How to Pick a Title or Name for a Painting

Are there any rules about how to give titles or names to paintings?

Couple looking at blank art with gold frame
Paper Boat Creative / Getty Images

"When it comes to titling paintings, what comes first -- the chicken or the egg?" This was a query I had from B.J. Wright, who went on to say: "I have paintings that are still untitled, in spite of trying several titles, as one would try on prom dresses. Other works were a title first -- then the painting emerged."

Well, B.J, most of us paint first and title last. Sometimes, about the middle, a title just pops out of the ether. And there are a few of us who get a title in our heads and figure out the work to go with it. Particularly with whimsical and didactic art, this last system is worth considering. The right title makes a difference as to how a work is seen and understood. Not only are titles a bridge to the viewer, they are also part of the art. I'm a believer in giving your titles some careful thought.

There are five main kinds of titles:

  • Sentimental
  • Numerical
  • Factual
  • Abstract, and
  • Mysterious.

For comparison purposes, take a painting of mine of weathered totems near a snowy, deserted village. The somewhat sentimental title I chose, "The Long Winter", attempts to comment generally on the current state of our native peoples. Following my five main kinds mentioned above, other titles worth considering for this work might be: "Habitations 17," "Late Light--the Village of Skidegate under Snow," "Pattern, December," and "Billy Martin's Haida Wife." (She's not in the picture.)

Artists do well to set up their works and run them by a series of title possibilities. Ask yourself: "What am I truly saying here, and what might be the sub-text of this?" Consider the implications of your proposed titles and how they might add or subtract from your purposes. Like cut-lines to newspaper illustrations, titles serve to confirm what's seen but also to add knowledge, insight, and a glimpse into the author's mindset. On the other hand, art titling is often used to obfuscate or evoke irony. J.M.W. Turner is an example of an artist who used ironic, compound titles e.g. "The Fighting 'Temeraire,' tugged to her last berth to be broken up, 1838."

Abstract art can present titling challenges. The formal values of the work itself may be mentioned e.g. "Red on Blue." Titling can also give viewers a clue that might help them on a voyage of imagination and discovery e.g. "Talisman." Sometimes, in this direction, you don't want to say too much. Brevity is enigmatic.

"Titles do not give a just idea of things; were it otherwise, the work would be superfluous." -- Gustave Courbet

Thanks to Robert Genn for permission to reprint his "How to Name a Painting", which originally appeared as one of his inspirational art newsletters, The Painter's Keys.