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How to Title Art

How to Choose a Title For Drawings and Paintings

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Choosing a good title for your art is important. It says something about what the drawing or painting means to you as an artist and gives the viewer some clues about approaching the piece. Because we take our art seriously, it's easy to go a little over the top. We've all seen it - the bored nude, sitting in a cold and poorly-lit studio, titled 'Summer Reverie'. Or an artificial arrangement of crockery titled 'Afternoon Tea'. Possibly worse, is the complex and mysterious abstract piece with the unhelpful name .....'untitled'. With a little thought you can avoid a title clangers and find a good fit for your art and your audience.

Untitled

While I have my reservations about major pieces going untitled, there is sometimes a good reason to. Artists may wish to let a work 'speak for itself' and not impose a 'text' upon the image (and the viewer), or the very 'untitled-ness' of it, the absence of a label, may be in itself important.

often artwork really doesn't need a title, and this is particularly true of smaller sketches, studies and preparatory works. Many sketches are simply that, working sketches that have no intention of standing on their own as a work of art. If you find yourself putting such a drawing on show, don't be pressured to give it a fancy title that might be incongruous with the nature of the piece. Instead, identify the drawing with a name that includes theme or subject, medium and date. For example:

  • 'Landscape Sketch, December 2001';
  • 'Untitled Figure Study';
  • 'Domestic Scene';
  • 'Sketchbook Page - Hands';
  • 'Study from Rembrandt - Two Philosophers, National Gallery'

Figure Drawings

Studio nudes given a melodramatic title can seem pretentious, so be careful. Your best strategy is to take a leaf out of Francis Bacon's book and give a descriptive title. Admittedly there are only so many 'Standing Nudes' that you can do before your catalogue becomes confusing. You can combat this by using unique features in the title or subtitle - details such as the model's name, date/time, medium, pose or location. For Example:
  • 'Figure Drawing 23' for the basic naked model
  • 'Torso - Graphite Pencil' 'Seated Figure in Charcoal'
  • 'Red-Haired Model with Pomegranate' or something similarly descriptive
  • '2-hour Pose Number 1'
  • 'Sarah Jane with Drapery'
  • David in the Conservatory
  • at a push, a little humour - 'Boredom Sets In'.

Still Life

Still life drawings can be rather tricky to title. Keep it simple. Creative still life setups will give you more opportunity to give them interesting titles, with natural 'slice of life' arrangements offering a 'story' more than something artificial. Applying some thought to your still life arrangement, creating a deliberate mood or theme, will be helpful when it comes to choosing a title that is integrated with the work. For less developed still life works or studies, your title can be descriptive without stating the obvious. Consider using time, season or mood as part of the title. For example:
  • Simple: 'Still Life 1985' or 'Still Life - Color Study'
  • 'Fruit Bowl', 'Found Objects', 'Spring Blooms' depending on the objects
  • 'Katie's Favourites' or'Autumn in the Kitchen'
  • 'Conversation', 'After the Argument' or 'Too Late' for metaphorical pieces.

Pets


Here's a tricky subject. Pets can evoke a lot of emotion for people, and so we too often give pet portraits overly emotional names that can come across as very saccharine. Once again, simplicity is usually the best approach in this case, unless you are working with an image that tells a very strong story. For Example:
  • 'Winston' - simply the pet's name
  • 'Ch. Doogie Zanbern of Prague' - the full pedigree name
  • 'Branford at Central Park'

If you've drawn a sad Zoo lion, for heaven's sake don't name the drawing 'King of the Jungle' unless you are after irony. If you've drawn a magnificent wild lion, don't call him that either - the cliche is too painful. 'London Zoo Lion' or 'Lion, Kenya 2000' are simple but adequate titles. By all means be more creative, but do watch out for cliche and sentimentality.

Landscapes


Sometimes the location doesn't matter, but often people want to know if those familiar mountains are the ones they know, so let the title tell the viewer where the landscape is. Never assume that the viewer will be familiar with the scene. Even 'famous' monuments might be unfamiliar to young people or people in other countries. Revealing personal knowledge or connection is interesting: 'Oak Tree on Grandpa's Farm, Ontario' tells the viewer something about the artist. too. Often the title can pick up on irony, contrast or drama in the scene: 'Midsummer, Greenland' for a frosty northern landscape, or 'Waiting for Rain, Mildura' for a parched Australian paddock.

Abstract Art


Unless you want to make your art as obscure (and many artists do), the title of an abstract image is particularly important. Often the title is the only key to the art other than the piece itself. If you are interested in formal design, let the viewer know to stop at the surface: 'Design in Blue and Green' or 'Pattern No. 2 - Squares' informs the viewer not to look for deeper meaning. If your work is communicating a concept, give the viewer a clue into your mode of thinking. Titles such as 'Reading Beckett - May Be' or 'Quantum Mechanical Headache' are going to help your viewer understand and appreciate your work far more than 'Untitled Number 1'.
  • Final Tips on Naming Art:
  • avoid cliche, unless for irony
  • be appropriate to the scale and spirit of the piece
  • don't be pretentious
  • give your viewer information without stating the obvious
  • state the obvious if you must, to identify the piece
  • shorter is generally better. Let the art do the talking.

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