Titling my work is not an afterthought, but a significant step in my art-making. However, there are times when I struggle with it, even though I’ve been a word nerd since childhood. In considering this subject, I wondered what some of my colleagues thought, so I invited their voices into the discussion.
While attaching titles to creative works serves to differentiate them from others, artists often go beyond the practical. What is the purpose of titling a work of art to you?
Carol Stalcup, who creates abstract emotional landscapes, enjoys naming her work. “It’s a fun part of the process for me, and I see it as a way to communicate with the viewer, maybe draw them into more dialogue with the visual image, to ask more questions about it, to find more ways to connect to it.”
Betsy Horn paints stylized depictions of Texas state parks. For her, the primary purposes of a title are identification of the place, or communication of an idea having to do with the place or the painting.
Cityscape watercolorist Heidi Russell uses titles as a way to “inform the viewer what’s on my mind.”
“I title my work to add my own voice to my visual art. Its ‘name’ adds identity,” remarks Helen Searl regarding her watercolor landscapes and cloudscapes. “I believe that it helps create mood, bringing my vision to life.”
Kay Briggs, known for her seascapes, adds to the conversation: “For me, a lot of it is because it is “expected” of you. However, it also much easier to track the history of your paintings when you give them names/titles and attempt to maintain a list. I photograph paintings once I have set them aside to let them ‘mature.’ Not only is this useful as another way of viewing the entire painting, but often I have to look at the data embedded in the photo to date them.
Here are my thoughts: For me, titling is an extension of the creative act, a way to add meaning rather than description—although I’ll have to admit, sometimes description seems the way to go. I want the title to help the observer relate to the subject or to raise questions—without imposing too heavy-handed an interpretation.
Naming a work Untitled has been a common practice among contemporary artists. How do you feel about Untitled as a title?
“I am not a fan of using ‘Untitled’ except in rare instances,” Helen remarks. “It creates a void in the work for me as though showing it was a last minute rushed idea without careful consideration. An extreme example: Your newborn leaves the hospital named: Baby Boy! Well, maybe that’s a bit much, but art is important, and a name (or title) adds to the significance.”
Betsy and Kay, on the other hand, are okay with the practice. “If an artist uses ‘Untitled’, it doesn’t bother me. It’s the artist’s choice,” says Betsy. Kay adds, “I am ok with it, but it would make record keeping a bigger pain.”
“I understand why some artists do it, but I find it a little frustrating, as if the artist closed a door of possibility on communicating with the viewer,” states Carol. “But maybe some people just don’t like tying in visual images with words like I do!”
And Heidi thinks it’s, well, “boring.”
I may eat my own words, but I’ve been known to say, “You will never see ‘Untitled’ on any of my works.” I sometimes need a little help understanding the artist’s intent. Titles can help. But the viewpoint that a title can stand in the way of the observer and the work is one I respect.
The average museum or exhibit visitor may have thought little about what goes into naming a work. How do you arrive at titles?
Not surprisingly, intuition is key to arriving at a work’s moniker. “If the painting communicates a title to me that is more than identification of the place, it’s an intuitive thought,” says Betsy.
“I allow the title to reveal itself to me,” says Helen. “It’s more of a feeling or thought put into words than a process.”
“I struggle with titles”, says Kay. “On my sea life paintings it is easy to go with the name of the fish, but often to the general public this would not be informative. I lean toward using titles that have a twist to the meaning or that play off the behavior being depicted.”
Carol’s process involves intuition and sometimes a certain amount of time and space. “Even if a painting is more representational than my usual abstracts, I wait for a title to come to me,” she says. “I think about what kind of energy or emotion seems to dominate in the image. Then I try to translate that into a title that may point the viewer in a direction but leave the ending wide open so that the viewer can make the art about their own experience. So now it becomes a conversation. Sometimes the title comes really fast, sometimes it takes longer. Then I think about what if I encountered the painting for the first time with that title, what does the title make me notice about the work, or in myself? I have noticed that occasionally I change titles after a period of time, sometimes having forgotten my original title. Once I get the right title I never forget it, it belongs to the piece like any brushstroke in the work.”
In naming my own work, I consider the subject’s context and the emotion it evokes. I often turn to the thesaurus or my “Word of the Day” app to stimulate my word-smithing, especially when the title doesn’t just announce itself.
There are challenges to this part of making art. What’s the hardest thing about titling your work?
“Waiting for it,” states Betsy, alluding to patience being part of her process.
Helen finds it simple. “Usually once the work is complete I can quickly give it a name.”
For Carol, the difficult part is striking a balance between “conveying what I see in the image (or experienced in the making of it) and having it be wide-open (ambiguous?) enough for the viewer to connect with their own experience.”
What Heidi finds challenging is the experience of working with words. “I’m generally not good with words.”
Procrastination is Kay’s challenge. “It is easily put off, and I am better at that than anything else.”
In titling my own work, words with the depth of meaning I seek are sometimes elusive. Art often expresses things that language does awkwardly or inadequately. This is where I have to trust viewers. The work isn’t really complete until it’s shared, and I love hearing the meanings others bring to it once it’s out in the world.
Thanks to my artist friends for their contributions. Your opinions on the topic are welcome, whether you are someone who makes art or simply enjoys the art others create. Feel free to comment below.