A Guide to Picking Compelling, Thought-Provoking Names for Your Art

The title can tell your viewers how to approach the piece

Modular Origami Sculpture on Colorful Background

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Choosing a good title for your piece of art says something about what the drawing or painting means to you and gives the viewer clues about approaching the piece.

Because you take your art seriously, it's easy to go a little over the top. Everyone has seen it: the bored nude sitting in a cold, poorly lit studio, titled "Summer Reverie," or an artificial arrangement of crockery titled "Afternoon Tea." Possibly worse is the complex, mysterious abstract piece with the unhelpful name of "Untitled."

With a little thought, you can avoid a confusing or off-putting title and find a good fit for your art and your audience.

First, an Argument for 'Untitled'

There are good reasons to have reservations about major pieces going untitled, yet there can be justification for taking that route. Artists might wish to let a work speak for itself and not impose a text upon the image and viewer. Also, the very "untitled-ness" of it—the absence of a label—might be in itself important.

Quite often, artwork really doesn't need a title. This is particularly true of smaller sketches, studies, and preparatory works, many of which are simply that: working sketches that weren't intended to stand on their own as works 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:

Figure Drawings

Studio nudes given a melodramatic title can seem pretentious, so be careful. Your best strategy is to take a leaf from Francis Bacon's book and give a descriptive title.

Admittedly, there are only so many "Standing Nudes" that you can do before your catalog 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:

  • "Figure Drawing 23" for the basic naked model
  • "Torso: Graphite Pencil" or "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"
  • In a pinch, a little humor: "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 for 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 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:

  • "Still Life 1985" or "Still Life: Color Study"
  • "Fruit Bowl," "Found Objects," "Spring Blooms," depending on the objects
  • "Katie's Favorites" or "Autumn in the Kitchen"
  • "Conversation," "After the Argument," or "Too Late," for metaphorical pieces.

Pets

Pets can evoke a lot of emotion for people, so artists too often give pet portraits overly emotional names that can come across as saccharine. Once again, simplicity is usually the best approach, unless you're working with an image that tells a very strong story: 

  • "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, 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 watch out for cliche and sentimentality.

Landscapes

Sometimes the location doesn't matter, but often people want to know if those familiar mountains are 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 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're 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 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 used 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.