Friday, 7 March 2008

What’s Your Title?

This article was first published in the July-August 2007 edition of My French Easel Newsletter.

Parents spend a lot of time chosing their child’s first name, make lists and argue about it because a name is a personality in the making. After the birth of your work, you don’t want to launch it into the Big World without a proper name. Title your work or someone else will do it for you.

There are many good reasons to pay attention to your work’s title.

The title is your hook. It may be the first impression your viewer has: the curator or gallery owner opening your package and browsing through the list of slides, the visitor to a collective exhibition scanning through the catalogue…

A good title makes the difference between the book you pick and the one you leave on the shelf. An excellent title intrigues or makes you smile and invite you to discover more.

An original title will show your attention to detail. It will frame your work in the mind of the public as a good frame enhances a painting on the gallery wall. Your art and inventiveness do not stop when your work is finished. Why should you confine your imagination to the studio? Inject creativity into everything you do.

"A pint too far"- Oil on canvas by Benoit Philippe

You can also use titles to generate your art. There is no reason to confine the role of the title to a mere label for a finished work. Being short, the title offers shortcuts to the mind and generates ideas. I personally experienced many times the power of titles as generators of a work. My painting “A pint too far” started with the conjunction of the title and my desire to paint a nice pub in my home town. This painting is part of a series called “Parallel reality”, which gave me another pointer to develop the initial idea. I imagined what wild vision a drunken customer who went a pint too far could have when leaving the pub and turning back to look at it. I decided to put the pub into an African landscape, with an elephant and a jaguar in a lush tropical forest.

Finally, by crafting a good title, you acknowledge the intelligence of your public. You give them a clue to unravel the meaning of your work and let them decipher your riddle.

There is no miracle formula for the ideal title. Taste evolves and titles have changed over time. What do you think of the title of Daniel Defoe’s book “A Journal of the Plague Year: Being Observations or Memorials of the Most Remarkable Occurrences, as Well Public as Private, Which Happened in London During the Last Great Visitation in 1665”? The time is gone where long titles flourished on book covers. Save for a specific effect, you should aim at short titles.

One of my favourite painting titles is: “Ceci n’est pas une pomme” (“This Is Not An Apple”) that René Magritte gave to an oil he painted in 1964. The title is actually written at the top of the painting representing a very realistic apple and it forms an integral part of the work. When you first look at the painting, you think: “of course it is an apple”. Then, you think again and realise the obvious (or is it?): this is not an apple, this is a representation of an apple… This is Magritte’s unique representation of an apple… This is my personal perception of Magritte’s unique representation of an apple. The title unfolded a complex reality. What looked like a benign painting became the object of a reflection on aesthetics. This title gives another dimension to the work and is a work of art in itself.

10 tips to better titles

  • Use images: visuals have more impact than words.

  • Use short, simple words.

  • Poetry is your ally.

  • Suggesting rather than telling.

  • Use humour.

  • Avoid long, boring and descriptive titles, unless for effect.

  • Play on the words, play with words.

  • Use references.

  • Begin a story with your title.

  • Promote a telling detail in your painting as your title.

  • Titles in practice

  • To improve your ability to craft good titles:

  • Look for advertising slogans.

  • Pay attention to titles of articles in the press.

  • For poetic conciseness, read haikus.

  • Carry a notebook with you and take notes when you think of a title.
    Don’t discriminate at the beginning; go for quantity rather than quality. There is always time to choose and edit later. A dull title may lead you to a good one after a few thinking rounds.

  • Write your title, leave it for a week, and then come back to it. Distance and time give you a fresh perspective.

  • Test your titles with a couple of people.

Creative exercise

When you go to a museum or a gallery, look at the art first and don’t read the label. Try to come-up with one or two good titles for a work that inspires you. Then, read the label and see which title you prefer (the official one or yours).

This exercise will help you for two reasons:

  • Your mind will be more relaxed because you will be working on someone else’s work. Editors of newspapers and magazines often write the headlines. It’s not only because it is fun and an art in itself, but because they are more detached from the story than the journalist. They are more likely to catch the right angle. In the same way, the distance you have with another artist’s work gives you a safe way to get better at crafting titles.

  • In addition, works you see in galleries will be different from yours (in style, subject, and medium) and will help you to generate different and unusual ideas that you may then transpose to name your own work.

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