5 Reasons to Title Your Art

There are no guidelines for titling your art. You can select any title you choose. But remember that your work will have to live with the title for the rest of its life. For. Evah.

Here are 5 reasons to spend a little time titling your work.

5 Reasons to Title Your Art

1. Titles help you distinguish among numerous works.

Titled works are easier to find and to file in organizing systems. They’re also easier for you to talk about and refer people to.

The more unique each title is, the better. If you have a series of numbers, you might forget how Green Mountain #1 is different from Green Mountain #5.

Mary Susan Vaughn, Hope Road
Mary Susan Vaughn, Hope Road. Oil on canvas, 14 x 18 inches. ©The Artist

2. Titles make it easier for art reviewers and critics to write about your art.

It’s difficult to write about untitled art because readers have to be clear about which artwork is being discussed.

When faced with untitled art, the writer must spend hunks of text describing which untitled work she’s referring to.

3. Intriguing titles are cause for contemplation.

Untitled or loosely titled works allow the viewer more freedom to interpret, but most people need and want guidance.

An interesting title might be enough for a viewer to stop, think, and look back at the art.

4. Titles look great in books.

Imagine all of the titled artwork in the index of a book about your art. No imagine a page of titles with the word Untitled appearing next to every page number.

5. Search engines find titles.

If you Google “dumb campers,” the second item that used to come up (after video results) was my About page.

Did I have anything on this site about people who aren’t so savvy in the wilderness? Nope.

But I do own a painting with that title, which appeared in my online bio. Google found it.

A Philosophy for Titling Your Art (Should they be descriptive or open for interpretation?)

How Artists Title Their Work

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73 thoughts on “5 Reasons to Title Your Art”

  1. Very timely post, Alyson. Thanks for the nudge. Whether not titleing artwork is based in overwhelm, disinterest or maybe just laziness, I’ve wrestled with this issue for a long time.
    Today I’ll go back and give up my numbers, and find real words to finish off my paintings.

  2. Excellent advice Alyson!
    Number 6 is key to search engine placement. I have to go through my blog and credit all of my photos (in the process now).
    Whenever I look at a work of art, I look for the title first. I want to know what the artist was thinking about the piece. Sometimes the title leads you in that direction. For my own work, titles are critical. My mind works better with them. Name a title of an image and I am transported in my mind back to the time of creation. I can tell a collector where the image was taken, under what circumstances and the story behind it. Sometimes titles are serious, sometimes whimsical.
    My question – is there ever a reason to not title work? I see an awful lot of “Untitled” out there and always wonder why the artist didn’t title the piece.

    1. Alyson Stanfield

      Lynn: Some artists want to leave the work open for interpretation. This is great for those who know a lot about art. Not so great for the poor viewers who don’t know where to begin.

  3. Agree – always title your work. Here’s a bite from my “about me” handout that has resulted in some very nice commissions.
    “Because I have such a personal relationship with them, I name each of my works. Some may be obvious to the casual observer; some may require explanation. If you’d like to name one yourself, I happily do commission pieces.”

  4. Hi Alyson, loved this post. Title are so important, and I have tried to use very poetic titles throughout my career — some of them actually lifted from poems. Recently, however, as my abstractions have become more minimalist and non-objective, I wanted something like “Untitled” but not quite so far removed. So I have decided to title my work with Sanskrit words — in a sense, since most people wouldn’t know what they mean, it’s like using “Untitled.” But the words themselves are chosen because they seem to have a lovely resonance with the work, and the English translation of the word usually does have something to do with the imagery. You can read my blog about it here:

  5. I would think the artist who leaves a work untitled has a specific reason for doing such. Perhaps it’s not to mislead the viewer, leaving the experience of the work a more organic one. Sometimes it’s laziness.
    With my work, the titles are extremely important. They set the stage for what it is I am telling you. I want you to get it. I want you to take away something, whether it’s a pun, or many layered poetry of consciousness. I find a decent title for what it is I am saying sets the stage and often provides lagnappe.

  6. Sigh. If I had known then what I know now (and what you reinforce here). I have a current series called New Moon x where x is the number…I can’t keep them straight except for the sizes recorded in my log. I think I need to go back and rename them. And never get into this mess again.

    1. Alyson Stanfield

      BJ: In the old days, numbering systems were just fine. But, even then–as you say, you can still get confused between works.

  7. This is a great point, I really enjoy the process of naming my fine art photos. It really makes me consider why I am choosing this image to show to the world and helps evaluate what I am trying to say.
    However, one thing that I love about artwork is that everyoine sees something different, that is often the point of some of my more abstract, conceptual imagery, so an “Untitled” piece is effecdtive here and there. But for the most part I’d agree naming your work is an extremely important part of the creative process.

    1. Alyson Stanfield

      Jonathan: I love it that you say this: “It really makes me consider why I am choosing this image to show to the world and helps evaluate what I am trying to say.” Very nice.

  8. It doesn’t happen very often I can’t come up with a title. But it just happened recently. For some reason I felt the artwork needed a very special title to tell its story. It just was one of those paintings that the title would make or break a sale. I put it out there for my fellow artists to suggest a title. I sweetened the plea for help by offering to send the the winner a print. I had over 65 suggestions! I used part of a suggested title and finished it differently. I am sending this person a print anyway. I was very grateful for the help!

    1. Alyson Stanfield

      Cool! There’s a story in my book of one artist who throws “titling parties.” No one can eat until the art is titled.

  9. Viewers of your work really want titles. They want to peek inside your head and own the story, as well as the artwork.
    My non artist friends shake their heads in amazement on the process of creating a painting. They can’t even imagine what its like to be able to do that, but a title gives them a little insight to my world.

  10. A couple of years ago, when I was doing a catalog for our art group’s exhibition, one person had 3 pieces entered; all untitled. One of his pieces won an award, but I had no way of knowing which one it was because his work had no titles. Another reason to put titles on your work.

    1. Alyson Stanfield

      That kind of goes along with #2, but I didn’t articulate it that way. Thank you for sharing your experience.

  11. Transitions A series of small artworks 40 x 30 cm. I could not agree more you have done the work. Give it a tiltle. Give it a story too…
    A reflection: here I’m trying to combine ancient Greek Mythology with the non-representational abstractive process that I admire Kandinsky for and to see how far acrylic colours can be made into colour blends. I started with a change in the representation of the previously circular monotone sky to one of early, or late, daytime. The rays show a more spectral colour scheme. The moon emblem remains a constant, so too the triangles, the new elements are the three metallic circles associated with the iridescent triangles. With the exception of one green the series was a joy to paint. Please accept that I’m not an expert on Greek Mythology I’m simply using a simplified thesis for fitting three gods with three objects in a solar setting.
    [1]Helios, Selene & Eos A Triangle Helios The sun god. Selene the moon goddess & Eos the dawn. Eos from the edge of the oceans surrounding the world… In some solar myths the sun is paired with the moon. The two may be husband and wife or brother and sister. In the mythology of many Native Americans, the sun god and moon god are sister and brother who became forbidden lovers. In some accounts, the moon flees in shame when he learns that his lover is also his sister. This is why the moon leaves the sky when the sun comes near.
    [2]The Hesperides Greek Gods & Goddesses are open to much speculation and alternative names & connections. As with any of my artworks suspend reason and come on a journey with me… The Hesperides were the guardians of the Golden Apples given by Gia [earth goddess] to Hera [love & marriage] when she married Zeus [king of the gods, ruler of Olympos]. The Hesperides are Aegel [sun, light, radiance]. Erethea [red]. Hesperos [evening, swift]. All three are the source of the golden light of sunset.
    [3]Selene, Artemis & Phoebe Selene? Is an ancient deity the daughter of the Titans Hyperion & Theia and possibly pre-dating the Olympos deities of Artemis & Luna. She is described as being ‘fair-winged’ by Homer [a bird-reference?]. Selene is classically depicted as a beautiful pale-faced woman. Selene is possibly derived from Selas as in Boreion Selas meaning ‘brightness’ as in the modern Greek for the Aurora Borealis [the Northern Lights]. Then there is Selenolgy the study of our moon’s geology and the chemical element Selenium….. Artemis? An ancient Greek deity [goddess] the daughter of Zeus & Leto also the twin of Apollo. Later as a Titaness she became a moon goddess along with Selene. Homer refers to her as ‘The Mistress of the Animals’, the goddess of the hunt…….. Phoebe? The gold-wreathed one also one of the original Titans and along with Selene also associated with the moon. The mother of Leto..the grandmother of Apollo & Artemis……. Titans? A race of powerful deities, the descendants of Gaia, the Primal earth goddess & Uranus, the Sky Father. The Titans ruled during the Golden Age [one of some 5-6 or more?] a period of primordial peace, harmony, stability & prosperity…Further generations of Titans followed.
    [4]Heracles, Atlas & King Eurystheus Heracles, the hero, finally returned to the court of king Eurystheus having completed his penultimate task. The capture of the three golden apples guarded by the Hesperides. In order to do this he had to dupe Atlas into helping him. Heracles presented the three golden apples to king Eurystheus, while he appreciated their beauty he was bewildered by them and did not know what to do with them, and handed them back to Heracles. Unsure of himself as what he should do, Heracles asked for guidance from his constant supporter, Athena. She took them back to the garden of the Hesperides, as the law of the gods commanded that they should remain in the garden far to the west but close to Mount Atlas…
    There will be six artworks in this series

  12. Jeani Gustafson

    I love titles. I love titling artwork. In my cooperative gallery, I am constantly reminding viewers to read the titles. When our group of artists gets together each week, we show new work, announce titles, discuss titles and have lots of fun titling our work. We have a well worn Thesaurus. However, we don’t always stick with a title forever. Since we do thematic shows, often work will get retitled to fit a new theme.
    I do have a questions regarding titles. If you use a word grouping from a book, song or poem, is there a chance of copyright infringement?

    1. Alyson Stanfield

      Jeani: That’s a good question! The “Dumb Campers” I mentioned above comes from a book. I know the artist gets lots of titles from books he reads. But I can’t imagine © infringement because it’s such a different interpretation of the words. I’d be more careful about Trademark infringement–naming something after a phrase that has been trademarked. Then again, I’m no lawyer.

  13. I’m working on updating the inventory for a gallery/teaching venue. They have about 700 pieces. I have entries like “artist name, untitled, 20 x 22, intaglio”. This artist has maybe 10 to 12 pieces that fit this description. How would anyone know which ones are missing? How can I be sure which ones are here? Artists can loose thousands of dollars in work if the pieces are lost and no one would know other that to bring the artist in and lay out the pieces and try to figure it out. If you are in another city or country this could cost you thousands in travel. You have to title your work with SOMETHING so you can keep track of it and so can galleries. Galleries use temps and volunteers to do their inventory. You have to make your work easy to catalog and find. Only with good titles can this be possible.

  14. Great post! Titles are so important… recently I sold a piece because of the title. The customer really liked it because it applied to her in her life situation right now.

  15. Maeona L. Urban

    One of my abstract paintings has a Haiku for a title. “Sunrise and Sunset, From the First Day to the Last, Time Everlasting”. That title later won me first prize in a Haiku contest, front page newspaper photo coverage of the painting to the local “Columbia River Reader” (13,500 copies distributed), and the sale of the painting a week later. The painting can be seen on the cover page of my website. http://urban-plein-air.wetpaint.com/ Yes I think a title can be important.

  16. Great post! Titles are so important to me, oftentimes I can’t quite finish a piece if I haven’t come up with the right name for it. Other times the title comes to me with the sketch or idea and leads me through the painting full force. Oftentimes my titles are snatches of lyrics from songs that help define the piece in my head.

    1. Alyson Stanfield

      Lesley: I think that’s very appropriate. The artist I mentioned above that gets titles from books is very much the same. It’s not that my painting looks anything like Dumb Campers. It’s that that’s what was in his head at the time.

  17. I never name my pieces cuz they are what they are, a butterfly is a butterfly, a rose is a rose and by any other name would still smell as sweet, but my art is simple and i am a simple person

    1. Alyson Stanfield

      Nemo: Do you think titles would complicate things? How do you keep an inventory record?

  18. I agree that titles help in distinguishing pieces, but I disagree with it being a requirement in any way. Because while most pieces may be definable with a few words, some are not. To label something is to quantify its existence to a series of words, at least in part. What if the art has a number of meanings, of which none are easily expressed? I can’t judge an artist for not having a title for a particular piece because that is up to them to decide on and if they can’t decide on a title – or don’t want to have a title, that is their prerogative. I can criticize it for being ineffective, but I can’t say that it is wrong, because there is little that can be said to be objectively ‘wrong’ in art.

    1. Alyson Stanfield

      George: No one said it was a requirement to title or that it was wrong not to title. I just tried to give you 5 (really, 6) reasons to add titles.

  19. Titles for me are actually part of the concept and expression of an idea. Also for juried shows, most don’t ask for an artist’s statement until after a work is selected. But jurors do often see the title, so it’s a way to indicate to a juror what your work is about.

    1. Alyson Stanfield

      Good point, Pam! I didn’t think of the fact that jurors see titles. Better add that one.

  20. Hi Alyson
    I liked your item on 5 reasons to title your work! I might add a 6th, for personal reasons: it makes it easier for your surviving spouse to catalog your work after you’re gone!!! Yes, I’m still at it….. and am down to many works that George never titled, or dated, or signed…. so very frustrating and confusing to organize.

    1. Alyson Stanfield

      Elyse: I know you’ve been going through so much dealing with George’s estate. [BTW, all, George was my favorite painting professor.] I don’t want to forget the poor family members who have to deal with a disorganized system.

  21. I usually dislike coming up with titles for my work. I love it when they come easily but that does not happen very often. I joke about my “Oak Tree I”, “Oak Tree II”……………
    This is really good information and I will keep in mind as I am working on my next piece. Maybe by the time I am finished I will have come up with the title.

    1. I do that! When I hear words or think of a title I jot it down. I have them all taped up on the inside of the closet door where my art supplies live.

  22. I have been loose about my titles recently started to clean up the catalog. If there ever was a reason to get this project onto the front and high-fire burner, now I have five reasons, plus all of the reasons in the comments.
    Thank you all!

  23. Yes, I agree that naming works is important, it gives the viewer a glimpse into the thoughts of the artist. But, I find it really hard to do as I am always searching for that clever or lovely or meaningful title.My painter friend Sharon thinks of the greatest titles, and thinks of them before she paints her painting. This probably influences the content of her painting as well. As for me, I am still struggling with a title as I am framing the piece and sometimes settle for just the name of the place and/or object. Not very inspiring, but my naming talent often fails me.

    1. Alyson Stanfield

      Allene: Do you use a journal? Maybe just start noticing interesting words and phrases–in newspapers, books, even on TV. Gather them all in one place so you can mix and match when you need them.

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  25. Good reminder, Alyson! I’ve always enjoyed the “naming” of my artwork, when it’s complete. I’m kinda quirky (duh – no!) and sometimes my paintings say something other than “girl in a blue dress” to me…but
    I never really thought about why I gave titles to my work. Reading your article has convinced me I’m on to a good thing and to keep it up! I always look forward to your newsletter – great insight and information. Thanks a bunch!

  26. For those who have a hard time thinking of titles, try to start pondering it before you complete or even start the painting. Why are you painting this? What does it mean? What emotion do you want your viewer to feel when they see it? Why is it significant? A title is a great way to convey these things… not something to slap on afterward! I hope this helps.

  27. In the recent past artists wanted to establish artwork as things, so did not title them. A title implied that a painting was a picture of a thing rather than a thing in and of itself. For the most part, the point was made, I enjoy naming my work and it gives a viewer a “key” to the entering the work. I agree with all of the reasons and the ones added/embellished by the other artists, but I did want to note that there was a valid reason, especially 75-50 years ago, for not titling.

  28. Why is a title a forever thing??? I have changed titles often when I feel it doesn’t work or doesn’t sell or I think of a better one. Only once a work is sold I feel a title cannot be changed, as if the client accepts it.
    I swear sometimes “titles” are the selling clinch. I am a sculptor and I once sold a piece called “howling at the moon” for a xmas present from a husband…!
    another time clients wanted the sculpture but had reservation because of the title. When I told the gallery owner what I originaly called it , they bought it right away…
    But all the same I absolutely hate to find a title…so thank you for the ideas you’ve all given me. BTW I now include a little story along the title as to my inspiration and I put this message in an old plastic cassette box. This makes me pay more attention to the piece, stop and look twice, people are often compelled to read labels in an exhibit. IT works…

    1. Alyson Stanfield

      Colette: It doesn’t have to be forever, but works are hard to keep track of if you keep changing the titles. Also, you shouldn’t change titles after they’re exhibited in a public space.

    2. Hi Colette … awesome !!!! I love this site (thanks so much for sharing) and will try to access it often (thanks Alyson) .. lots of great information … good to hear from you and good to read your above blog .. take care and keep creating … Dar

    3. Its the art in the artwork that sells…not the title. The Title is and should be fixed from the day you sign off your artwork as being finished.

    1. Alyson Stanfield

      Keep in mind that I come from a museum background. I used to pore over exhibit records to see what works were in which exhibits. If a curator wants to go through an exhibit list later and a title looks unfamiliar, it will cause problems. If you’re not worried about a museum legacy, you don’t need to fret about changing titles. It depends on what your goals as an artist are.
      Yes, titles usually are insignificant. But they do help you establish a record and leave traces of your career.

  29. I agree, title your art inspires viewer to share the emotion of the artist. Because after all, feeling the art is as important as viewing it!! Thank you for the article

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  33. Your article was spot on. I’ve found in my own art is to try to think of a story that the painting portrays and title it according to the events in the story.
    Thanks for the information.

    1. Glad you found the article helpful, Randy. I think lots of artists have a hard time coming up with titles — usually because the title is insignificant to them. I get that.

  34. I paint a lot of pet commissions. For many years I used the actual name of the animal. I don’t do that very often anymore. If it is too gender specific it may influence the purchase of a print. So now instead of “Lulu” for a small poodle I might name it “Snowball” or not have a name on the print if it is in a retail. But I have to have a name for inventory control or when someone sees it on my website and they wish to place an order.

  35. Having paid close attention to Alyso’s advice, I name my paintings.
    The glaring exceptions have been the nanoscapes’ series “The 31 Pumpkins of October” and “The 30 Leaves of November.” Each pumpkin is on a postcard and each leaf is on 8×11″ paper and 6-to-a-page. I created the pumpkins in anticipation of using the images for Pumpkin Festival Poster Contests, which are generally sometime in the spring — not the most conducive to painting pumpkins. I’ve used the leaves as a daily experimental exercise. None are for sale.
    The pumpkins are on a slide show at my website under “Lives of the nanos,” and the leaves will go up in early December.
    You’ll not be surprised to know that I plan snowflakes and Hanukah candles for December.
    Thanks for the inspiration, Alyson.

  36. Thank you for this advice. I’ve just googled a couple of my titles and found images of some and not of others. This is because my blog-post has the title but not the image. This year, 2011, I aim to get my art out there, so this titling is fab starting point. Next step a facebook fan page.
    Thank you!

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  39. Great advice, Alyson! I have gotten in the habit of titling nearly all of my work, and while it can still be annoying sometimes, I’ve found it to be helpful (even if only for myself, so that I know what piece of work I am talking about.) I’ve gotten to the point where I can’t really stand it when someone titles their piece ‘Untitled’–just seems kind of lazy to me! 🙂 It takes the fun out of being creative with it. I’ve started to enjoy the process, thanks for the reminder!–Allison Bratt (@AllisonBrattArt)

  40. One more reason to title your work: it makes you take a good close look at it as if you were a stranger to it, and to see perhaps more than you thought when you first painted the piece.

  41. Kris Krumanaker

    Well, I haven’t titled very many things, but once when I was inspired by the sky for a color combination for a bead bracelet, I entitled the bracelet, “Cloudy, with a Chance of Rain.” The beads were light blue, white and gray. So I guess that’s using the inspiration for the piece for a title.

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