The title of a painting should be like a very short poem.
Most often, the title is the only chance the artist has to share any words with the viewer in regards to the painting. The title is like a signpost, suggesting a direction for the viewer to head in. It is a collection of words or a singular word there to evoke a feeling. I like it when a title sings. To me, a good title has rhythm and cadence, even if it is just one word, and captures the mood and embodies the painting. A ten word title is ok and sometimes, that’s what is necessary. A twenty word title starts to beleaguer itself with it’s own verbosity. We are, afterall, in the business of looking at art and not reading books. Our titles should be like short poems, not sonnets or epics. The painting is the sonnet. It is the epic. The title is the final dahs and is there to offer the viewer guidance.
But the title should not be the obvious. It should not point out what is in the picture. That’s just redundant. And, unless that really is all that there is to be said (as in “Boy in Blue” or “Hunters after the hunt”) then it should point to what is NOT in the picture. It should point to the intention, the vision, the emotion of the experience.
I choose titles that offer not just a clue to the vision but are almost enigmas unto themselves, unveiling yet another facet of the artwork. A painting – this collection of lines and colors and visual cues – is something of an enigma. A good painting draws the viewer in – showing, not telling. We are especially talking here of the paintings of the more internal world – not still lives and landscapes. Paintings that have recognizable elements that diverge into flights of fancy and dreams of divinity.
In those dreams of divinity words echo through like afterthoughts. Sometimes I have a wisp of a word that wanders into my mind while making a painting and I seize upon it. That’s the one! Or two… or three… I try to remember to write it down so that later I’m not wracking my brain trying to remember.
Later, while sitting writing, I draw upon that thought and others… and distill out the thread a statement that eventually solidifies into what seems like an impenetrable idea and that becomes Title. Sometimes Violet (my wife) listens to my title, says no, no good. And gives me a better one. Or we bounce it back and forth until something more prefect arises. Sometimes, I say no, that’s the title.
Sometimes I have no title at all and can’t think of a thing and so I leave it to her and she gives me something that is a piece of poetry that ties it all together.
Titles: they are poetic accents to a masterpiece.
I used to just dive into a painting. I’m talking about bigger paintings. I’d have a few sketches and ideas but I’d just start laying on the paint and hope for the best. I’d always reconsider things too late in the game and think that I should have had a more solid plan. As time passed, I started making more and more complex drawings before hand and preceding the painting with loads of conceptual work. Then I gave more and more thought to how the colors would interact and what the best way to approach it would be – do I put a background on first or start with pure white canvas and just lay the colors down or do I do a monotone painting on the white canvas and then proceed to glazing?
There’s so many different techniques and approaches to creating a painting but, ultimately, what is important is the final outcome and the feeling you want to evoke. The texture and grain of the canvas are as important as the colors. The background is going to set the whole mood. And if you decide to go with gradual glazings then you have a whole other set of variables to consider.
But before any of that – there is simply the creative process itself. All the technique in the world isn’t going to make a GREAT painting. It will make a very good and technically proficient painting but GREAT paintings are born out of something more. There are museums full of very good paintings. But GREAT paintings… they are born from inspiration and dedication and openness to the process. The trick to making a great painting is using the tools of awareness to follow the subtler aspects of our perception and our movements and momentum as artists towards their sublimely inspiring peaks.
So head to your sketchbook and be furious about it. Be passionate. And be patient.
When you have reached that place – when you have that drawing – whether sketched with intentional intensity or simply as an offhand remark that turns out to carry the weight of the ages – when you have it and are happy with it – then turn to the canvas and consider… what is the best process to turn this drawing into a painting? What does it need? What does it want?
Look at other paintings by other artists. Don’t be cloistered about your approach. Look at ALL artists. Consider ALL approaches. EVERYTHING is valid but don’t get lost in possibilities. Eventually – you need to get started.
So do it. Make it. Make beautiful art.
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