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What does a title say about a painting?

December 13, 2012
Small oil pastel sketch of trees

All about trees

Richard Hobbs talks about the impact words have when you look  at a painting:

“Seeing a painting is always accompanied by awareness of the role that words play. We are inevitably made aware of artists’ names and hence their reputation, and also of pictures’ titles as a supposed guide to meaning, however treacherous.”

I often have a hard time titling my work. I may come up with a title one day, and the next day I change it to something else that works for me in that moment. And I wonder how much impact a title has on a viewer’s experience of a painting, drawing, or a collage, especially with abstract work. Are viewers relying on the words to interpret the meaning? Do they want to know what I was thinking when I made the piece…or would they rather come up with their own story?

I want my titles to be honest, and I want them to reflect my intent and my interest. But, I also want the titles to be background information that doesn’t necessarily limit emotional or intellectual interpretation. I don’t have this figured out by any means, but I have been compiling a list of words for titles that I like and might use (Creeping Backwards; Dissolving; Drifting; Emergence…), independent of any actual art works. I think of tethering these titles to paintings or collages after I finish them, as if they intersect at that moment.

Small oil pastel sketch of trees

4 Comments leave one →
  1. December 14, 2012 10:42 am

    Oh, my gosh…this is gorgeous! So powerful!!!!!!

    Titles! I sometimes have a title first. titles are always the easy part for me; I’ve got titles that are still waiting for work to be attached to them. But I do wonder about the act of titling, how it can interfere with the viewer’s experience.


    • December 14, 2012 5:47 pm

      Hey, Robin–thanks for your comment! I’m glad to hear that you find titles easy. Maybe I am taking it way too seriously?? I’m curious about your process–do you think titles and the idea for a piece come at the same time? I know you said that you have some titles waiting for work–I do that, too. I love certain words and their implications, or just the way they sound or look…and I’m waiting for a painting to attach them to. Lately I’ve been to a few shows where the artist has written fairly extensively about the piece on display. Mostly I like that additional insight, but it does change how I view the work.


  2. Gary permalink
    December 13, 2012 11:16 pm

    Naming a piece of your work does present some kind of conundrum. Do you create some form of framework for the viewer? Do you steer them towards some thought or feeling? Or do you allow the viewer the opportumity to vizualize their own response to your work? I think in some cases it is possible, and perhaps preferable to steer people in a certain direction. And in other cases, maybe it’s better to leave it to their imagination. I suppose it depends on what motivated you to do the piece to begin with, if in fact you had some intention at all. Maybe you were just inspired to create….period, without intent, or reason. How then does one “label” one’s imagination? Or some whisp of thought? Does it need a name at all? Do you call it some “thing?” Or some “idea” or “feeling”? Or do you want the piece to evoke a though or feeling? Do you call it, “Think”?…..

    I think the title of a work can push it far beyond the physical nature of itself. It can create an idea or feeling that the inexperienced or naive viewer may not have experienced otherwise. Or it can diminish. Or it can create a mystery, which in itself would be “art” of another dimension. I wonder a lot about abstract art, which many times includes the name of it which I do not understand either. Some titles are so far out there that it actually “distracts” from the beauty of their work and I walk away completely missing the experience… or perhaps… that may have been the artist’s intention all along… and I completely missed the experience.

    Anyway… I digress… which would probably be the most suitable title of my self portrait…


    • December 14, 2012 5:31 pm


      Thank you for your thoughtful response! All of those questions that you asked pop into my head every time I finish a piece. And I don’t have a consistent answer. I do like your comment “Maybe you were just inspired to create….period, without intent, or reason.” That’s a great directive. Maybe sometimes we “think” too much about labels or artistic intent and forget to just experience what we are looking at. I think I lean towards titles for my work that are as abstract as the piece itself…hoping that it’s nebulous enough not to influence the viewer.

      And your self-portrait comment, “I digress,” made me laugh!


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