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The importance of the title

Updated: Sep 30, 2022

When I first started selling my work, I realised I needed to give it a title. To be honest, I didn’t really like this idea as it felt too vulnerable to try and encapsulate the painting in words; I preferred the option of just hiding behind the work and leaving people to come up with their own meanings. So, after a bit of research and advice on how to name paintings, it seemed to be easiest and most within my comfort zone to opt for ‘safe’ titles that just literally described what was in the painting. Even if it was abstract, I would just put together a title that described the forms and shapes that made it up.

Descriptive titles are perfectly acceptable, particularly as a way of easily identifying your work. This is particularly useful if, for example, you have a large amount of stock, you work mostly in the same size, your work is all quite varied, or you are selling through other parties and don’t want to have to resort to checking an inventory to work out which piece has gone every time you make a sale.

However, at some point I moved away from descriptive titles, I guess because I realised the power of the title and wanted to harness that rather than shy away from it. People can tell you what a piece of art represents to them, but the title is a useful tool that the artist has to at least allude to what it means to them.

The thing is, even a representational piece of art is never that simple. There are reasons why the subject has been chosen and why it’s been depicted in the way it has. The title is the main tool we have to convey more of the story as it will always be attached to the painting. Take, for example, my painting, ‘Keep Questioning’ - if I had opted for a descriptive title I could have gone for something like ‘Child with magnifying glass’. But instead, I tried to work out what it was about that source image that made me want to depict it, which took a bit of thought. In the end, I realised that I had chosen it because I loved the natural curiosity that it shows, and how at that age everything contains a world to be discovered, so I tried to acknowledge this within the title.

I’m not sure, however, that artists are always consciously aware of the choices they have made enough to encapsulate it within the title. I often have to work backwards and decipher what was being expressed in a painting after I’ve made it. I think I literally think visually, so I make art to process what is going through my head at a particular time. Later I can look at a painting and see that the choices I have made in some way reflect or depict particular thoughts and emotions. One of the ways I work that out is by looking at what books I was reading at the time and what quotes I highlighted as I was reading. These usually relate to thoughts that influenced how the painting was created so I then go through these quotes and write down words or phrases that capture why I noted them down.

If I’m efficient and organised enough I can sometimes go through that process a bit more directly and note the thoughts going through my head as I’m making a painting, but that can disturb the flow a bit as I end up focusing more on capturing the thoughts than enjoying making the painting.

If this all seems a bit too intense to get your head around, you’ll be relieved to know that I don’t always take that approach for titles - sometimes it’s a bit more light-hearted. Quite a few of my titles have double meanings that relate to both the subject and the creation of the painting. One of my favourite examples is 'Too Crowded for Three'. This painting features a child standing with two animals, and all three of them are looking off to the side of the painting, with the child looking slightly pensive. Now, the title does make sense based on that description and there could be a story there, but if you look at the creation of the painting, you will see that I had a bit of a fight with it on its journey. In fact, the painting started off with another child at the centre, and a third child was later added on the side, and in the end I decided to take out two of the children because it seemed a bit, well, crowded funnily enough. I liked the idea of a title that revealed some secrets about the painting.

Another painting where the title has multiple meanings is ‘One Day’. This painting captures my children looking out to the sea where a ferry boat is crossing. I think that if I looked at a scene like that and tried to imagine what was going through children’s minds (which is always interesting to find out), I’d probably say they were imagining all the places they’d go and adventures they’d have on a boat like that one day. As it happens, the source image for this photo was captured in a brief window in August 2020, when we were still in the midst of a pandemic but restrictions had been eased. In that brief window, we had been able to travel up to Scotland and take a ferry crossing to the Isle of Bute - two journeys that were not permissible a month earlier and were quickly banned again shortly afterwards. We were not able to travel abroad but we were able to stand on the edge of the land and for one day experience something akin to a freedom that we were missing. Finally, as with all my paintings in this collection, this piece has been depicted in a distorted way to give it a feeling of nostalgia, of capturing a point in time, a memory of one day.

Are titles that are purely descriptive a bit like when an estate agent shows you around a house and just states the obvious - “This is the living room!” and “This is the kitchen!”? You’re able to see everything for yourself and that is what you're looking for, but it certainly adds something when we get a bit more - when we end up thinking about things that we may not have considered or noticed.

So, what’s in my titles? Often, more than you would think…it’s usually worth asking!

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