One stop on last month’s car trip to San Rafael, CA, was a visit with two couples I know in San Luis Obispo. I went plein air painting with Bridget Duffy on Monday and with Harvey Cohon on Tuesday. Mike hung out with the other spouse in each couple. What fun! The very next day, fires broke out and any further painting would have been out of the question. The air quality and visibility became poor.
Why Giving Your Artwork a Title is a Good Idea
Do you title your artwork?
A reasonable rationale for leaving works untitled, is that viewers are free to interpret the piece based on anywhere their fantasy takes them. In support of this position, I can acknowledge that I have occasionally been quite impressed with the eloquent response a viewer has expressed to one of my paintings and wish I had had such a profound intention when I painted the piece! Even so, personally, I’m put off by seeing that a work of art is “Untitled”. I register that as a failure of imagination. Yet, once I had the experience of being delighted with a painting, and then, after reading the title, I felt somewhat deflated; turned off by the pedestrian, truly ho-hum sentiment that the title expressed. I had seen more in the painting.
Although there may be reasons for leaving works untitled, there are serious advantages to coming up with a good title (whatever that means; we’ll discuss it later). According to an article by Alan Bamberger on ArtBusiness.com, “a title always adds value to a work of art”. I can share a bit of experimental evidence that supports this idea. I used to teach classes in Research Methods. One of my college students was an artist who wanted to do his research project on a topic relevant to the art world. He came up with a small piece of contemporary art that largely consisted of a red and green background, with hints of a nose and lips outlined in black. There were three experimental conditions, each of which included showing subjects the same painting, in-the-flesh so-to-speak. Each group of students was shown the painting and told a few things about it. In the first condition, the painting was titled “No. 3 in Series B”. In the second condition, the title was “Luscious Lips,” and in the third condition, the title was “Lying Lips”. The students were asked five questions that involved their responses to the painting and their speculations about it, such as what the price of the painting might be. None of the responses across the three conditions were significant, except that students in the “Lying Lips” group thought the painting would sell for twice as much as did the students in either the “No. 3 in Series B” or the “Luscious Lips” groups. Now that’s something to ponder when you are thinking up a title!
A title gives viewers more information than they would have if the work were to remain untitled. Titles serve as introductions to your art and provide viewers a glimpse of you as an artist. They may have come across your work by chance, liked what they saw, and become curious about you. Intriguing titles give prospective customers a reason to look further at your body of work. Strong titles reflect what inspires you to make art, what personal beliefs you have that it represents, what message it is meant to communicate, and why the viewer should look at and think about it.
A major advantage to titling your work is that people searching the Internet on a specific topic will be able to find it. Untitled art is not searchable. The more opportunities you give people to discover your art, the better. The term “untitled” fails to distinguish one piece of artwork from another.
How to Title Your Art
Artists often wonder how to come up with good titles. There is no denying that giving your work an advantageous title is a tricky business. Let’s explore 10 factors that make a title add something to your piece. What follows are some basic guidelines for how to title your art (These tips are substantially reformulated from an article by Alan Bamberger on ArtBusiness.com):
1. Think of titles as being keywords in a computer search. What are the most important words that describe your artwork? What kinds of words do you use when talking about that piece? These words are useful starting points for excellent titles.
2. Choose titles that make your art more accessible by hinting at what it is about. Many people don’t like trying to figure out the meaning of artwork. A title gives them a clue as to your intention in creating the masterpiece, as well as a reason to pause and take a closer look.
3. Consider using titles that provide specific information about the piece. Many people are too embarrassed to ask what untitled art is about, even if they like it. Titles at least give viewers a fighting chance to understand what they’re looking at.
4. If possible, use titles that have some connection to the visual content or composition of the work as opposed to ones that are completely unrelated to what the art looks like. If a composition has identifiable geographical locations through landmarks, species of plants, animals, people, or objects, you’ll want to consider including those names in your title. That way, your art might come up in search results for those proper names. For example, someone searching for information about the California wineries might find your painting in their search results, and like it so much that they decide to view more of your art, or contact you about purchasing the piece.
5. Good titles help people to recognize and appreciate aspects of your art that may not be immediately obvious. For instance, a figure painting might be about family members or childhood memories. Without a title, viewers would not get the chance to fully experience those aspects of the work that inspired you to create it. Titles help viewers see what you want them to see. For example, even though I often use friends and family members as models, I usually don’t name my relationship to the person in my title, because I want the viewer to focus on the universal experience of joy a child has in splashing around in a water fountain or a young girl has in going on a walk with her mother. This is what I want them to see.
6. Cryptic titles that do not instantly relate to the composition or subject matter of your art can intrigue the viewers and prompt them to linger a bit longer in front of your artwork, puzzling over the riddle you have supplied to them. Such titles seduce viewers into taking longer looks, and maybe even asking questions if the artist happens to be available. Unexpected or uncommon titles engage viewers in ways that ordinary titles do not. Be careful, though. Titles that baffle the viewers may also annoy them. Allow them to “get” what your title means within a brief span of time. A famous example of a cryptic title is Rene Magritte’s painting of a pipe. The title is “The Treachery of Images,” but the sentence in the painting (translated into English) is: “This is not a Pipe” (Instead, it’s a realistic painting of a pipe.)
7. Unusual words or phrases tend to attract more interest and attention than common ones. These kinds of titles also have better chances of appearing higher up in search results because of their uniqueness. Be sure that your unusual words relate directly to your art, and do not use them gratuitously or to try and game the system.
8. Your title for each piece should be different. Not only do viewers appreciate unique titles, but also an array of titles by the same artist, when taken together, can offer the viewer insight into the artist’s perspective, and thus help people connect with the artist’s purpose in producing the work. Having a different title for each piece of your art also maximizes the number of opportunities for your overall body of work to appear in search results.
9. Gallery owners really like titles, particularly ones that increase viewers’ interest in the art. Plus, explanatory titles make their job easier when it comes to selling your work. For instance, my landscape painting titles name the exact location, because I realize that the first thing I want to know when I see another artist’s landscape painting is where it was painted. As with artists who have websites, galleries need to list individual works online, in emails, or on price lists, so unique titles avoid confusion.
10. Avoid numerical titles. Not only do they provide little or no information about the art, but also they can’t be searched. Similarly, don’t use the same title over and over again followed by letters or numbers to distinguish one work from the next, like Urban Landscape 1, Urban Landscape 2, Urban Landscape 3, and so on. Doing this limits people’s ability to find your art.
Making art is about the individual personal creative process, whereas pricing art for sale has to do with what’s happening in the real world where market forces dictate how much things are worth. What follows is a look at the various things to consider when setting a price on your artwork.
I believe this is a topic worth discussing, because I have often heard that artists tend to charge ridiculously low prices for their work, and I have noticed this myself. For example, at a local art show, I spotted a beautifully executed 18×24 watercolor, matted, framed, and of course with glass, selling for $350, some of which would have needed to be paid as a commission. If that piece was custom-framed, the artist might just about break even. If her goal was to simply disperse her work into the world, she would probably accomplish that end. Yet her price could have a killing effect on sales of artists who are trying to make a decent living from their efforts.
My former painting teacher, Christopher L. Cook, prices his paintings strictly by size. Every single painting of his that is the same size is the same price. He is a young man who is a professional, intending to make a living selling his paintings. I have been plein air painting with him and have seen him create a painting in 4-5 hours, although he would be likely to tweak it later when back in his studio. Even his small paintings sell for around $1600.
To some extent, I have adopted Christopher’s strategy, in that I start with the idea of charging the same price for the same-sized paintings. All of my 11×14 plein air landscapes are priced at $400. However, if I consider a painting to be one of my best ever, I’ll put a higher price on it, so that if it does sell, I’ll at least have the satisfaction of being well-paid for it. My single portraits are generally a minimum of $1,000 and double portraits more still. This greater price is partly because these are larger paintings and take me up to 50 hours to complete. They are also my best work.
Of course your pricing strategy depends on how much you desire to sell your work as well as how much wall space and storage space you have to keep pieces you don’t sell. The famous British painter, Joseph Mallord William Turner refused to sell any of his paintings. He wanted to leave them to the British people as a body of work. He could afford not to sell his paintings and not to work at anything other than painting. He had a large house with ample wall space for hanging his “progeny”.
Another factor to consider is how long it takes you to complete a painting. It takes me from 20-50 hours, but I have a plein air painter friend who can knock out two paintings in an afternoon. In the rare cases when I do a plein air painting, I plan to spend four hours “in the field,” but I also take my good camera so that I can snap reference photos to finish up back in my studio. If I allow myself a mere $15 per hour, and spend 20 hours, that means I would need to charge $300 for an unframed painting (ignoring the cost of materials), but only if I don’t need to pay a gallery commission. If I were to pay a 50% commission, I would need to charge $600 plus tax, in order to earn a minimum wage. For this reason, I’m somewhat in sympathy with Turner, in that I’d often rather keep the painting than find myself $300 richer.
I have placed paintings in galleries that charged anywhere from 10% up to 50%. I put a higher price on a painting if I am obliged to pay a higher commission. I had a painting that I wasn’t particularly interested in selling, as I knew it was one of my best, so I put a price tag of $4,000 on it, and it sold anyway. I only received half of that, so it was marginally worth it to me to part with the piece. My younger daughter still hasn’t forgiven me for selling it.
Luckily, I don’t need to make a living selling my paintings, so I think about at what price I would be willing to give them up. I keep working on my paintings until I like them and can see nothing that needs to be improved or corrected. As I wrote earlier, if I believe a finished painting is among my best work, I charge more for it. If I show it in a custom frame especially selected to suit that painting (which I usually do), I add the cost of the frame to the price. Other materials should also be considered, which could be anywhere from $25 to $150 if the painting size isn’t larger than 18×24.
I’m perfectly happy to sell a giclee to anyone who admires a painting of mine, but who doesn’t have the money to buy the original. That way, we’re both pleased, as my customer receives an inexpensive version of my painting, and I still have the painting. The only drawback here is that some of the giclees don’t do the original painting justice. For example, these days, I like to work on a perfectly smooth surface, yet giclees are always, as far as I know, transferred to canvas, which adds undesirable texture, in my view. Still, a purchaser of a couple of my giclees called me this morning to let me what great joy he derives from his copies of my work. Happy ending.
I just completed “Santa Barbara Mission,” and added it to the site. The original oil is sold, but giclees and hand-worked giclees are available.
When I visit my daughter in Santa Barbara, we sometimes take at look at the old Santa Barbara mission. On this day, we encountered an art group that was painting the mission and I chatted with several members about their paintings and their group.
I have been watching realistic painting demonstrations on YouTube. In one of them, Cesar Santos recommended that artists try to answer three questions about their paintings: “What is my situation in the world? Why do I paint what I paint? What can I do that is powerful?” These seem like great questions for any artist to consider. In what follows, the first section is my interpretation of what Santos meant by the artist’s situation in life. The second and third sections are my attempt to clarify for myself what is my intention at the heart of what I am doing with my choice of subject matter. I sometimes feel slightly vapid in selecting subject matter unconsciously, rather than with a clear intention. For this reason, I was attracted to Santos’ questions. The third question, what makes a painting powerful, is the most challenging for me.
Your situation in life: Painting is a culmination of your life experiences. All of the things, people, and places you have known contribute to it. Whether you are young or old, financially comfortable or struggling to make ends meet, these things shape your perspective on the world, and influence your choice of subject matter. Your painting’s content reflects what is important to you and what concerns you. To some extent, you cannot help but paint about contemporary life, because you are immersed in it. A figure painter may set his or her subject and background in a past period of time, but may unconsciously choose a body type that reflects contemporary ideals. Even a landscape painter is documenting that the sun shines at a certain time of year or that the fog rolls in on June mornings and that trees and streams exist—that humans haven’t yet “paved paradise and put up a parking lot,” as the song goes. Non-objective art could be an exception, yet even shape and color choices seem to have fashions anchored to a period in time.
You can find your inspiration in the patterns of daily life going on around you. As you observe the day-to-day background of your life, you might find subject matter that peaks your interest and invigorates your imagination. You become aware of, and sensitive to, the things around you.
Why I paint what I paint: I want people to respond to my paintings with “awwwwe…,” but without the paintings being trite. I like my paintings to reflect the majestic and beautiful in life. Such paintings are reminders of the finer elements of human experience. In contrast, one of my former life drawing professors likes to paint the faces of men on skid row. Some of his paintings are eight feet tall, consisting of a huge unkempt, weathered, and sad face staring out at the viewer. My teacher would go to Los Angeles and ask men on the street to let him sketch them, making several sketches and offering to give each man his pick of the sketches to keep. My professor ruefully reported that these men invariably seemed to select his best sketch. How did they develop such good taste? I didn’t ask my teacher why he painted these sad sack men, because it seemed likely to me that he was making a social statement, reminding viewers that this aspect of life exists along with the impressive achievements of humanity. In reality, those struggling to survive are vastly more common than are outstanding achievers.
Why I paint what I do is a different question from why do I paint at all. I would probably answer by saying that I want to leave some worthwhile products behind after I am gone. In the meantime, I enjoy my paintings and others do too. I also like challenging myself to find out how skilled I can become. I routinely get myself into predicaments as I paint and seek ways to resolve them. It’s deeply satisfying to finally break through the impasse.
What I can do that is powerful: My former professor’s paintings were certainly powerful. I was even tempted to buy one of his small paintings, because there was something so soulful and, well, beautiful in the eyes gazing out from a mass of wrinkles and a mane of wild, filthy hair. Ultimately, I decided that it would be too much of a downer to have that piece in my home, both for me and for my house guests. I’m not sure such paintings are meant for a home so much as an office space, college, or museum. I first saw my professor’s paintings in the library of the college where he and I worked as faculty members. An entire wall was filled with half a dozen of the eight-foot tall versions of his paintings. The experience of seeing them was unforgettable. I freely acknowledge that my paintings are less powerful.
My painting, “African Mother in a Yellow Dress,” has received a more positive response than any other of my paintings, followed closely by “Almost Shirtsleeve Weather”. Since one of these paintings was completed at the beginning of my art instruction and the latter represents the current state of my painting skills, I have to conclude that it is the content that is gripping more so than my skill in portraying the scene. Both are mother-daughter paintings, in which one of the two people in each painting is looking directly out at the viewer, unsmiling. Both paintings provide a background that supplies context. These similarities also hold true for my paintings “African Mother in a Blue Dress” and “Green-Eyed Madonna”. These two paintings were the most popular at my solo show in 2016. “Blue Dress” came in first as the popular choice and I had a buyer for “Green-Eyed Madonna,” although he backed out later. My painting of “Jane Goodall with an Infant Chimp” also has a similar format, with Jane looking away and the chimp gazing out at the viewer. This painting has an indistinct background that provides a minimal context. Even my painting of my Siamese cats, “Tai Lounging on Tae” has a similar format, with Tai “unsmilingly” gazing at the viewer while Tae looks out a window.
Another of my mother-child paintings, “Double Devotion” packs a punch because the mother in that one has a large tattoo on her arm. Neither mother nor child is gazing at the viewer, which reduces the impact of the painting. This isn’t one of my popular paintings, although I like it. I was inspired to paint it, after seeing a mother lovingly cradling her toddler, while sporting a full tattoo sleeve. Mike and I were attending an outdoor summer concert, and I responded to the tableau by feeling slightly repelled but also attracted to the sight. I thought this would make an edgy painting. I didn’t photograph the scene, out of respect for the mother’s privacy, so I essentially had to make up my own composition.
In each case, there was something that attracted me to the person and scene. Many of my portraits depict a relationship between mother and child that suggests tenderness. The painting “Sweet Dreams” also depicts a tender moment, with a small boy taking a nap with his cat. This is a double portrait, like so many of my paintings are. A trio of figures is supposed to be a magical combination in the art world, but I seem to go for a pair of subjects every time.
In summary, I was attracted to Cesar Santos’ questions because I haven’t had a conscious purpose directing my selection of subject matter. I was somewhat chagrined to discover while answering these questions, that I often don’t choose my own subject matter. It seems that my situation in life is likely to seep into my paintings even if unintentionally, so perhaps I should think of myself as representing the current era and have a good look around me to see what is worth capturing and commemorating. I like to create paintings that inspire and remind people of the most delightful aspects of human life. Finding what makes a painting powerful still eludes me to some extent. I have tried to work backwards in my thinking from the responses my paintings have had to learn what sorts of compositions resonate with people.