Sunday, June 14, 2009

How do you title your paintings? A conversation about titles....

I can't tell you how many times I have googled "ideas on how to title paintings" with very disappointing results. So, it was with great interest that I participated in a conversation about titling paintings with artists Debra Ramsay, Cora Jane Glasser, Nancy Natale, Pam Farrell and Jane Allen Nodine.

My feelings on titles, particularly for my own work is that they are crucial- not only for the viewer but also for myself. They are a suggestion, a signifier, an open door, a thread, the light: to a way to approach the image.
My titles usually come after the work is done and I am sitting with a series of paintings in the studio. For me, titling paintings is the time for reflection and observation of where my work is and where it it is going.

It is a ritual- I get out the dictionary, the thesaurus, The Synonym Finder by J.I. Rodale, the I Ching, the Lakota Indian cards, the Runes, Animal cards, my books on haiku, Man and his symbols by Carl Jung , old journals and my ongoing "Ideas for Titles" book. I sit with my work and cipher through my stuff until I find a word, an idea, a phrase that connects to the images in front of me.
I also love to invite the professional story teller up the street or my poet friend to come hang out with the work-they are a great resource for titles!
When I look at art out in the world, I always look at the work first and then go to the titles and then go back to look again-
I want a title.

Threshold 48 x 38 oil on panel L Pressman

Cora writes:

"I have to say I really don't have trouble coming up with titles these days. Either they are tied to a specific source material that inspired the painting (e.g., "MoMa Under Construction"), by the form the painting ultimately takes (e.g., "Top of the Line") or by the visual concept I set out to convey (e.g. "Tension"). I've gotten over the idea that I am somehow giving away a secret that should be held or that it would be embarrassing or difficult to explain the title. If it is, it's the wrong title. Your titles can be reductive or minimal if they fit your paintings and I agree that they can be in series. If the shoe fits.... Ultimately it is an opportunity for the artist to say what she means instead of leaving it up to everyone else. I have found this does not stop viewers from taking what they may from the artwork."

Top of the Line Cora Glasser
Encaustic & Ink on Homasote - 49 1/2 x 33 1/2 (as shown)
Installation of 16 Panels

Debra Ramsey says:

"I am now more aware, in our fast paced world, it's safe to assume that the viewer expects at least some information right up front.. the title can lead the viewer into something, and can be used to broaden the "readership" of the work."

Horizon Line 1 encaustic eggshell on birch panel 40 x 40 inches 2008

Debra Ramsay

Nancy Natale offers:

"Miles Conrad had a different take on titling. He agreed that work should be titled, but as an artist he recognizes that giving every work a title becomes a little meaningless when there is a long series. He thinks that titling a series as you do, Debra, is perfectly fine. For myself, I keep a list of titles that I cull from evocative word combinations in magazines or books. (Or driving with the radio on NPR also seems to give me lots of ideas. The problem is that it's too hard to write when driving.) When a work is completed, I look down my list and see if something rings a bell for me. If not, I resort to my thesaurus. Apparently the online visual thesaurus is very useful for this method; I haven't used it yet but intend to. Alternatively, sometimes I get an idea for a title and make a work that seems to fit it. This is more rare but does happen."

Wrigley's Best 2009 Nancy Natale

Pam says:

"My titles come from many sources. In addition to using various thesauri (thesauruses?), dictionaries, snippets of conversation, I access music song titles and lyrics.

I am very often listening to music when I'm working, and if a song title or lyric strikes me, I'll write it down, usually on the wall so I don't lose it. Last summer I painted a series of oil on canvas. They all had some relationship to bodies of water (loosely). My favorite was titled "Seasick Sailor" which I heard in a Beck song, Nausea: “I'm a seasick sailor on a ship of noise/I got my maps all backwards and my instincts poisoned.” The timing was just perfect because I heard this song while I was painting and thinking about titles, and the lyric really jumped out at me.As I continued to work and listen, it occurred to me that the lyric Seasick Sailor sounded familiar. After that I kind of got fixated on it and couldn't stop thinking about where I'd heard it before. With a bit of searching on the internet I found that it was a lyric from It's All Over Now Baby Blue , a Bob Dylan song(a tremendous song, and one that is perfect in its simplicity): "All your seasick sailors, they are rowing home. All your empty-handed armies are all going home." Anyway, each set of lyrics, while different, are amazingly evocative and led me back to the emotional place I was interested in with this painting--a sense of loss and longing."

Seasick Sailor Pam Farrell

Jane responds:

"Titling has been something I have both managed and struggled with for the almost 40 years I have been producing art for exhibition. In my career I have worked in various styles including objective, non-objective, abstraction and probably some things that can’t be defined. When I was in grad school in the late 70’s I was working non-objectively using materials and processes that had been influenced by minimalism/conceptualism/process-materials, and I was looking at artists such as Michelle Stuart, Dorthea Rockburne, Agnes Martin, Robert Ryman, Robert Morris, Eva Hesse, etc. I was studying in an atmosphere of “non-emotion” so titling was expected to be rather clinical and documentary. i.e. “untitled paper and tape # 14”. I was also concerned about applying titles that led or directed the audience, when I wanted the works themselves to perform that task. As my career developed, I began to pull away from the sterility of “untitled”, and I tried to identify some element that was significant to the work, without stifling the viewer into a “holding pattern” of a single direction or idea. The dictionary and thesaurus have always been my main source for developing titles, and for years I have kept lists of words, their meanings, and related words. So I usually go to those lists and begin making thoughtful decisions for title choices. On a side note-and influences-I direct a study abroad program in Italy and I have been trying to learn Italian for nearly ten years. About five years ago I began to introduce Italian terms and words into my titles. Such as a series of little girls slips I was working on became "sotto vestigia", relating to under garment. I typically title a series, or a tightly related body of work, such as “integument” series,” lamellate” series or “traces” series. Within each series, an individual work will/may get a more specific title such as “laminated integument 6 “ or “venetian integument 3”. While I use titles that reveal information about the work, I also seek words and phrases that can veil or obscure. I seek titles that support work, but I also seek words and terms that challenge or engage the viewer. I tend to be most satisfied when a title has a bit of mystique or tension. Interestingly, I find that as a work is coming to conclusion, and I know it is almost finished, title ideas tend to flow forth. I write down these ideas and impressions, and then go rather methodically through a decision making process until I am satisfied with asolution. My current work involves a non-objective body that is concerned with the trace of the hand and the mark of a tool/substance, and another body/series of work that combines collage-like images in odd or diverse juxtapositions, leading to, or insinuating narrative material. For the non-objective group I am currently naming them “trace.001”, “trace.002”, and so on. It is about the trace or residue, and the numbers are sequential giving some indication of when or which works were created prior to others. It also relates to my digital background and the Industry’s obsession with rushing to develop a new version of Adobe 4.0 something or other. In the image-based works, such as the pieces that include irons and shirts, I have been using the word “seared” in most of the titles. The burn mark is a “seared” mark, but images and words can be searingly painful and I anticipate the viewer will respond to the term “seared” in a different manner than if I use the term “burn”."

Trace.oo2 Jane Nodine

Two Websites to Checkout


Pamela Farrell said...

Thanks so much for this post. I love hearing each artist discuss their own process of titling the work.

As Jane points out, the artists' evolution can also parallel the zeitgeist, or prevailing trend with materials, process, and titling.

To me, the title has become an important part of the dialog with the viewer.

Diane McGregor said...

Dear Lisa,

Great post! A little bit of each artist's method applies to my practice of choosing titles. Your's and Pam's is the closest to my way of doing it - a synchronous kind of connection with a poetic phrase in a book or a song lyric, usually while I'm in the process of working on the painting. Sometimes, I'll start a painting with a title in mind, only to switch to something else depending on where the painting takes me. Like Jane and Nancy, I have collected words and phrases over the years that seem to resonate with me, and I use this list if I'm having trouble finding the painting's title.

I do feel titles are very important, and can make or break the work. They are a doorway through which the viewer can enter the artist's world; often, the best titles are subtle clues that don't dictate meaning but rather conjure mystery and communion.

Thanks again for addressing such a provocative subject!

Gifts of Creation said...
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Sara Mast said...

Titles begin to emerge in my working process, often from the reading I do while I am creating a body of work. Several of my titles have come directly out of Rumi poems, such as Darkness Is A Candle or Weaving the Linen of Night and Day. Often the title I use will reference the sources of my imagery, such as Raziel's Dream. The Book of Raziel is an ancient text I discovered in my research on alphabets, and I used several of the characters from that written language in my painting. I want my titles to be evocative and poetic rather than descriptive and definitive, to lead a viewer to wonder rather than lead to certainty. Barbara O'Brien's opening statement at the recent encaustic conference could be applied to the way I title my work: "Clarity is overrated".

lisa said...

Yes Sara-that was a great comment by Barbara!

Clarity is overrated

Stephanie Clayton said...

really great post...some things to contemplate. i found it interesting to learn how some other artists title their work.
i also look for titles when viewing art.
to me, titles are crucial.
in my own painting, i use references & metaphors when assigning titles; they create an opening, a chance for further thought & dialogue about the work.

Laura Tyler said...

I love words so titles are important to me. Debra's point about titles leading "the viewer into something" is well taken. I enjoyed Jane's 40 year perspective too.

Here are some links to things I've written about painting titles.

1. The Conversation - story about titling a stubborn painting.

2. Hello Beautiful - general thoughts on titling abstract painting.

3. A string of art titles

Thank you for the great stories.

Nancy Natale said...

Thanks for putting together this useful and ambitious post, Lisa. I hope that more artists will give up using "untitled" and make the effort to name their work.

I do have to say that staying allusive or evocative while not being too specific with a title is better, in my opinion. I remember an artist in a crit group that I belonged to who showed a slide of a great abstract work, but when he told us the title, it spoiled the whole piece for me because it turned out that it was actually a letter form (I think it was an "A"). After hearing that title, I could only see the work as a letter form from then on and it ruined the abstraction for me.

Best in bloggerhood,

fheathermoore said...

I'm getting ready to exhibit my college artwork in 2 weeks' time, and I have to give them all titles, and I was comepletely stumped. I googled for help and found your post. This has been extremely informative!

There are so many great ideas in here such as using a thesaurus, music or depicting emotion. I agree with your commenters that a title should be fairly subtle and open-ended, giving the viewer space to think.

Thanks to this post, I have now come up with a title for a series of abstract paintings I created, which I think has hit the nail right on the head, but will leave enough room for others to guess at. I think I will post on this is my blog as I think it's an important subject. Thank you!

Cathy M. Woo said...

Over my career I have gone back and forth about titles. Being much more visually than verbally oriented, I prefer to let the image speak for itself - no title at all. A title can completely hijack the viewer's response to a piece. However, that approach seems to confuse and disappoint a lot of people. So I'm making more of an effort to come up with something. The comments on this blog have been really helpful. Thanks.

Gergely Noémi said...

This subject depends on many things. Usually if I paint for homework I dont give title for my artworks or just give the same title as the subject was. If I give title for my works witch are made in my free time its because of when I finish my work I just have impulse about the title witch is come from itself. If I do works for an exhabition and I have to choose titles for works, first I’m considering that it must match with the exhibitions title. Then, I choose the title witch is compatible with the theme of the painting. But usually I don’t pay too much attention for the title, cause in my point of view the art work is more important then the title. And as much I don’t feel that is necessary to give a title I just leave the art work without title.

Gergely Noémi, an I . pictura

Kate P. Miller said...

Wonderful Article on this issue, thank you Lisa.

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Unknown said...

These were painted on site. We found high places in Florence for amazing views. Having time to sit and paint was a great way to experience Italy and rejuvenate. It was a wonderful contrast to all of the crowded museums and mass transportation. .
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Shelley Whiting said...

I love the Horizon Line 1 painting. It is very beautiful, subtle and quiet but enchanting.

Unknown said...

Great writing!
Myself being a content writer, I get assignments to write titles for other's paintings. Your post helped me understand the perspective of an artist.

Not all painters are ready to title their paintings. This is where writers like me get to pitch in. It is fun to get in the shoes of a painter and get to understand the process.

Request you to add a section about titling other's paintings too.

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Fascinating writings that tell of process, the way that the mind works along with the hand and heart.

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