said, Caroline!


  Caroline Henry ( homepage )

02/18/2009 * 18:36:54

I like what Mary said about talking about why you titled a painting as you did being a good theme for a blog. People love to know the story of a painting, and the blog is the internet equivalent of the conversations an artist has at the opening reception of a gallery show.


  Mary ( homepage )

02/18/2009 * 14:23:51

Kelly, you are so right. Establish connections. People always ask me "What would I blog about?" There is a start. Why did you give the piece that name? There are a hundred stories about any given piece, "Untitled" suggests you have no stories, no connections, nothing with which to start a conversation. There is this great little button in your Gallery Manager "Blog about this art". Tell us the story. If you don't get comments it does not mean your blog isn't being read.
Now, off to change my boring titles.


  Kelly ( homepage )

02/18/2009 * 11:36:48

Naming your work is like a christening; it officially welcomes the work into the world. As my training was in literature and writing, I often think about words and imagistic patterns in various types of writing, so may I suggest: sit with your work and begin to "doodle" descriptive words that come to mind when you look at the work. Don't try too hard to think of complex combinations. Just doodle, scribble, etc. Could be a smell, a memory, a sound that you connect with the image. If stumped, leave it for awhile but keep the image nearby where you may pass it in your daily comings and goings. Keep it in the periphery of your vision and whenever a thought/word, etc. comes to mind, write it down.

I would bet within a day or two, you'll look at the page of jottings and see some combination that will emerge into a "title" for your creation.

This process is important because, if you're asked "Why did you name it that?," you can answer intelligently and begin to establish a connection with the viewer, the work and yourself -- a very nice triad!


  Mike Barr ( homepage )

02/17/2009 * 01:17:16

I agree with what has been said about untitled paintings. To an observer it looks like a lack of care for the work - almost leaving it as an orphan!


  Mary ( homepage )

02/16/2009 * 11:29:08

I recently got a comment that suggested my titles were boring and he was right. Curve and Two Curves were named that because I had to call them something and I couldn't think of anything brilliant.
I still can't but at least I know which ones they are.
I'll have to put a little more effort into that from now on.


  Jessica Greenlee ( homepage )

02/16/2009 * 01:19:34

I am one of those who struggle with titles--how to come up with something both evocative and descriptive? Something that describes the work without limiting possible interpretations? It can drive one crazy!

A lot of the time I do end up going with the simply descriptive: "Tall Tree," "Sunshine," or the like.

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