Which is preferred?
Titles for your art are open to interpretation
Titles for your art are descriptive and give clues to viewers
Let us know in the comments and read how other artists think about titling artwork below.
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65 thoughts on “A Philosophy for Titling Artwork”
I prefer to make the titles of my artwork descriptive or to give clues about what I was thinking at the time I was painting it or what the scene means to me.
Virginia: Why do you make this decision? And how does it serve you when you share your art?
My titles are all over the place. I guess it depends on my mood.
In the past, I’ve been pretty straightforward with titles, naming paintings after the thing I painted. I’ve worked in a style and subject matter similar to Edward Hopper. If it was a building, I named it after that building. If it was an air coil, I named it Air Coil. As I get ready to start an entirely new body of work that is more abstract, I think the titles will be more reflective of a mood.
So perhaps it depends largely on the style of painting? As in, the more abstract it is, the more subjective the title becomes?
Brad: I guess I’m asking WHY.
Some artists title for SEO. Is this at all part of your thinking?
What about the public’s reaction? Do they need the specific title?
I totally get the SEO value of titling your artwork. At the same time, when you consider book titles, nonfiction is pretty straightforward, while fiction tends to be more evocative.
I do think a title is needed, since it is a big clue as to what the artist was thinking when they created the piece. Motherwell’s “Elegy to the Spanish Republic” wouldn’t be so powerful without the name. It’s an iconic image (after you see the variations) but the name gives it more meaning than just several blobs in an unusual pattern.
On the flip side, sometimes the title kind off puts you off.
I was recently at the Andy Wharhol Museum @ Pittsburgh and saw this beautiful painting with a military brackground and a stencil of the Statue of Liberty in front. I first read it as “State of Liberty” and loved the painting, I was impressed with the idea behind it and the rather simple way of expressing it. As it turned out that I had read it wrong (I am slightly Dyslexic sometimes when reading)… the painting was actually titled “Statue of Liberty”, Logical. But that killed my liking for the painting completely. Because to me it was no longer an Idea… but just an object.
Naming my work is one of the more difficult parts of creating.
It all happens in various ways.
1. A name of the piece comes to me and then I go off and create the piece.
2. The name will occur to me when working on the piece.
3. No name comes to me at all before, during or after. These are the most difficult and require some soul searching.
Any way the piece is named, the names I chose provide clues to the viewer and since most of my work is conceptual in nature they remain open to interpretation.
Kim: You’re saying you both provide clues and leave room for interpretation, yes? Can you give us an example or two?
For example I have a piece titled “Glass Ceiling”, which is a ladder constructed of rolling pins (that actually roll).
The title gives you a clue for what the work is about, but leaves it open for the viewer to apply their own meaning of what “Glass Ceiling” means to them.
Titles provide a certain amount of control to direct the viewers’ thoughts to the message.
I believe every person who sees a painting sees it through the lens of their life experience, knowledge, etc. I try not to interfere with their interpretation of the painting by giving the name of the painting some sort of conceptional or emotional spin, which would direct the viewer toward an interpretation that I wanted them to have or that I have. That, I think, diminishes their ability to appreciate the work of visual art. It’s their interpretation, unencumbered by my own intentions or emotions, that I want to foster. And because of this, I generally name my paintings in a pretty flat, descriptive way, even the more conceptual ones that appear to be portraying some sort of “story.”
Steven: How do you find this plays out? Do people actually appreciate the open-ness? Or do you find they look for more guidance?
My process is very similar to that of Kim Bruce, though I don’t ever think of what the viewers response to the title might be..I don’t attempt to convey anything when I title; it’s more as if I ‘listen’ to the piece and call it what it seems to be conveying to me. My concern is more with what it – the piece – wants than with anything I might project that someone else might need! LOL
Victoria: All fine and good, but how do the titles play out with others? How do others respond or read the titles?
They seem to love them!
My work has a lot going on in it and people often ‘study’ it for some time. It’s small work, on purpose, and meant to draw one in…the titles seem to be a part of ‘pulling’ them into relationship with the pieces. They read it…hmmm a little…I can see their minds working…then they dive in!
I feel about painting titles the same way I feel about book titles, or the first line of the first paragraph of a book: you don’t always know where the story is going, but the tone is set for further investigation, or unfolding. I always feel a little cheated when the title of a painting is called “untitled.” For my own work, I tend to use titles with clues or some idea as to what is going on in the piece. *(And, there are times, when the title comes to mind before the painting).
Lenore: Do you find that people respond well to your titles? In what way?
Alyson, I just read your question, or I would have responded sooner. I.am. embarrassed. (I must have forgotten to check the box to receive comments).
My reply is this: No, actually people do not always respond to the titles. I am not cryptic with titles at all, but I try to guide viewers to do some analysis, and this is probably the teacher in me. When I am teaching, part of the curriculum is to have students critique or “pick apart” artworks for meaning … proper school term would be- critical thinking skills. I tell them that sometimes the artist provides clues or ideas about the work in the title, and that this is part of the process of a critique, like being a detective. But, I find that when it comes to my personal work, and the general public, people almost always ask for the story behind the image, or behind the words because they are interested. So, I talk with them a little, about symbols, metaphors, and stories, and they are happy to learn what is going on in the picture. (After thinking about this I remembered that I had written a blog post titled, “What’s in a name?” … because I had changed the title for the third and final time on a painting, right back to its original)! p.s. I love all the responses to this/your question … so many opinions, it’s great!
Don’t be embarrassed, Lenore!
Thanks for sharing a little more here.
With my American Indian/Western paintings I used to use descriptive titles ,i.e.”Indian with Blue Feather” but my artist friends kept making fun of me (you know who you are!) So now my titles are totally nonsensical and mean nothing but sound good, i.e. “He Sings to the New Day”. I leave it to the viewer to decide what it means.
My still life titles tend to be more Descriptive.
K: How do people respond to your nonsensical titles?
Whether it is by direct naming, or an allusion to poetry, I try to title my pieces by incorporating the emotion that I hope the painting elicits from the viewer. Example: my study of a young, wide eyed bobcat is entitled “A World Awaits”.
I just finished a painting last night whose title came to me toward the middle of the process. I’ve been doing a series of paintings of abandoned houses for a few years now, and more recently they have begun to “float” over the landscape. This painting’s “land” looked more like water to me, and the house itself fills the canvas… which brought to mind the title of a Jane’s Addiction song called “Ocean Size”. So, I co-opted it. Most people seeing the painting won’t know what it refers to, which is good, but a few will and it’ll be like, “Ah!” (already happened with a good friend who likes the same music I do). I usually title by listening to my thoughts as I am painting. Sometimes a phrase or a song lyric or something else will pop up that has a relation to the image in some way, and I go with it.
I have mentioned here before, I find titling one of the most fun parts of making art and having an interesting, leading title is important to me. I think my titles suggest things, but they suggest different things to different people. I like that openness.
I think the people who are going to buy my work are going to buy it no matter what the title is (unless of course if the title is really offensive) I rarely get any feedback on the titles themselves.
On the other hand, I give short stories about the paintings on my blogs and I do get lots of feedback about those.
I like to pose questions with my titles. My circle based abstracts remind of diagrams (and are often inspired by them. These titles reflect what they might be illustrating e.g Confusion, Personality. I also like to play with names of buildings or their function and incorporate them in the title. For example I painted “Times Mill” and called it “Spirit of Times” as the piece was quite ephemeral. A recent painting of a Multipurpose building (cinema, snow-dome, climbing wall and various shops and restaurants) was called “Temple of youth”
I generally have fun with titles and view them as an essential part of the creative process. Although they can be pretty elusive at times.
Having sold artwork in a variety galleries for over a decade now, I have been inclined to not title my artwork. If a title is used, it is in reference to the series it belongs to. For example a painting of birch trees would be: “Untitled. Tree series,” listed on the price card. Collectors do ask occasionally for a title and I share, or I encourage art consultants to bring their own experiences to the painting. I have never been asked to title the painting by a collector. Once a purchased painting finds a happy home a title can be superfluous and forgotten, unless a placard is fastened to the artwork. I suggest to a client that they name their painting as it is based on their own personal memory and associations. For me a personal title is often misleading and limits the potential collectors attachment to the art.
Like others here, it varies. I created one neckpiece called “Hot Pink Fuzzy” because that’s what it was – actually, I got that name from a friend of mine who said it reminded her of a character in a science fiction story that was pink and fuzzy and sat on someone’s shoulder. Another neckpiece I named “Chomp!” because it depicted (somewhat abstractly) the old idea of the food chain. My paintings, on the other hand tend to be more or less descriptive. For example, I did a water color of a glass vase with marigolds and it is called “Marigolds,” while an acrylic landscape is called “Birds Fleeing a Funnel Storm.”
In fact, a work might go through more than one naming as I am working on it. I’ll start out with a working title but in the end, that’s subject to change.
Titles usually freak me out. My horror at titling is second only to my fear of signing the work. If the title is too out there, I am usually concerned that the piece will seem pretentious. If I give a piece too earnest of a title, I fear the work won’t live up to it’s name. Like naming your kid “Linda” and having her be not so “linda”.
So I will go Dada and find titles that suit the piece from a piece of writing that is somehow related to the work. My entire landscape show “Fickle Forecasts” was titled from inspiring snippets I read (or in some cases MISread) in the Old Farmers Almanac. Artsy enough, related to the topic and kind of silly. The only entirely original title was “Hosta Takeover”.
I think that if my approach – not matter what it is – is sincere, then it stands a better chance of being well-received.
Amantha, I am the same way! I hate signing my paintings. I can never decide on a consistent way to do it that i can stand to see. And I always wish to have a uniform method of titling works, but can never seem to settle on one, so lots of times i end up changing titles of past works to suit my current taste. Bad, i know.
But anyway, I like how you titled a whole show of works from the Old Farmers Almanac!
I find it difficult to name paintings. I have tried everything from finding something obscure in the painting so as not to influence what someone else thinks it is. And my paintings are very upfront, but I did have a time not long ago that someone flat out asked me where the gate in the painting was. When I told him, he was so disappointed that it wasn’t where he thought–and I had changed it up some–it could have been a lot of places–but telling him probably blew my chances of a sell to him. Lately I’ve been thinking about songs–I’m painting a series of skies and there are lots of cloud, sunset and sky songs–maybe a part of a line. Not sure how it will work or if it is plagiarism. I’ve even been know to change the name because I forgot–not real good at record keeping and I had a computer with all my stuff stolen–got a new one that won’t upload the old files! I love the Almanac idea!
One thing I have found successful is putting a short–like maybe 50 words–an idea of why I painted the particular thing on the card beside the painting–maybe a quote or scripture that is appropriate. My customers really like it and spend time reading and studying the painting, too. Keeps them around a little longer. Thanks for all of the comments–this is an interesting topic for all of us to really think about.
I LOVE it when an artist includes a story or short description with his/her work, regardless of whether it’s titled or not. I find that having that insight into the artist’s process/thought process really helps to frame the work for my own exploration.
(Which is really to say that, as an artist, I LOVE having conversations with other artists about the artistic process!) 🙂
my work is pretty straight forward…so the title doesn’t need to be descriptive or explain, so I try to be creative and make them a bit more poetic!
I’m a composer rather than a visual artist, but I think evocative titles serve artists in every medium, both in practical terms and in aesthetic terms. I’m surprised by how many of my colleagues will still use titles like String Quartet No. 3 or Symphony No. 1.
I like titles that are simple but clearly evocative of something dynamic or aesthetic (a few examples of mine: orchestra piece titled Volcanic; string quartet titled Shimmer Cycles; aria for voice and instruments titled Stunning Sun). Titles can be memorable/evocative and at least generally descriptive at the same time. But my perspective is that I’m naturally verbal and top-down in my approach (always know a piece’s title, concept, and basic structure before I compose a note).
Personally, I don’t subscribe to the argument that a piece should speak for itself and its title shouldn’t ‘get in the way.’ A title always means something. I want mine to mean something meaningful. 🙂
I find that people like to be lead toward a way of seeing a piece, and that’s what a good title can do. The example I like to use is Picasso’s “Guernica”. The painting obviously concerns some calamity, but we couldn’t say why or how the painting came about until we know its title; it becomes about a specific time and place. Another example is Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase, #2” At first look, the subject is a puzzle. It is only after some effort that we can perhaps understand what we’re looking at, but Duchamp wants our effort to immediately enter the flow and to go beneath the surface. He makes it easier for us to focus on the work, instead of the puzzle, with his title.
If I can make a title *sing*, I’m very happy. One of my pieces is called “Out At the Sunset Ranch” but my first try at a title was “Sunset Above the Ranch”. Delicate puns are also good for me, especially when they are reality-based. The title of one piece, “Garden Creek Path”, is a literal rendition of the subject: a path near a Creek named “Garden”, and is still a neat pun, working off the old warning about being lead up the . . .
I agree with Walter — I think people like to be led a little toward a way of interpreting what they’re seeing. I have an abstract piece, titled “Cast Off” that is made up of cast-off material and also implies a sunrise at sea through it’s horizontal pattern of colors. People connect to the ocean — even finding fish in the paisley pattern of one fabric — because of that title. As a viewer, I like titles, though I sometimes don’t get where they’re coming from!
Very interesting discussion. I have found titling pieces a frustrating challenge, and have tried recently to be more disciplined about it, because I have gotten tired of accumulating a lot of untitled paintings, with lots of photographs on my computer identified only by file numbers (sure makes it hard to find the one you’re looking for!). My paintings are abstract, based on the landscape. Some quite literal, some more purely abstract. I want my titles to suggest to the viewer what I was thinking about, but not “box them in” with too specific an idea. I fear, however, that this sometimes produces really bland titles; something like “distant red hills.” I would like the titles to guide, yet maintain a sense of mystery; to encourage the viewer to muse about the painting and ponder his/her own thoughts and responses to it. I am a big believer in improvisation in art, and occasionally incorporate the word “improvisation” into a title, since to some degree all of my work is improvisatory. I always expect comment on this, but am surprised to hear very little, so I am not sure how this affects people, or if it does.
While some of my jewelry is titled directly, like my earrings made from car radiator sections that is titled, “Wrapped Radiator”, (still gets the conversation going about my methods and materials!), other pieces really reflect the experiences that inform me and move me to certain designs. I have actually had a title “create” a piece. And sometimes, I have to play with my desire to “educate” viewers and collectors of my eco-intentional thoughts. I also play around with my location (Hawaii) and have pieces that are themed for my surroundings. When people see my collection and begin to learn the titles, it creates GREAT conversation starters for the galleries and shops that retail my line.
One of my favorite titles is “As Water Falls” and that title creates a special bonding with the finished piece and more than once has been the motivating reason for a purchase.
I love that often people break out in laughter, or have an “awe” moment and sometimes even have an “OH!” moment. My titles are what create those reactions as much or more than the work would by itself and coming up with titles is some the the most fun I have in my studio. My thesaurus is never too far from reach!
I think it is much more complex with 2 D work. My photography was underlined with a much more solemn sensation when titling began. I really had to work to keep it neutral and obtuse. I found that very interesting. The whole titling experience was completely different. Quite curious.
Since my current collection is California coastal landscapes, titling is easy–something about the portrayed place. But when I did a collection of semi-abstract horses, I asked my friends to name them.
I’m with you Hannah & Amantha, fifty or so paintings, and I still haven’t come up with a standardized signature that I like. Wish there were a rubber stamp for painting signature.
i think the second choice is better
I often use titles that have words from the concept I was thinking about when making the work. Or a phrase that popped into my head when I looked at the work, but it doesn’t necessarily have to sound ‘title-y’, just a chunk of a phrase.
Having said that, I don’t have any hard and fast rules. Sometimes it’s nice just to sort of describe the work, maybe mention the colour.
On a slightly unrelated note, Alyson, I have been working on an inventory for my work and titling all my saved images with titles etc, as suggested in your book – it has been SO HELPFUL to have all that information close to hand. An inventory list is so helpful when applying for exhibitions and prizes where you have to submit images.
I try to do both.. I always use one word titles (always have) and find that the word I attach to it gives a little subtitle to the piece but usually leaves everything open for interpretation. Sometimes I will have that idea early on in the painting, and sometimes I ask for help on my Facebook page. It’s really fun to read other people’s suggestions, gives an insight into how others interpret my work and gives me ideas for new pieces as well!
When the title of a piece isn’t clearly evident I sit down with paper and pen and look at the piece and allow words to come to me, jotting them down. Usually from that list of words that come from a feeling about the piece I come up with a title. I don’t believe there’s one way that’s better than another. Since art is a visceral thing, the title often is, too. It’s almost a shame, in your example, that a person would respond to a piece visually, but be turned away just because of what the artist titled it. As a buyer they can always call it what they want!
I have a major difficulties in titling my work, which is abstract. Until recently I used the name of the series followed by a number. The series name itself was very open to interpretation and about as abstract as the work itself!
A few weeks ago I posted an image to Facebook asking for title suggestions and I was surprised by the ideas I got. They were mainly titles that were open to interpretation, often in similar veins so people weren’t seeing vastly different things in the painting, and I ended up using a combination of two suggestions.
Going forward, I am starting a body of work about a specific location (although still abstract) and I can’t decide whether to use the series + number approach or to combine that with a more evocative title.
For most of my work, titles seem to be inextricably connected to the process I journey through while a painting evolves. I have, for years, written down titles as they come to me while I worik- and titles change during the course of the painting’s development almost like a story. Usually, when I am finished, the title that emerges is a bit like a poem and relates to the work. This process applies to work that evolves from within– When I am working on images relating to the external world- landscape, florals, still lives, I try to be evocative and somewhat vague in titles—– I believe that all viewers respond to work from their own set of experiences and many of them purchase works because the painting evokes something personal in their lives–
I’ve tried both ways of giving titles to paintings and have decided to go with the interpretive type. If a potential buyer wants to know the location of my landscapes, I say it was “inspired” by XYZ mountain range or lake.
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My Titles have started to morph into poems, to give more narrative to my work. For example I have a painting originally know as, “Bring Your Child to Work Day”, now instead of putting up this title next to my painting I will put up this narrative: “Bring your child to work day, was turning into a bit of a spectacle for those who had never seen a blue baby elephant before”.
I am constantly struggling with this concept. I am a Mixed Media and Abstract artist and sometimes I am not thinking about anyhthing but just putting things together, and I love the result. I always struggle naming these pieces.
I approach my art differently – I paint visualizations of abstract ideas, be they imaginary still life or landscapes – and since it all comes from out of my head, there is no reason to be concerned with what to title as that is the ‘theme/title’, an encapsulation of the metaphorical essence of what am visualizing – the same as, properly, is the title of a book of literature… this avoids the work being ‘just a scene’ as well as being a ‘spoon feeding’, thus allowing the viewer to grasp my view of what is important AND infuse it with the viewer’s personal reflections….
In my dialogues with viewers, what comes through clearly is that the viewer wants to be able to enter into the work; they want to know the story of what the work is about or where it came from. Or the art might be wallpaper, which may or may not match the sofa. There are choices and things to think about.
I almost always come up with the title before I do the piece! It stems from the idea, the inspiration or impetus. When I get that ‘ art flash’ I jot down the words that inspired me plus a few notes to remind me, sometimes as much as a year later of what I was thinking at the time. So I keep the title as a reference. The REAL question is whether to ‘explain’ my art or let the viewer read the work and figure it out for themselves. My work is often about a specific event in history and in that case I am happy to tell the story, because it is usually something I didn’t know and I assume others might not know it either, but often I have the same response as you landscape painter. So lately I have been encouraging viewers to look closely, read the elements of the piece and ask them to tell me a story about what they see. It make most uncomfortable at first but once they get the idea that their interpretation is as valid as anyone else’s the usually really get into it.
I have had the same experience Valerie. People want to know what I meant and all I can tell them about the idea and concept behind the work. It helps them understand and enjoy or not enjoy the work.
I always give title that help the viewer understand what I am trying to communicate.
It is more important to me then selling the work!
My art is usually cats sometimes dogs in a portrait style. I struggle with whether the title should capture the mood of the painting or be given the name of my animal subject. I’ve used both however I’ve come to think capturing the mood of the art probably has broader appeal from a sales point of view. Of course it becomes harder to choose a title that way but I’m hoping that by doing so my art will appeal to more than just certified cat lovers !
I have been especially fascinated in the titling approach by Mark Tansy:
Using the three parts -adjective, noun, gerund – is an approach I sometimes use, as in ‘Winter River Rising’ and I sure would love to have a version of the wheel!
Wow. That’s quite technical, but very cool!
Yes, I am still in the land of the living! lurking round… I am seriously considering doing what Clyfford Still did with his work. got rid of the titles, and numbered them according to his arcane numbering system. wracking the brain to come up with a clever/inspirational/appropriate title… aargh!!
Phil, the tittle of your work is part of your artwork!
It is a snippet of your though process.
Numbering an artwork or not titling it, always felt to me as an insult to what one creates.
If art comes from our soul and our heart, it definitely deserves a tittle!
I don’t necessarily agree. I have come across untitled pieces that really stuck with me and kept me thinking about what the artist was trying to say.
That said, I love titles, myself.
I see a lot of people have had similar experiences to mine. I mostly paint landscapes, and name them like this: Two Trees and a Road.
Well, if you paint enough trees and roads, it’s bound to get confusing. However, I prefer that to emotive names, which just don’t come naturally to me. One gallery owner asked me to rename a piece that I was calling Orange Field, to something like “Golden Sunset Afternoon”–I resisted because it felt fake to me. However, I trusted that she knew what she was asking for, so for that one painting I acquiesced. I don’t recall whether the name mattered to the painting sale. Similarly, another gallery owner wanted me to call a painting Marsh Dawn (or Sunset)–where I had intended to leave the time of day up to the viewer.
I also have had clients buy my work because it reminded them of something important to themselves, and they did not seem put off by the name or being told where the scene actually was. Example: a painting of trees and a puddle (!) based on a visit to the moors in England, was bought by a couple for whom it apparently said “the golf course we love.” On the other hand, one painting I called “Winter, Lake Parsippany” (in New Jersey) did seem to affect some people’s reception of it–even after they said they liked it!
One gallery owner always asked me where the landscapes were, because he said people wanted to know. I have mixed feelings about that, because I do feel it limits people’s experience of it. But I think he only wanted the information if he felt it would help the sale. Some clients, for instance, are swayed by being told it’s in France or other evocative place. But some paintings are just based on places I’ve been and things I’ve seen–they’re not specific real places.
All that being said, I also create little abstracts that I name in whimsical ways, according to what they suggest to me. I find it very freeing and fun. However, even those can provoke discussion. Two people objected to my calling one of the pieces “Jealousy.” They felt no one would want to buy it. And another friend/client looked at one and said you called it this, but to me it looks just like my dog!
I’m thinking of having a contest on my website to name the unnamed abstracts, just to see what happens.
PS. One of the reasons I don’t like the more heart-and-soul titles is that I have a deep desire for privacy and I feel some titles are inadvertently revealing, and are kind of invasive of my privacy. Blame it on my Midwestern upbringing.
Z : – )
Also, I have to say, sometimes painting titles are like bad artist statements–they get a little high-flown.
For me personally, #2 – I like my titles to reflect the content of the piece. I consider mysterious, metaphorical or whimsical titles fair game too. They add a layer to the content of the piece.
But that’s anathema to some artists, and I’ve no objection to their own wide-open titles. (“Untitled” sticks in my mouth, though.)
Thank you Drew. It does not “sticks in my mouth”, it just turns me off!
I’ve both lost and gained sales by naming the place of the painting. On a rare occaision, a title for a piece will pop into my head. The rest of the time it’s torture to come up with a name. I wish a title wasn’t necessary but I think it’s important for most viewers.
Thanks to everyone for sharing here. I’ve read every response and really appreciate your insights. Just couldn’t keep up with them individually.
So far I title my paintings with design terms..color schemes, subjects etc. I hope that this way the title may assist the viewer in choosing it for their space. It would also be easier to catalog and remember if the title also describes the piece. I usually do not get any feed back, nor has anyone asked why I named it such and such. They may say something along the lines of…”oh I love PURPLE!” or “my brother collects trains like that” etc.
I’m a poet, as well as an artist. On top of that, a lot of my paintings (and some of my jewelry pieces) come to me in my dreams. Often, the concept will drive the entire process–the painting comes to me, asking to be made manifest, and I find they tend to dictate everything, from concept to materials, to title. In that respect, I feel very fortunate.
I find that my titles vary between abstract/interpretive and desciptive. Even the descriptive ones are not what I’d call bland, though. There is always an element of poetry or mystery to them. My photography is titled pretty much the same way.
I’m currently working on a series (a work of almost a decade, so far, and that’s just the first two pieces!) The title of the series is strictly descriptive. The titles of the paintings are about half-and-half, so far.
For me, naming them is the easy part. It’s the execution that I strugge with, for a number of reasons, mainly time and space to paint. 🙁