Notes from the Studio

Naming the Painting: The Final Frontier

"Enchanted Oaks" 16x24"

Artists refer to all kinds of resources when naming their paintings. The Bible is a favorite with many. Literature, popular and classical music titles and terms are commonly used. Some titles are straightforward in identifying a place or model by name.  However, if an artist paints the same model or theme multiple times—well, you can see the problem: Redhead #14 or Oak Trees #42. 

Some paintings name themselves long before they are completed. “Windswept” was about half done when the word whispered through my brain like wind sweeping across bent grass.  Wind gusted through the oak leaves as I painted them, and wind shredded the clouds. For me, the painting became as much about wind as it was about oak trees and dry summer grass.

When a painting doesn’t name itself I enter the bargaining phase. Questions include, what is this painting about? What mood does it convey? Will the chosen title offend collectors? Is it corny? Is it pompous? (I’ve used some Latin botanical names!) Is the title understandable? Ideally, the title should enhance the viewer’s experience of the painting. It should never get in the way of that experience.

The bargaining phase can enhance the painting’s meaning for the artist. One such landscape was begun when my father was dying, and completed during grieving and release. I had a terrible time discovering its name. It took months. Finally, one day as I just looked at the painting, I remembered Dad taking us to Harbison Canyon and shoveling up bags full of fallen oak leaves from a little ravine. He dug those leaves into his garden, which flourished the following Spring. Was the painting about loss? Or was it about transformation and life?  Was it all of those things?  The title that found the painting was “Enchanted Oaks”. The painting was taken to a higher level because I invested time in understanding its deeper mysteries.

Not all paintings are so lucky. Galleries and collectors love their paintings named, and sometimes minimal effort goes into it. Do you remember a word game you might have played—the game with three columns of really impressive words, and you chose one word from each column to make a phantasmagoric project title?  I’ve threatened to resort to that.

(Reprinted from Yvonne Branchflower's e-newsletter, The Palette Keeper, October 2009.  To subscribe to The Palette Keeper just click on the newsletter link at the top or bottom of this page.  Future topics in the Blog will be different from those in The Palette Keeper.)

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