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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73 Comments

      1. The most memorable titles for me were an abstract painting with a large circle on the top and a very small circle on the bottom titled “ Fat Lady sitting on a Marble “ and a very tiny watercolour with a very long title “Lady with an Unusual Jumping Frog Pendant “

  1. Hi Jason,
    Funny you should mention being a poet. I have sometimes used Google to find poetry associated with the subject of my work. The point is, as you mentioned, avoiding the cheesy, so I tend to stick to well-known poets and I agree with your advice to keep it short. Nevertheless, I have sometimes found good suggestions from the work of the masters.
    Moira

    1. I begin painting and drawing about 10 years ago. That coincided with my entry to the world of Facebook. I displayed a couple pieces and one person I friended asked about the piece. I gave her the title and the meaning behind it. While I had a title in mind, it was a cultivated skill from journaling. Writing my thoughts throughout the day with no connection to anything else, prepared me for titles. And that online conversation prepared me to journal about my work. At this point, while I haven’t written a book or paper about all my work, it’s helped me the no abouthow images and words intersect.

  2. This really hits home. Early on, when I got to “Heron #5” I realized I needed to put some creative effort into my titles. It has become a little easier as I go, but I’d still like to do more. While talking with colleagues and prospective collectors, I mention works by name and pay attention to their response. When a title helps someone engage with the story, I think they relate to the piece. I see the difference with “Shrimp Cocktail” getting a chuckle. Simple portrait of a heron with a shrimp in its beak, but the rest of the story happens in the viewer’s mind, as the shrimp has been stolen or tossed from a fisherman’s bucket. Thank you for the encouragement to pursue better titles.

  3. Coming up with titles can be SUCH a struggle! I paint both landscapes (don’t want to be specific about the locations in the titles because people like to imagine it’s a view they are familiar with), and seascapes/ocean waves (after titling many, many of those it sometimes feels next to impossible to be original). The struggle is real! We love our paintings and want to do them honor with the titles, but spending so much time agonizing can be very frustrating.

  4. Thanks for a post on an important topic. I do find titles hard to come up with because, like Cezanne, I paint the same mountain(s) and views over and over. The same lake scenes from the same vantage point. These landscapes are dear to my heart and I’ve been gazing on them for sixty years. I work from sketches made in the summer and paint larger, panoramic versions over the winter from my studio outside Chicago, a far remove from the New England summer house that is my inspiration. Some of my better titles have been–“Summer Scene-Winter Colors” (because the colors of the wintry midwest slip into these summer landscapes); “Rain in the Forecast” (for a sketch that has patters caused by rain drops hitting the paper as I worked–you can’t plan this stuff–it captures the experience.) Often my titles, because I’m painting landscapes, include a place name or location.

  5. I don’t think about “THE TITLE”. Usually, my pieces speak to me at some point in the creation process. If I start to overthink it I stop, put it out of my mind, wait a couple days and when I come to back to the painting the title appears. If not I repeat these steps until it comes to me out of the ether 😀 Hahaha …might sound silly, but it’s true!

    1. Lynette,

      Often, I too, leave a title up to the piece. It often emerges when I am painting it. Sometimes immediately, sometimes at the end. The trick for me is to write it down when it comes to mind!

  6. I’m with Julie Wende! (Hi, Julie!) I’m a word person too, and although titling is sometimes challenging, I think the words are crucial to connecting with the viewer. Lately I’ve started writing a brief free verse poem related to the work, which has helped me create a meaningful title. The main purpose of the poem is to create space for myself to think more deeply about the piece, but I think it may also help the viewer connect with it as well.

  7. Not sure if this is appropriate, as my work is mostly digital photo collage (using licensed assets), but naming has been a challenge. Sometimes I have an idea or inspiration for a piece, but often I do not. More often I go through much trial and error when I create. When I am finished, if I can make sense of the artwork and everything is balanced out and specific design rules have been followed, it is finished. Usually, a one- or two-word title comes forth, with the help of both a thesaurus and a dictionary, and based on my view of the artwork. I back that up with a description that tells the story and helps make sense of the elements in the collage. It’s not always easy, but it works out. Here are two samples:
    https://linda-carruth.pixels.com/featured/watching-the-wild-world-linda-carruth.html
    https://linda-carruth.pixels.com/featured/escape-linda-carruth.html

  8. Hello Jason, et.al.,

    I am a photographer. Nature being my broad subject. I name every one of my published images, and many of my also-rans-but-never-showns. Many of my images name themselves in the field, before I’ve even hit the shutter — and often before I’ve even set up the shot!

    So this brings me to the point I want to make… as a viewer of other people’s work –even work shown in museums– when I see “Untitled…”, I think, “so the artist saw so little in, and had so little connection with this piece that all it said to him/her was “Eh”, why should I give it any attention either?

    You didn’t go through life as “Kid #2”, why should your art?
    –Chris Fedderson

  9. I use a thesaurus a lot. I thunk if the mood when I painted my piece and grab a word and then look it up on the thesaurus for other more interesting words- maybe a word that is’t used often by people. I’va also asked friends what they see, and then go from there. It has really given me some good ideas.

  10. Very often a title will suggest itself to me as I work on the painting. Sometimes a title that pops into my head will inspire a painting. But when the Title Muse is on vacation, I jot down a few words that describe the intention I had for creating the piece or which somehow connect with the emotions behind its creation. I then go looking through a dictionary or thesaurus to come up with a word or short phrase that seems to fit or sum up that original intention. As an abstract painter, I prefer to title a work in a way that still allows the viewer to arrive at their own interpretation. So unless the piece requires a bit of description to be fully appreciated (as in the case of my painting “Blood Moon Rising” commemorating this year’s rare conjunction of a partial lunar eclipse with an unusually large and strangely colored Super Moon) I try to choose titles that “suggest, rather than describe.”

  11. I am an artist who actually enjoys titling my work. I often repeat the proposed title over and over as I am working on a piece. The painting that I am presently working on shows a pine bough sweeping across the foreground of the painting which is about four feet wide. On the pine bough are delicately balanced little sea shells that I imagined being placed there by a child. My proposed title is “Swaying With the Wind.” I like how those words sound together and I think they also help add a sense of movement to the piece.
    I agree that “untitled” or “composition #8” leave a lot to be desired.

  12. As an instructor and a painter, I more often know when a title adds little or even detracts from the work.
    I constantly ask myself BIG questions— not that I have big answers—but searching for personal movation and significance opens me up.
    The overused catchphrase is easy, but adds little to the viewer’s appreciation. Better to open them up with a less obvious concept.

  13. Through the years, titling was a bigger challenge and stress factor than creating the art. So I developed a system. As I travel, read a book, listen to music, I notice meaningful names of streets, towns, and areas … and write them down. I pay attention to song titles, phrases or words in a book … and write them down. I put the list on a spread sheet and continually add to it. Sometimes when I browse the list looking for just the right name, a combination of words seem to fall together. I cross off the used ones so I don’t use them again. If the work does not tell you it’s title, this is a great back-up system.

    1. Me too, Jody. I have a long and growing list of potential painting names that I’ve collected in the same manner as you, with new combinations pooping up, just as you’ve described.

  14. Titles!! AAAGGGGHHH ! This has been such a struggle for me but I finally have a method I love which may work for someone out there too. I paint semi-abstracted landscapes and had gotten ‘busted’ giving them titles with too specific a location. Then I moved to one- word mysterious sounding titles like ‘Convergence’ or ‘Ephemera.’ Gag. Then I thought about how much I love good writing, both prose and poetry. Now I find works written by wonderful wordsmiths, and I use four-word phrases lifted from them as my titles. Recent titles include, for example…Tune Without the Words…With the Lightest Touch…Message on the Wind….To Claim the Sky…Years and Luck Allow…A Settling Into Things….Viewers have gone out of their way to tell me they love the titles and I am willing to go with that. It’s allowed me to see my painting titles as a beautiful enhancement to the work rather than a chore.

  15. When I am truly at a loss for a title, I will often find a musical term that clues in to what is happening in the painting. It worked for Whistler, and I have a lot of success with it as well. 🙂

  16. I am an Oil-Painter but I write as well so I enjoy giving my paintings titles & agree it is important. I think about the title right at the beginning of the Piece. I keep them titles relatively short & very relative to what they are about.

  17. I have a list of titles I sometimes refer to. Where do they come from? Some of my favorite poets…song writers. Yep, can you cannot beat someone like say Christopher Cross’ lyrics for pure poetry. Just take a few words from “Sailing” or “Ride Like the Wind” and you have an engagingly beautiful title. Yes, also phrases from books, quotations, etc. also make my list but music lyrics really speak to me. Do I use the list, not all the time but sometimes.

    1. I am an abstract and non-objective acrylic painter and I found that pulling titles out of the air was challenging and time consuming. So for some time now, just like Marie, I have kept a running list of potential titles (currently several hundred). I have created about a third of the titles from the other two-thirds of titles that I retrieved from song lyrics or titles. Often times the music that I am listening to (and many times is on repeat) may become the title of the painting. Occasionally, with so many potential titles at hand, it can also be challenging to narrow down a good and appropriate title for a painting.

      In the past when I was creating watercolor landscapes, the title of the painting was the scene. They were not very imaginative titles. Along came a friend who is a very good wordsmith. When she would make a visit, I would hand her the painting and within seconds she had a title for me to write down on the back of the painting. Obviously if I didn’t necessarily like the title, she would whip out another one. I was able to take advantage of her amazing ability until she moved away. That is when I started making a list of potential titles from songs! As others have said, I would rather create the artwork than create the title for it.

  18. I have a notebook in which I keep what I feel would be a good title when I come across it while reading a novel or magazine, etc. This does not always work but can get the ideas coming easier at times. I would prefer to have a title in mind before starting the painting.
    Jeanne Bridges

  19. My titles usually emerge organically from my painting. Usually it is a contemporaneous process. Sometimes it is ex post facto. My attempt is to direct but not preclude the viewers thought process. Indicate direction without setting limitations.

  20. Every piece of jewelry I make has a title even if a design doesn’t make it to the final piece of work. I have to have titles to all my patterns I create so I’m able to find and recognize them again. The names might come from the feeling of the piece, while others can relate to a stitch, but I try to make them my own. Sometimes I have to rack my brains but other times it comes naturally. Because my work can often look organic I search for names that relate to that style. Other designs might require an architectural spin to the name. Movement of the shape can also play a factor, while a quirky name might fit the piece instead. This is a roundabout way I got a name for one of my pieces. I was remembering Ronald Dahl’s book, Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator about aliens invading a Space Hotel. He used the words Vermicious Knids. For some reason the shapes I made reminded me of tiny spaceships and suddenly the word Kit came into my head, and it just seemed to fit. I do like finding names, I think it helps to express your work.

  21. I agree with Lynne Edwards that sometimes the title is suggested while you are painting the work or by what emotion you feel when you look at it. I thought at one time to have a title party with a lot of friends over and we can have fun naming paintings. However, my paintings are finished one at time on a relatively steady basis so I turn to my friends on Face book. Believe it or not, I have actually had some great ideas from that and also a couple of sales as a viewer feels more connected to a painting if they have a hand in naming it. One of my favorite names was given to me by my sister when she saw a painting of two geese on the snow – she called it “Trust Me”. She now owns the painting.

  22. For the more realistic work I create realistic titles. For the abstract work I create weird, beat/dada titles. Sometimes the titles are from songs, some come from a stable of prewritten phrases I can tweak at the last minute to fit the painting.

    I’ve often said that with the final brushstroke, a painting is done. With a title it is complete. Withan associated poem or essay that I’ve written, it is Compleat. People seem to like my Compleat art. When people buy it, they get the written material with the painting.

  23. A title almost always emerges during the painting process, and sometimes even before I start–at the concept stage, when I know what I am going to go for but haven’t started yet. I’ve occasionally put the title on the back of the paper before I started. Have I ever regretted that? Not yet . . . but realize the risk. The only time I have ever had to think a lot about a title after the painting is done is with wave paintings; I usually have a ready and apt title, but occasionally I want to use a title I’ve already used for another one. I’m a writer, too, so titling feels natural to me. I will add that, while I agree that shorter titles are generally good, as with novels, sometimes longer is just what is needed: think Portrait of the Artist As A Young Man. No shorter version quite does the trick.

  24. I just saw a painting recently with the same subject matter a dog with a person bending over it with the same title as your first picture of who rescued who. I can’t remember exactly where it was, somewhere here in St Petersburg. I wonder if they saw this and then decide to do a painting of the same thing.

  25. I’m an abstract expressionist with a deep connection to and love of jazz and color. I don’t want any titles that carry a “representational” touch. I want people to find whatever they find in the work, so after struggling with words (I’m also a poet), I had an inspiration to use the titles of jazz tunes. I don’t select the tunes to represent anything in the paintings, just whatever feels right. At my latest opening, some jazz fellows showed up and got it right away. Other potential buyers also love the jazz connection. That’s it for me. Just starting on a new series and using Brazilian jazz titles…Viva Jobim!

  26. I agree that titles are important and can enhance or detract from the artwork. I am a landscape painter and sometimes the title comes to me before the painting is begun but sometimes I struggle. When a title is illusive I place the painting in a spot where I can see it often during the day. The title sometimes comes with a glimpse of the painting.
    I enjoyed the article and found several suggestions in it and the comments that I will try. Thanksall.

  27. I’m not particularly good at titles for my paintings or my books. “Sounded pretty good at the time ….” 🙂 One thing I can’t abide is “Untitled, #XX.” Surely a work worth doing deserves a name.
    I find it interesting Picasso titled very few of his thousands of works; his art agent titled almost all of them … would love to read commentary on his insight.
    I’ve read some artists title their work by subject matter hoping a search engine will turn up a piece related to the name online. Jason, as you note in your narrative, often the more clever names offer no hint to the actual work … the name means nothing until you see the piece in person.
    When I’m stumped friends and family have offered great suggestions. I tend to be more literal and happenstance can take care of it. At some point the name means nothing and visual appeal and impact means far more than its name.

  28. I like titling and feel like I am giving the viewer a “key” to the image. I do many figure drawings and do run dry at times for naming them. Mostly they do name themselves eventually. I wanted to comment about “untitled” work. It is history now, but much of that started so that art work would be seen as a “thing” and not a “picture of a thing.” So there was a reason for it, it was not that the artist doesn’t care. Originally, non-representational work needed to assert itself as being a thing in and of itself, that it was not trying to represent an image of something. It seems that we have progressed enough that people understand that implicitly now.

  29. I’ve enjoyed reading everyone’s comments here and find I use many of the same approaches for naming paintings; however, something I did not see is anyone noting the importance or consideration of the subtle ‘music and colour’ of a title’s words, two other dimensions of naming. I like my titles to have depths of meaning, as others have suggested, but also (at least for me) the combined words of a title ideally would also have a pleasing rhythm or metre, with words of the ‘right’ colour. All words, letters and numbers have associated colours in my mind. So a title’s words and their individual music and colour should suit the painting. I only recently discovered that not everyone perceives words as colours, so maybe my considerations don’t translate into others’ perceptions of my painting. Still, it brings me an extra pleasure, even if unnoticed by others.

  30. This was a wonderful article. Especially helpful is the reminder of a title’s influence on potential buyers.
    Titling a piece usually comes easy for me, but sometimes I get lazy. Good reminder!
    After all – “what’s in a name?” Maybe $1000.

  31. This blog makes me rethink my titles. My art is very abstract and I want people to use their imaginations and to relook and continue to imagine how the painting speaks to them. I have just been using colors to describe my paintings. My fear is that a more definitive title may pinpoint them in a narrow direction and I would prefer not to do that.

  32. I guess I am lucky, but I find that works name themselves. Usually. Sometimes the name is there before I put brush to canvas. Sometimes it comes out when I am staring, looking at it, trying to decide if it is finished. The name pops out and I know it is finished.

  33. I agree that a title is important. Often people who purchase a painting want the tag with the title on it attached to the back of the painting. It helps them connect with the painting and also gives an insight into an artist’s inspiration or feelings towards the work. I mostly paint urban scenes with a “weather mood”. (Being Canadian, we are obsessed with the weather). Many of my titles reflect the weather mood and the street name. Or if there are people in the painting, something about the event. “Chance Encounter” was a name I gave to a vignette of a couple embracing in front of a restaurant. When taking photographs I often capture these wonderful vignettes of life.
    And of course, art being a visual creation, there is a plethora of descriptors: colour, mood, place, feelings….its endless. And always keep a thesaurus handy.

  34. Not only do I love titling my work, I often create a whole story to go with it while I paint. Sometimes I do a series of abstract paintings and i already have a group of titles ahead of time and then pick out the one which fits the piece best. Titles and back-stories definitely help sell paintings.

  35. As both a writer and a painter, the title is an important part of the story I am telling. It is a chicken and egg question to me about which came first the title or the painting. One of my paintings this winter has the following title: “Haiku: Sad low carb diet / dreaming of blueberry pancakes / maple syrup rivers. ” If you are intrigued, you can see it posted with my other food paintings at http://www.michellemarcotte.com

  36. I’m getting ready for a show in Boise – Garden City Library – and as I walk through my own little gallery, I talk to the paintings – I think about how I feel and what I can see – and I hope, as I hang the “ready for the show” paintings, that there’s a theme – and, as I’ve read here, I hope they carry my “brand.” The theme that’s popped up in the past couple months came from an abstraction where – with a little work and a lot of imagination – I can see a sad deflated face leaning against a long horsey face – The name of the painting is “Sorrow, and the Horse He Rode in On.” Several other paintings echo bits and pieces of that and might end up with titles of Sorrow and Joy – We’ll see. Check it out in July –

  37. Yes, titles matter! Whenever I see “Untitled #53” I think the artist has run out of ideas, has nothing to say, and is only interested in process and serendipity. When my wife or I is stuck for a title to one of our pieces we sit down with a notebook and free associate words. We arrange them in two columns then try various arrangements. Sometimes one or the other of us will blurt out a title at first glance. Other times we consult books of poetry, song lyrics, the thesaurus, or Google translate. A title that may sound a bit ho-hum in English may appear a bit more exotic in another language–especially if the piece references a person, place, or event in another part of the world.

  38. Wow this is a heavy topic for so many artists. I know we all have our areas of creative struggles and yet here I feel very fortunate. I am a story teller with my paintings so many times it is the title that comes to me first and then the painting follows – other times I think I have a subject and title and then what was a border idea takes a life of its own and becomes a painting with a new title. I am influenced by all forms of media and titles can come from there. For landscapes or still life painters – maybe a color in the work can be linked to a poem song or famous quote. I like what a previous comment suggested as to how your piece makes you feel- a good title can be lurking in there. Play on words is also fun. Try to turn it into – who are you ? What are you saying to me? Every piece of art is a unique character and deserves a unique name

  39. Naming a piece well can certainly give it that final push. But as an abstract artist, my personal ethos includes a conviction that what the audience sees is different and equally valid with anything I intended. Naming a piece often implies a particular interpretation or way of viewing that interferes with my underlying intent of letting the viewer connect — or not — on individual terms.

    I have named some otherwise un-named pieces in hopes of improving their chances at adjudication. But ultimately, “Blue Hole Derivative” goes back to being “2017 No. Seven” when it gets back from the show.

  40. the problem with titles is that most artists paint backwards, and that is because they’ve been taught to do so… every work of art, painting as much as literature, has a theme – and it is thru the theme that one comes to a title… for myself, unlike most artists, I learned to first look to the abstract idea that the painting is a visualization of – in addition to thereby offering title possibilities, it aids in composition, what to put in and what to leave out – and why, namely does it or not pertain to the theme… in my case, most of my titles derive from metaphors, as it allows me to place at times seemingly unassociated objects, in still life for example, and even in landscapes – tho have to add that for me, most of these reside within my head, in my mental world rather than plein-aire… still, the principle applies… and the end result is a work with an onion approach – layers and layers of meanings within….

  41. Some of my customers like to name my pieces for me. I even ask them – – oh, I am trying to come up with a catchy title for this piece. Let me know if you have any ideas. It really engages them and draws them into the work. Everyone loves to give advice.

    Also, I enjoy viewing other artist’s work, as it gives me many ideas, including titles for my own work.

  42. I find the titles often come up very early in the painting. They encapsulate what I want to get across: what makes me love this scene? By and large they are a pretty easy part of the process of making a painting.

  43. Titles are difficult for me too. I paint a lot of animals both livestock and wildlife. Usually there is something specific that inspires a title like the longhorn cow who is definitely a mama you wouldn’t mess with. Sometimes I paint more everyday things that people often overlook but have that familiar homey feel. Those are the ones that are harder to name. I start with a clear concept but the words that really describe it are too long for good titles. Painting names are like dog names. The shorter and simpler the names, the better in my opinion. But unlike dogs, paintings don’t answer to just anything.

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