This story takes me right back to my days of teaching, when I took groups of students to nice sunshine locations in Europe. They would sit down to paint a scene, busily recording every tiny detail.
I would rock up, look at the picture, and would ask "what is the title ?". I would frequently be rewarded with a rather blank look. As if it should be OBVIOUS ....."street scene" "beach scene" "the old church" and so on. Sometimes, this was fine......the subject would lend itself to a simple title...but at other times, there was no clear message, it was just a scene. I would then ask..."what is it that first attracted you to this scene?". After some thought, the answer might, for example, have been "I liked the way the bushes tumbled over the wall". Yet, in the painting, the bushes and the wall were small and overwhelmed by other elements. When I would do a quick sketch, focussing on the lovely shapes of the bushes and the way they curved over the wall, searching out echoing shapes and rhythms, making those the stars of the show, the student would finally get the point.
Because they were so busy putting in every detail, they had overlooked the power of a title, the way a title for a picture can focus the mind of the painter, and then, eventually, the eye of the viewer. If they had done a quick sketch and called it "Tumbling bushes", they would have realised how they needed to subordinate other details of the scene in favour of the tumbling bushes.
A scene can be adjusted subtly to emphasise a particular concept, message, or even atmosphere, with the use of a title. For example, I once did a whole series of dancer images. They could have been called Dancer 1, Dancer 2, Dancers 3. Instead, I chose titles like "resting" "behind the scenes" "between sets" and in some cases even more fancy titles like "contemplation". (Bit pretentious mind you. I rather regretted that one. I tend to prefer simple titles, but then, I always do thumbnail sketches, so my titles almost write themselves because my concept is usually obvious.)
This little pastel painting is called "Calling Home". It is quite a busy scene, with the cafe with its eye-catching umbrellas, the trees with their unusual trunks, the sloping street behind the trees......but the title immediately encourages the viewer to focus on the figure, to "read" a story into the painting.
I remember being very impressed by a lovely portrait done by Alicia Sotherland. The model is a man, eyes down, glasses perched on nose, a head and shoulders portrait. the cast-down eyes, with no contact at all with the outside world, could have made it quite difficult to relate to the picture, but it was called "lost in a book". So nice, so strong. If you would like to see it: http://www.aliciasotherland.com/pastels/lost-in-a-book
Next time you are sitting in front of a scene.......and doing your preliminary or thumbnail sketch (you always do those, don't you.............), give your piece a title. You can change it later if you wish, I would always tell my students that titles need not be set in stone, paintings sometimes dictate their own titles to you as you are working. Starting with a title is such a motivating factor, however, I think you will be surprised by the way a title will help you to produce a stronger, more focussed image.
A little challenge/COMPETITION for you.
I have deliberately not given a title for the image at the top of this post. Can you come up with a suitable one, something a bit more interesting than "the ballet class?" Leave them as comments here so everyone can see. I will choose two to win a copy of my Blurb book.
In fact, what about a further challenge? If anyone would like to send me, by email, a painting they have done, with an interesting title which goes beyond the obvious,together with a few words to say why the title helped you to create a more focussed image, I will show a few of them in a forthcoming blog post.