Collective Wisdom | Creating Titles for Your Artwork

Coming up with great titles for artwork can be a real drag. Many artists feel like it’s more work to come up with a title than it is to create a masterpiece. If you were a natural wordsmith you would have become a poet, not an artist. So, the question is, do titles really matter, and how much time and effort should you spend titling your work?

From a gallery owner’s perspective, I can tell you that I do believe titles matter. A buyer wants to feel like that artwork they are about to purchase from you is one of your best ever – that it truly is one of your masterworks. They’re going to have a hard time believing that if you’ve called the piece “Untitled No. 427”. A good title becomes a part of the buyer’s narrative. A particularly good title will help sell the artwork. Conversely, a bad title can hamper sales.

So what makes a good title, and how can you come up with good titles without going insane? I have some suggestions, and I would love to hear yours (leave them in the comments below).

What Makes a Good Title?

Titling your artwork is a challenge because you have several potentially conflicting goals with a good title:

  • A good title will provide insight into your inspiration for the artwork, and may help the artwork tell its story.
  • A good title will leave room for the viewer to bring his or her own meaning and interpretation to the artwork.

Additionally, a good title will

  • be memorable and catchy
  • be original (or at least as original as anything can be in a world where nothing is ever truly new)
  • not be too cheesy

How to Come up With Titles

So the goal is to come up with a great title – but how does one do it? After having dealt with tens of thousands of pieces of art and having spoken with hundreds of artists about titles, here are some ideas that might help:

  • Start with the obvious – if there are elements in the artwork that are key focal points, use those elements as a jumping off point.
  • Was there a driving emotion or inspiration that lead you to create the work? If so, try and draw a title from that inspiration.
  • Is there an underlying story behind the work? Try to clue the buyer into the story with your title.
  • Try to put yourself in your viewer’s shoes – what will they see when they look at the work? What do you want them to focus on?
  • Keep it short. While there are obviously exceptions, if you need a 30 word title, you are probably doing something wrong (and maybe you should have become and author instead of artist!)

Coming up With Titles can Become more Difficult over Time

This all sounds great in theory, and will work for the first dozen or so pieces an artist creates, but what about after you’ve created hundreds of pieces? Eventually you are going to run out of creative, unique titles. To combat this issue, try to come up with a naming system. I’ve known artists who look to poetry or mythology for inspiration. Having a dictionary and thesaurus around can help. Get help – my mother helps name most of my father’s paintings.

Examples of Great Titles

Here are some examples of works that I feel have strong titles.

Lorri Acott, an artist I represent in my gallery is a master of titling her artwork. Here are a couple of the best examples of her titles.

Who Rescued Who? by Lorri Acott

Who Rescued Who? by Lorri Acott 

The piece of sculpture is fun and engaging by itself, but the title adds a whole new layer of meaning to the art. Last night at artwalk I observed a couple looking at this piece.

“Look at this one,” the husband said.

“I love it,” replied the wife.

“Now look at the title.”

“‘Who Rescued Who,’ Oh, I love it.”

“The title makes the piece.” Said the husband. The wife agreed.

 

Conversation with Myself by Lorri Acott

Conversation with Myself by Lorri Acott

Again, the title makes you stop and think, and the more you think about it the more intriguing you find the piece.

 

“Okay,” you are saying, “so there are a couple of brilliant examples, but my work doesn’t lend itself to those kind of title fireworks – how about some more down to earth examples?”

You have a point – here are some strong, but simpler titles:

 

Aspen Elegance by John Horejs

Aspen Elegance by John Horejs

 

Commitment by Guilloume

Commitment by Guilloume

 

Chicago to Arizona by Dave Newman

Chicago to Arizona by Dave Newman

 

Desert Flame by Joshua Dean Wiley

Desert Flame by Josh Wiley

 

What are Your Thoughts about Titles?

Do you struggle when titling your artwork? Have you come up with a great system for titling your artwork? What would you suggest to other artists who struggle with their titles? What are some of your favorite art titles ever? Share your experiences, challenges and ideas in the comments below.

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About the Author: Jason Horejs

Jason Horejs is the Owner of Xanadu Gallery, author of best selling books "Starving" to Successful & How to Sell Art , publisher of reddotblog.com, and founder of the Art Business Academy. Jason has helped thousands of artists prepare themselves to more effectively market their work, build relationships with galleries and collectors, and turn their artistic passion into a viable business.

42 Comments

  1. I don’t agonize over my titles. I pretty much use whatever pops into my head when I look at the finished painting. It seems to work pretty well. Some are better than others, but at least I don’t have to waste time worrying about them when there are so many other things to worry about!

  2. My favorite painting instructor has a tattered little notebook that she keeps her title ideas in: ANY words or phrases that catch her eye or imagination.

    And when she needs a title for a completed work, she consults her grab bag of ideas. One idea leads to the next.

    So I have begun a similar collection. To get going, I’ll use the environmentally friendly search engine Ecosia (also because Google is such a snoop) to search for say, “Poems about _____”.

    I’m currently painting a small, rain-swept landscape of rolling grassy knolls that stretch into the stormy distance. In the foreground, I’m trying to put in one of those wonderful stone walls you see in so many pastures in Great Britain.

    You know what poem would match it perfectly?
    One by John O’Donohue, which has this line:
    “Lie Low to the Wall Until the Bitter Weather Passes”
    BINGO!

  3. I actually love coming up with titles – often they emerge as my paintings do! However, I don’t limit myself to conventions and will sometimes use sentences, such as: ‘She Brought Flowers To The Party’. My ideal audience (my Collectors) tell me that my titles are creative and whimsical and call to them. (However, my guess is that these unconventional titles wouldn’t appeal to folks who aren’t my ideal customers.)

    If for some reason I can’t zero in on a title, I simply ask my audience – and get fabulous ideas! I choose one (the namer is thrilled) and store away the others for later use!

  4. The titles of my works come from the process itself. Since I strive to bring layers of discovery to each piece, I’ve been working to capture that unfolding in their titles. My (found art) jewelry is mostly narrative so the name is often not complete until the piece is, but starts with a key word, then builds throughout. 🙂

  5. Titles should function like a scene in a film. Every scene answers one question while creating another. The answer shouldn’t be overly obvious but offer a few clues. That’s the essence of suspense and the foundation of engagement. Once engaged, viewers have to respond.

  6. My fractal artwork is very abstract and subjective. I’ve always titled them on what appears to my mind when working upon the final stages. Sometimes though, I just can’t decide. It’s fun posting them on my Facebook page and asking the public for suggestions. Everyone see’s something different and they have a good time saying what they think it appears to be. That’s normally enough for me to finally decide on a title.

  7. Jason is correct in that a title can either make or break a work of art, and therefore it requires a good deal of thought in how it is going to effect the viewer. Art is an emotional thing, and you want to engage the viewer all the more deeper with an arresting title. I love your titles Ms Acott… They are great examples of how a title can be impactful emotionally. Some artists are not good at titling artwork. If you are reluctant, or do not feel good about a title, ask some friends, or family members how the work makes them feel, or what they feel the painting says. Gallery owners are typically pretty good at titling, so inquire as to their opinion as well. It does get challenging at times with something like a still-life, or landscape for example. Think about the elements of the work itself. Look to poetry or song at times for inspiration in your titles. Your title should always be a reflection of the visual aspect. A funky looking painting is better titled with something casual and playful. An elegant, formal painting or sculpture is best titled with something which is short and elegant sounding. The titles of figurative paintings are effective when you can incorporate a name with the piece. A good example of this is “Christina’s World” by Andrew Wyeth. The model becomes a real person to the viewer,which is all the more alluring. A mysterious painting should incorporate a mysterious sounding title. etc, etc.The title is all a part of the work.

  8. Thesaurus is my friend!
    I keep a list of potential titles in a note on my phone and any time I have a brainwave, I add it there and match it to a suitable painting later on.
    I try not to re-use titles but sometimes I have a favourites which really need to be revisited, so I might use one again, long after the first painting with the same title has sold.
    When I’m really stuck, I’ll post a photo of the painting on my Facebook or Instagram pages and ask for help, and the response is often overwhelming. More to add to my list for later use.
    Another idea is to make up words, for example I once named a painting “Flowmotion”

  9. And put the title on the back of your painting! Location too, if appropriate. And the date along with your legible name.

  10. Titles are millstones around my feet as I try to send my art work out. Most of my titles are as exciting as yesterday’s champagne. most of my work is abstracted either as pure abstraction or as abstraction with a reference. Two of the latest however may be a kind of breakthrough. 2 abstracted “landscapes” seem to have gotten some traction. ‘Home is where the Heart is”, and “Sherring Valley”. I’ll post the images to WOYEW so those interested can see what my version of those titles looks like. Both have backstories of course.

  11. Super suggestions Jason. I use a variety of methods. I have a flair for writing too so I don’t have much of a problem titling my work. Sometimes it comes from the experience of place (“Resting Place” from the series “One”), sometimes the end result (“Closer Look” from the same series), sometimes an underlying theme (“Broken”, same series), a mix of everything. I write a poem for every painting and put it into the image as well. The poetry and a little blurb about the painting is included with a cropped image in a poetry book on the series. Fun stuff!

  12. I see the title as a”key” to opening the door of the art. Each viewer will open the door to a different place. Most comments above tie into my experiences of the process as well. Next time I hit a wall, I will ask for suggestions. A good idea on several levels. Thanks!

  13. I spend a lot of time with music playing in the background and find inspiration from the words that have followed me thru life.
    Right now I am doing a series that was inspired by the song “Strawberry Fields” however I changed the word “Fields” to “Acid” (Strawberry Acid) to make it my own. I try to find titles that will make possible new buyers want to take a look to see what it’s all about.

  14. I usually pretty good at choosing titles, but if I create an abstract piece and am struggling for a title, I will post it to Instagram (which I usually do anyway) and ask my followers for title suggestions. For one thing, it’s interesting to see how they interpret the piece (sometimes very differently from how I see it) and secondly, they sometimes come up with great titles that I might not have thought of.

    1. @Deb Lutz–just saw your earlier reply about posting to Facebook. I do that as well, though I find Instagram posts get more responses, perhaps because it is an image-driven platform.

  15. Fortunately I enjoy writing. Sometimes when I start a painting, I write down some phrases that will get straight to the point of the Why? for the piece…my goals, what I want to convey . This helps keep me on track…and later is fodder for titling.

  16. I had seen a picture of a guitar , leaning on a wall upright. I took that idea & made it my own , buy creating a table top for the guitar to lay down on with a western hat laying on it as well.
    My husband, plays guitar & thought after watching him often laying his guitar down for a break time ; that I would call it “ Break Time.”
    Sometimes, the title just comes from my world !!

  17. I love creating titles almost as much as I love painting. It’s challenging but worth the extra time it takes to come up with something that truly fits the piece. A few examples…”Rocky Creek Retreat” for a roseate spoonbill standing in a creek beside tall grass; “Peaceful Transition” birch trees at sunset; “Morning Glory” flower-filled window in Venice.

  18. I used to believe that the work *should* be purely a visual statement and that a title was a crutch. Have come to understand that the title is part of the visual statement – it gives the viewer a starting point from which to launch. If Titian could title his pieces, then it’s worth it.

  19. My instinct has always been that a title should simply be the minimum number of words that identify the painting. When I painted a circle of eight baseballs, against a black background (acrylic on canvas, 60 by 60 inches), I gave it the title “Eight Baseballs”. One witty guy who visited my studio said the title should be “Two Walks”. Who was right? Me or my visitor?

  20. Jason, I like your naming system, and thank you for the examples. How would you augment this for a series of paintings? I often work in a series of at least 8 and sometimes 20 pieces. Isn’t it a good idea to have something in the title to remind the viewer it’s a series? I’ve used simple single or two word names for the series, followed by a number for each painting, but that’s pretty boring. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

  21. Great article! I guess I’m one of those lucky artists who rarely has a problem with titles. I’m not bragging. I just reverse the paradigm. For my current series of photorealistic paintings I START with the title!

    I have always used dry humor titling my paintings. An old watercolor of my cat when he burrowed under the Sunday funnies was titled “Comic Relief” and an old 30″x48″ acrylic painting of a herd of sheep basically titled itself, even though I’m sure others have used the pun…”It’s All About Ewe”. And, an old acrylic still life I painted consisted of three shiny copper tea pots. After some time thinking about it I came up with two titles. “Copper Pot Battery” which didn’t cut it because I figured too many people wouldn’t get the alternate definition of “battery” so I chose “Favorite Things”. That title sprang from the Sound of Music song, “My Favorite Things” as in “bright copper kettles”.

    But, my current series of paintings is all about the integration of the title to the image. I am painting large chrome toy jacks placed in unusual settings at abstracted scales. The series is titled “I DO Know Jack!” I start with a title with the word “jack” in it. For example, I recently finished Jack of Hearts where a chrome jack is posing with three large Valentine conversation hearts. In another painting, a jack looks to have punched through brown craft paper and then tore through straight down until the jack sits on a marble floor. It’s title is Jack the Ripper.

    I currently have 14 paintings in the series with plans for at least 25 more. Oh, the stories I could tell about the people who see my paintings at a show and then come back with friends and family and ask them to guess the titles! It really is a lot of fun to see the entertainment value in titles. My next painting will be Jack Knife and I plan to follow that with Jack Sparrow. You can probably see the value (and luck) of having a series that starts with the titles. Once I get a title to work with, it’s just a matter of imagining what elements will be in the painting and then composing the image.

    I also teach acrylic painting at a local atelier in metro Detroit and a number of my students do struggle with their titles. I often suggest that they sit down with a friend or family member and ask for their input. Just the discussion alone can dislodge some excellent ideas!

    To see the I DO Know Jack! paintings to see what I mean about the titles, check out my portfolio on my website.

    1. For those who work in abstracts, in particular (though it might be of use to others), there are art title generators online. They can be useful if you’re really stuck, and, if nothing else, they’re fun. In most cases, the titles they generate won’t be usable, but they might help you think of one that actually is. Search for “abstract art title generator” and a fairly long list will come up.

  22. I don’t have any problem titling my works. Since I macro photograph the streets I simply title the piece after the street it was taken on. But, even that’s unnecessary. Here’s what I do. I Google Earth, write down 10 to 20 street names and put them in an Excel File. Then I sort the file to be sure there are no duplicate street names.

    Some examples:
    Atwood
    Belcourt
    Cains Hill
    Shamrock
    Grand Crescent

    I also name pieces after things I read about in books:
    Mauthausen
    Kopernicka 12
    Lignite
    Lvov (lou-vov)

  23. I used to use simple titles that were related to the focal subject. Since stories is the real subject of my paintings I started working harder on my titles about a year ago. Now my goal is to hint at the story but leave it open for interpretation so others can see their own story. Just this week I was notified by an exhibit that they have a “Best Title” award and that my painting was the recipient. It is a painting of a women in an walkway tunnel who is playing a cello to earn money. The painting shows her from behind and she is mostly backlit. She didn’t make eye contact as we passed and appear totally absorbed in the piece she was playing. My title is “In Her Own World.” It was great to hear the jurors words about the painting and she definitely picked up on the story because of the title.

  24. I make a list of names and ask FB friends to chime in. That is a twofer. #1 I get people involved, #2, I get ideas I didn’t think of. The painting I just finished today is about the corona virus and how people all over the world are connected. I must have written down 20 names. In addition, I think the name should add to the story of the painting. The painting and name should compliment each other.

  25. Good article. It is interesting that titling becomes easier as one knows their own work. For instance I first started titling my landscapes to present their location or time of day “Galiano Island Shore” or “Evening Tide” and then I felt that the way I painted them was what was more important “Westcoast Lyrical Expression” ….and now what the landscape tells me “Nature Rejoices” etc. With all the themes I have explored a dictionary and using a thesaurus for synonyms certainly has helped, as does writing about our work even if we are not writers….I see it as part of a good practice in getting better with words about our art. I do try to keep titles positive as that is what I want people to experience – a positive, yet sometimes slightly mysterious impression. Not everything has to be said in a title – less is more.

  26. I liked your comment about titles during our web critique this morning Jason. You recommended not including the location because if someone had never been there they couldn’t relate to the painting as easily. I thought about a recent painting I titled Au Sable Point Light House. A better title might be something like “Guarding Our Shores”.

  27. Think of the title as the lead headline on page one of the newspaper or a magazine cover on a crowded display rack. It’s all about emotion. Grab their attention and create excitement, make them want to learn more about the story behind the headline. Which grabs you more? “Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1” or “Whistlers Mother”? In today’s world of TV and the internet, it’s the memorable sound bite: “Ask not what your country …” or “Today, a day which will live in infamy …”

  28. Jason, you are right that the title is everything. It can make a painting or create confusion in the mind of a potential buyer. Sometimes, I will have a good title automatically pop in my head, other times, I just can’t seem to come up with anything. At those times, I ask my followers on Facebook what they see in it for ideas. Sometimes their ideas are great and I may use a “version” of what they come up with or it helps me come up with a better one. I think there have been three times when I’ve actually used someone’s suggestion, because it was just a perfect match for the painting. One of those who submitted the idea ended up purchasing that painting also, so she was pretty excited to have a painting in her home where she got to pick the name.

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