How to Title Artwork: A Comprehensive Guide

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Last Updated on April 8, 2024

How to Title Artwork: An Artist’s Eternal Struggle

The title of an artwork is much more than a mere label; it is a powerful tool that can shape the viewer’s experience, influence their interpretation, and even affect the artwork’s market value.

At its core, the title serves as the first point of contact between the viewer and the piece, laying the groundwork for the relationship that will unfold. It has the potential to either draw the viewer closer, inviting them into a deeper engagement with the work, or it can create a barrier, distancing the viewer from the piece’s intended essence.

How a title impacts a viewer hinges on its ability to convey the underlying themes, emotions, or narratives embedded within the artwork. Consider, for example, the stark difference in reception between an untitled abstract painting and one named “Eternal Struggle.” The former leaves interpretation entirely open to the viewer, a blank canvas in its own right, whereas the latter guides the viewer towards a particular emotional landscape, setting the stage for a more directed exploration of the piece’s visual turmoil.

Painting made with AI to illustrate how to title an artwork
DALL-E Generated Image using the prompt: ‘Abstract Painting Titled Eternal Struggle’

In the realm of modern and contemporary art, titles often play a pivotal role in bridging the gap between the artist’s intention and the viewer’s perception.

Mark Rothko’s “Orange, Red, Yellow” is a prime example, where the title straightforwardly describes the painting’s visual elements but also leaves room for the viewer’s emotional and subjective experience.

Similarly, Damien Hirst’s “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living,” while more verbose, immediately sets a conceptual framework for the viewer, challenging them to confront their own notions of mortality and existence as they encounter the preserved shark.

Hirst Shark
Damien Hirst, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living. 1991.

This guide will explore the practical and strategic art of titling artworks, offering a deep dive into the nuances of creating effective titles that resonate with both the audience and the commercial aspects of art. Additionally, it delves into the intricacies of copyright concerns, the implications of modifying titles post-creation, and the importance of cultural and contextual sensitivities in the naming process.

The Chicken or the Egg? Working Titles and the Artistic Process

In the artistic process, the question of what comes first—the artwork or its title—mirrors the age-old conundrum of the chicken or the egg. For some, the title is a seed from which the artwork grows; it encapsulates the concept or emotion they wish to explore, guiding the creative process like a beacon. For others, the artwork itself comes first, with its title emerging only after the piece has been completed, as if the work whispers its own name once it comes into being.

what came first 1

The concept of working titles plays a pivotal role in this discussion. Often, artists will assign a provisional title to their work during its creation—a placeholder that serves both as a reference point and a framework within which the artwork can evolve. These working titles are fluid, capable of changing as the piece develops and its direction becomes clearer. They are not so much definitive labels as they are conversational partners in the creative dialogue, evolving alongside the artwork itself.

Determining when a title is the “right” one is an inherently intuitive process, a moment of recognition when the words and the artwork align in harmony. This moment can come at any stage of the artistic journey. For some, it is immediate, a clear vision from the outset. For others, it arrives only after much deliberation, when the artist steps back and allows the work to speak. The right title resonates on multiple levels—it captures the essence of the piece, communicates with the intended audience, and remains faithful to the artist’s original vision or the journey the artwork has taken them on.

8 Ways Artists Title Their Art

how to title arwork
Photo by OVAN.

The task of how to title artwork can seem daunting, taking into consideration the effect it can have in the reading of a work. Nonetheless, the way an artist titles their work can vary greatly and often depends on the artist’s intentions, the content of the work, the context in which it was created, and the message they want to convey. Here are some common approaches artists use to title their works:

  1. Descriptive Titles: These titles directly describe the subject matter or elements visible in the artwork, such as “Still Life with Flowers” or “Portrait of a Woman”.
  2. Abstract or Conceptual Titles: For abstract or conceptual works, titles might reflect the underlying themes, emotions, or concepts rather than the visual content, such as “Chaos and Order” or “The Emptiness of Absence”.
  3. No Title (Untitled): Some artists choose not to title their works, leaving them as “Untitled”. This approach can encourage viewers to engage with the work without preconceived notions and interpret it freely. (More on this below…)
  4. Inspirational or Literary References: Titles can be drawn from literature, poetry, music, or other cultural references that have influenced the artwork, such as naming a painting after a line in a poem or a song lyric that captures the essence of the piece.
  5. Numerical or Series Titles: For artists who work in series or produce works that are part of an ongoing exploration of a theme, using numbers or adding the series name can help identify the work within their broader oeuvre, like “Composition IV” or “Landscape Series #5”.
  6. Personal or Historical Context: Titles can reflect the artist’s personal experiences, historical events, or specific places and times that are relevant to the artwork, offering deeper insight into its significance.
  7. Use of Language and Wordplay: Wordplay, puns, or linguistic tricks can also be a creative strategy for titling artworks, playing with meanings and interpretations.
  8. Humorous or Ironic Titles: Some artists use humor or irony in their titles to add another layer of meaning or to challenge the viewer’s perceptions. A good example René Magritte’s painting “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” (“This is not a pipe”) from 1929. At first glance, the title seems contradictory because the painting clearly depicts a pipe.
Absurdity in Art Title
Rene Magritte, ‘This is not a Pipe’ 1929.

Occasionally, an artwork’s title acts as a private joke or reflects the inspiration behind its creation, offering a glimpse into the artist’s mindset. This personal context might remain undisclosed or be shared through the title or an artist statement, enriching the artwork’s meaning. Personalizing a work in this way can enhance the connection between the viewer and both the art and the artist, making the experience more intimate and relatable.

In essence, titling an artwork is a reflective and introspective practice, deeply personal and as varied as the artists themselves. Whether the title precedes the artwork or emerges from its completion, the key is in how it connects the viewer to the piece, bridging the gap between perception and intent.

When No Title is a Good Title

Choosing to leave an artwork untitled is a deliberate decision that can carry as much weight and intention as selecting a specific title. An “Untitled” work often invites the viewer into a more open-ended engagement with the art, encouraging personal interpretation without the guidance or constraints of a title. This approach can be particularly effective in several contexts:

  • Abstract or Conceptual Art: For artworks where the focus is on the exploration of form, color, texture, or conceptual ideas rather than depicting recognizable subjects, an “Untitled” designation can prevent preconceived notions from influencing the viewer’s experience, keeping the interpretation purely based on the visual or conceptual elements presented.
  • Encouraging Personal Interpretation: By foregoing a title, artists leave the meaning of their work open, allowing viewers to draw their own connections, emotions, and narratives from what they see and experience. This can create a more intimate and personalized engagement with the artwork.
  • Highlighting the Artistic Process: In some cases, artists choose to leave their work untitled to draw attention to the materials, techniques, or processes used in creating the art, rather than the final product or a specific theme.
  • Series of Works: Artists sometimes produce series of works where individual pieces are part of a larger concept or exploration. Leaving these works untitled, or using a simple numerical sequence, can emphasize the collective experience over the individual pieces.

Famous Untitled Works of Art

These examples of famous untitled pieces illustrate the strategic use of the “Untitled” designation by artists across different mediums and periods. Each instance demonstrates a deliberate choice by the artist to leave the work without a specific title, thereby placing the emphasis on the viewer’s personal engagement and interpretation:

  • Mark Rothko’s “Untitled (Black on Grey)” showcases the artist’s mastery in using abstraction in color and form to evoke deep emotional responses. By forgoing a title, Rothko invites viewers into a purely subjective experience, encouraging a personal and introspective engagement with the work. The absence of a title underscores the universal themes of human emotion and existential contemplation that Rothko sought to explore, allowing the painting’s visual elements to communicate directly with the audience.
  • Cindy Sherman’s “Untitled Film Stills” series is a profound commentary on the construction of female identity through media stereotypes. Using her own image as the protagonist in her constructed yet fictional narrative, Sherman leaves much to the imagination. By choosing not to title each photograph, Sherman enhances the series’ impact, allowing the images to stand as open-ended narratives that challenge viewers to confront and question the roles and representations of women in society.

Generally, the “Untitled” approach encourages a critical examination of cultural assumptions and personal identifications, making the viewer an active participant in interpreting the work. This participatory element is crucial, as it shifts the dynamic from passive observation to active engagement, where each viewer brings their own experiences, biases, and perceptions to the interaction with the artwork.

Can you Change a Title Once an Artwork is Finished?

Changing the title of an artwork after its completion is a possibility that mirrors the evolving relationship an artist has with their work. Over time, the initial title may no longer seem adequate as the artist’s connection to and understanding of the piece deepens, prompting a reevaluation of its designated name. This adjustment allows the artwork to communicate its essence more accurately and connect with the audience on a deeper level, serving as a reminder of the fluid and dynamic nature of artistic creation.

However, the appropriateness of altering a title diminishes once the artwork has been introduced to the public domain—whether through sales, exhibitions, or documentation. At this juncture, a title change could sow confusion and impact the work’s historical narrative and authenticity. For artists, consistency in how their piece is recognized becomes critical for preserving its legacy and ensuring audience comprehension. Should a title change be imperative after public engagement, it’s essential to undertake it with thorough communication and documentation, safeguarding the artwork’s integrity and historical accuracy.

egg light

This scenario is akin to changing a baby’s name after it has already been embraced by family and friends. In both cases, a name or title not only identifies but also shapes perceptions and connections. Once established, altering it demands careful consideration of the ensuing confusion and the need to realign others’ understandings and emotional bonds. Timing and the depth of the name or title’s integration into its wider context are crucial factors. While modifications are feasible, they require thoughtful navigation of the challenges associated with maintaining clarity, continuity, and the established emotional ties.

Quick Tips When Writing an Art Title

As both a guide and a fellow traveler on the artistic journey, I’ve gathered insights and lessons that have illuminated my path in the realm of how to title artwork. To students and artists alike, I offer this compilation of advice, not as hard and fast rules, but as beacons to guide you through the complex, often subjective landscape of creating and naming art.

Quick Tips for Crafting Art Titles:

  1. Aim for balance: Pair minimalistic works with descriptive titles to add depth, while allowing complex pieces to breathe with simpler titles.
  2. Enhance, don’t overshadow: The title should complement the artwork, enriching without overpowering it. If it doesn’t contribute meaningfully, it may detract.
  3. Intuition is key: Selecting the perfect title is an intuitive process, akin to choosing the precise brushstroke or the ideal lighting—it should feel inherently right, as an integral element of the artwork itself.
  4. Emotional alignment: Ensure your title reflects the artwork’s emotional essence, forging a deeper bond between the viewer and the piece.

Conclusion: A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words

In conclusion, understanding how to title artwork is an integral part of the creative process, reflecting the evolving relationship between the artist and their creation. The journey of naming a piece, from initial conception through to public presentation, requires careful consideration of its impact on viewer interpretation, historical record, and emotional resonance.

Whether choosing to adjust a title to better reflect the work’s essence or navigating the implications of changing a title once the artwork has entered the public domain, clear communication and documentation are key. This discussion on how to title artwork underscores the balance between personal expression and public reception, reminding us that a title, much like the artwork itself, is a living entity open to evolution and reinterpretation.

Luckily, titling your artwork doesn’t always have to be an ‘Eternal Struggle’.

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