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Art Doesn’t Always Speak for Itself

January 14, 2010

If I could say it in words there would be no reason to paint. – Edward Hopper

I know, I know. You’ve heard that before, and probably said something similar. We can’t always be there to explain what we meant by a work of art at the time of its creation, but the title will be there and live on with the piece. We can choose to just use titles as a means of identification, even going with a numbering system, or a number within a series, or by using “untitled” and a date. Or we may choose “untitled” because we don’t want to influence the viewer’s  own experience of the work.

How do your artworks get their titles? Is your process for giving your work titles intuitive or planned? Metaphoric or literal? Serious or humorous? Do they have multiple meanings or one? Do they come at the beginning or at the end? Or do you possibly think of a snippet of a song and then create a work of art from it? All of the above?

In this new year I’ve decided to have a little bit more fun with titles, because I think they can be an important part of the art and give it an added dimension. But there’s a delicate balance, because I don’t want to lead the viewer too much. I just want to suggest something that piques interest and imagination, or gives a hint of my mood or frame of mind when the piece was created.

This issue has presented itself again because of my recent collages. Since they have disparate photographic elements at times, they beg for better titles than just simply “orange sky” or “happy dog.” And and there’s no reason a beautiful color field painting can’t have a unique title either.

Here are some examples of art with titles that make me think and then smile. Do you have any favorites?

Who’s in charge here?
mixed media assemblage
perished rubber monkey (gift from Richard Sampson) in old clock case (gift from Lesley le Grove)
music boxes, clock chime, cogs & wheels.
by Dale Copeland, 2007

I loved the title already, and the photograph of the piece. But then I discovered that Dale has an accompanying video to bring it even more to life.

“Babe Alert”
Lyla Haggard
Clay on Wood base
7″ x 14″ x 14″

Artist’s note:

This guy may have gray hair, but he still likes to look. Wood base includes terry beach towel and sand.

“Attitude” – Vikki North
Acrylic on Canvas
24 x 36″

Vikki’s statement about this piece:

The greatest discovery in life is that you can alter it —
merely with your attitude.
We can be happy or unhappy.
The amount of effort is the same.

If all else fails, click here for some extra help with titles for your work.

27 Comments leave one →
  1. January 14, 2010 3:21 pm


    For me titles are important. I think that leaving an artwork untitled is a wasted opportunity for creativity.

    Titles can change an artwork. In an extreme example, last year one of my paintings was kicked-out of an exhibition because the title was deemed to be unacceptable. Subsequently, after much deliberation I renamed the painting because of the way the title was being misinterpreted, but it materially changed the piece.

    Why not use titles to direct/challenge the thoughts of viewers?

    Good luck with your titling this year!

    • January 14, 2010 7:25 pm

      Thank you for your comments, Dickson. I agree that titles are important and that they can and should be an integral part of the art. I feel the need to get more creative about that dimension of my work.Thanks for the good luck wish! The same to you as well.

  2. January 14, 2010 3:26 pm

    Thanks Martha-
    Great blog segment. Big hugs.

    • January 14, 2010 7:26 pm

      Thanks Vikki. Your beautiful art and imaginative titles/stories immediately came to mind as I was writing this today.

  3. January 14, 2010 9:09 pm

    It’s something that really varies from artist to artist. There’s no right or wrong.
    Me, personally? I’m HUGE on titles.
    Most of my work begins as words (my own or something I’ve heard or read) so the title often precedes the image.

    • January 16, 2010 7:57 am

      John, I love that about your work. It’s fun to think about an image to fit a phrase, piece of text from a book, a sign, a song. I might try that sometime soon.

      For a while I was writing down (or messaging to myself) things I would see on a bumper sticker or back of a truck in traffic, crazy signs, etc. At one point I gave them all to Margaret Conte, because she is great at that process. I would have chosen a piece of hers for this blog post, but she has all hers in flash. But go check them out!

  4. January 15, 2010 12:00 am

    I do think that art works need titles, in my own work I try to come up with something that adds a bit to the piece without overwhelming it. I try to not be obtuse – or “high falutin” Hah! Sometimes it takes me more time to think of the title than make the piece (of course when I’m mulling over the title I’m doing other stuff too…) THe commissioned piece I finished late last week had a firm deadline, and I went to sleep the night before it was due with a disappointing “Still Life in Glass” but woke up with “Still Life of the Party” – I was much happier with that, and I needed to get it delivered, so that is it’s name. Although it’s a bit on the clever side, it really did reflect both the simplicity I strive for as well as some of the motivation behind the piece – more info here if you’re at all interested!
    Great topic Martha!

    • January 16, 2010 7:58 am

      Absolutely fabulous title. A perfect example of this whole discussion, Candy! Clever is good. I love clever!

  5. January 15, 2010 9:12 am

    I often have fun with titles, sometimes using the poetry of e.e.cummings to help: “so many selves is a man …” and “Two Are Halves of One”, are examples. “What’s That Voice I Hear?” “Do You See What I See?” “Transactions of the Mind series” “Hair Currents” “Intersecting Hearts” “Coming Together” all suggest something about the peice that augments the sculpture and one’s way of looking at it. I have a gallery page of works by Title on my website.
    Thanks for your blog!

    • January 16, 2010 7:59 am

      Beautiful work, Peter! And I love your titles and your approach to them. Thanks so much for contributing to the discussion.

  6. January 15, 2010 9:15 am

    Here’s my web page:

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