To Title or Not to Title Your Art, That Is the Question – RedDotBlog

I received the following email from an artist asking about titling her work. This is one of the more common topics I discuss with artists. I understand that titling your artwork can become tiresome, and many artists feel that a title can get in the way of the artwork.

While I am an advocate of titling artwork, and I feel titling deserves investment of time and thought, what do you think: do titles really matter? Can the wrong title prevent you from selling your artwork? Can the right title guarantee a sale? While the issue may seem like a minor one, it is an issue you will be dealing with constantly over the course of your career.

Read my conversation thread with the artist below, and then share your thoughts about titles in the comments below. How do you feel about titles? How do you come up with your titles?

Original Email from Artist

Dear Jason,

I have a question: does a title really matter?

Today I was picking up two of my artworks at the venue for a recent two month international exhibition, “Arts in Harmony” in Minnesota. One of my pieces, Contaminated Water #2: Pond Scum won several awards and was very well received. The other piece juried into the show was Contaminated Water and is the beginning piece in this series.

The Curator of the exhibition made a point of coming over and talking to me as I was going through the checkout process. His comments to me were that he had never seen a piece of work intrigue so many collectors over the course of the exhibit. There were several inquiries into purchasing but no final sale coming through by the end of the show on March 29, 2012.

He was questioning the titling of my work and the series, of which there are four currently finished and being exhibited with 4 more in the completion process. He was suggesting that my Contaminated Water series is more reminiscent of Monet’s water pieces and that the titles should be changed to Monet’s Water or Monet’s Pond with the subtitle (Pond Scum, etc) but to lose the Contaminated Water part because it was possibly affecting the salability of the work.

In your experience as a gallery owner, have you seen the actual title of a piece be the “killing factor” in a potential sale? If I was to change the titles of these pieces (on my web site, galleries, future exhibitions, etc) which have been exhibited over the last two years, would that be detrimental to the affected artworks or to my reputation as an artist?

Many of the exhibitions my work is in also produce catalogs for the exhibitions so it is already recorded with the current titles.

I’m not sure about adding in the reference to Monet in work titles for a whole series would be good either – would that bring into play thoughts of copying of Monet’s great work instead of it being my own? I have always titled my work because “Untitled” makes it difficult for people to describe what the work is if they are inquiring about it via the phone, especially in my work as so much of it is abstract. It just seems like a natural part of the process but maybe what I see as the creator isn’t what viewers see and is the title a hindrance instead of a help.



My Response


I have always felt it’s important to have a title – just as you wouldn’t send a child out into the world without a name, you want to give a work of art a token of identity through the title.

Can a title hamper sales if it’s the wrong title? This is an intriguing question and I am going to admit that I’ve never really looked at the question that way. My gut reaction is that it is probably best in most cases to avoid words that would have overtly negative connotations unless the meaning of the piece (social or political commentary, for example) is directly tied to the title. Words like “Contamination” or “Scum” are going to land on the wrong side of this line.

People might be intrigued by the titles, but I think they are going to ask themselves, “do I want to bring ‘Contaminated Water’ or ‘Pond Scum’ into my home?”

There are going to be exceptions – some buyers like to have something unexpected, something perceived as negative, into their collection for the little shock value it might bring, but this is going to be the a very small minority. On average it’s going to have a small negative impact on your sales.

The more important issue for me is that I guess I just don’t see the contamination or scum in the pieces you mention – I think the work is beautiful and so the title seems not to fit.

I’m not sure the “Monet” title is the right one, but I wouldn’t see it as negative in any way.

This is not a make or break issue, but I am always looking to optimize sales.


Jean’s Response to the Comments

This post has certainly produced some interesting stories and comments concerning my Contaminated Water series, naming art in general, etc. I think the general consensus is that naming art is important, which I have always followed. Most of my artwork starts with a vague name and changes three, four, or more times during the lengthy process of creation.

I think I spend too much intense time with my work over an extended period of time (quite often a year or two). Because I work within inches of my work, I see things that many others don’t see on first approaching or seeing the work. Part of that may be influenced because my work is quite often more abstract than representational work which may be easier to name because you have a distinct place, person, thing, etc.

Part of it may also be because I see the world in a different light. Everything is not calm, tranquil scenes of forest, lakes, oceans, ponds, wildlife, etc. Looking more closely can bring about astonishing discoveries. I am heavily influenced (consciously and unconsciously) by all of the negativity in the world the last decade or so which is what is shown night after night on TV, news feeds online, newspapers, etc. It seems to be on calamity after another – wild fires, oil spills, earthquakes, tsunamis, industrial accidents, war, famine, and human, social and environmental degradation, etc.

I have come to the conclusion that it is really too late (and inappropriate) to rename these pieces which was I think the question that I was broaching. The first pieces in the referenced series have been juried into exhibitions by prominent people in the art world, won several juror awards at exhibitions, and been featured in several books and magazines as they are named right now. Changing would become confusing I think for people who have seen the work in person, tracking the history of the pieces, etc.

If viewers get past the title and see something else such as a hint of beauty, a feeling of hope, or something else entirely that sparks a connection for them, then my art has done its job: created a response, started a discussion, or got the viewer thinking in another direction whether it is positive or negative.

What would you say to Jean? What has your experience been titling your work? Have you seen title’s make the difference in making the sale? Leave your thoughts and suggestions belowl

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