On Naming Paintings – How Do You Title Your Work?

My paintings often come to life with the title in place. On the rare occasion that I start one unnamed, I feel agitated until I’ve come up with a title.
I was reading Gwen Fox’s blog post on naming a painting, and she linked to an interesting article from the Wall Street Journal.
Titles of works of art seem to matter, but it is not clear why.
Often my titles are on the abstract side, but to me they are intensely personal and the right fit for the piece. Sometimes I read a passage in a book and it connects with a piece I’m working on. Sometimes I hear a song lyric or phrase that inspires a new piece altogether, even if I’ve heard the song a hundred times before. It is like the song and the image are two long lost puzzle pieces that suddenly click together. It happened once while I was driving. It was literally like a jolt of inspiration…and it was a little scary!
As yet untitled work in progress...or is it?

As yet untitled work in progress…or is it?

So I pluck a line or phrase or word from these inspirational works and use them as a title for the painting. Sometimes that feels like cheating, like I should come up with the perfect name all on my own. But I really think that songwriters and authors are writers for a reason – they can express themselves verbally, quite often beautifully. I, on the other hand, express myself visually. If they’ve put an idea together that fits with my image, I’m thrilled to use it. I’ve always been a passionate reader, and when I love a song or album I’ll listen to it on repeat for months. Words get to me, and in turn they often affect how and what I paint.
For artists, the titles can be as personal as the artist. “It’s like naming puppies,” said painter Sondra Freckelton. “You see how they behave, and that’s what you name them.” African-American artist Whitfield Lovell’s paintings are often fragments from the jazz songs that inspired them.
I’ve been thinking about writing this post for a long time, but something always held me back. I felt like revealing the origins of the title might be too much. Would it negatively color your opinion of a painting, knowing the title is a fragment of a Duran Duran song? Am I just another silly, dismissible geek if the name of a piece is in High Elvish?
Admittedly, it is pretty stupid of me to be afraid to talk about this. I’ve always been really good at letting go of my art, and trying to keep a thick skin about opinions. Not all the names of my pieces are snatches of song lyrics or bits of a novel…but a lot are. If someone doesn’t like my work because they think my title sources are insipid, then they probably weren’t a fan for the long haul anyway.
So, I’ll probably be divulging more about my titles as I post new paintings. Not just where they come from, but why I chose them, and how they affect both me and the piece. I’m also going to talk about old paintings, and how the titles may have inspired and influenced their creation.
I should start now. The untitled work in progress I posted above has been vexing me since I started it. I was looking for a name that conveyed the fact that the rocks were changing, shift, shedding their skin. With the help of a thesaurus, I came up with a list.

transfiguration, reawakening, renewal, metamorphosis, transformation, rebirth, awakening

None of these were quite working for me, and yet I knew the word I wanted was right there, just out of reach. Oftentimes I want a word that is close to the meaning I’m looking for without hitting the viewer over the head. I was taking a shower and running words through my mind when I switched metamorphosis to metamorphic. Yes. I’m a geography nerd (hence the map) and a geology nerd (hence the rocks) and the title just settled right into place. I can say in all seriousness that I felt a huge wave of relief. Like I said, if I don’t have the right title in place, I’m agitated until it appears.

Metamorphic. Yes.

Edit: My husband pointed out that not everyone is a geography or a geology nerd. So, metamorphic:

metamorphic/metəˈmɔːfɪk/

adjective

  • 1 Geology (of rock) that has undergone transformation by heat, pressure, or other natural agencies.
  • 2 of or marked by metamorphosis.

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