Sunday, 26 February 2012


Little story........ my grandmother many years ago joined a flower arranging class.  The tutor gave every participant a project for the following week, they had to create an arrangement, and give it a title. She arrived at the class, proudly bearing her arrangement, the tutor came along and said "and what do you call that?".  Very offended, my grandmother walked out of the class, thinking that the tutor had been saying "and what on earth do you call THAT."  (I hope you get the inflection in the voice).  She completely forgot that she had been asked to give the piece a title.    !!

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:

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.


  1. Finding a suitable title for a painting is either very simple or very difficult. As you said, sometimes the piece 'speaks' to you and the title is there before the painting is barely more than an idea. Other times, I have to think hard and analyze the painting to see what aspect becomes a focal point that I can hang a title on. I often use a thesaurus to help me, putting in a few word options and seeing what spins off from there.

    For this piece, 'Position 7' is my offering. A spin off of the classic five positions of ballet barre exercises. Seven little girls in seven positions.

    It will be interesting to see what other names are put forward.

  2. I love the painting. Each facial expression is a little wonder in it itself.
    The title:

  3. Waiting for a turn. I think the girls are patiently waiting for turn to try a new move.

  4. Here is the first thing that popped into my head. "Primary Ballerinas" is a play on the word, Prima.

    Dougwas @ WetCanvas

  5. "We Differ in Patience" =) Great blog post! Titles & how/where to sign both seem to be minor things that can have great effect on a painting.

  6. The title jumped into my head immediately

    "the stuff dreams are made of"


  7. I'm afraid I'm guilty of mostly uninspired titles, so I shall take this post to heart and give it more thought in the future. I can see it's certainly a great way to focus on what's important.

    As for a title for your lovely ballet class - well, my best friend's daughter always looks forward to her ballet class with all her friends - I get the impression that it's a weekly highlight. So I'm suggesting 'The Saturday morning gang' (equally applicable to grubby little boys playing football I guess!)

  8. My first thought was "Anxiety" my daughter behaves like those girls are positioned when she is anxious.

  9. I love the picture. Here are three suggestions for a title (I hope this is ok) reflecting in which way this image speaks to me:

    - Little hearts beating faster
    - Nervous lineup
    - The young Chorus Line

  10. "Not sure I can do THAT........"

    is what their faces say to me as they watch a demo !

  11. The more I look at this painting the more I see. I especially like the skinned knees! My suggestion for a title is "Divas in Training" or "Divapprentices". I would be thrilled to own your book. In fact, it has quite inspired me to think about creating a book of my own (still in the planning stage)! Thanks for sharing your art!


    1. Jackie,

      When I read your introduction about your grandmother and flower arrangement, it brought back thoughts of the double meaning many English phrases have. My favourite English amusement comes from the Bellamy Brother's hit song title "If I Said You Had a Beautiful Body Would You Hold It Against Me". Of course the ambiguity would be removed if the instructor has asked for the title of the arrangement but then we would lose an interesting story.

      The late, great Edgar Whitney suggested that you should write 6 or 7 words about the scene you have in front of you before you even try to do a thumbnail so as to solidify your thoughts and impressions as a first step in the process of painting. I try, but I'm not too successful and usually have to resort to inventing a title after the painting is completed.

    2. thanks for this, James, I love the Whitney quote, it is what I have been trying to talk about on Wet Canvas recently, I hope you won't mind if I quote you quoting this!

    3. Please quote away. I would welcome some more dialogue on WC about this and other composition problems. "step one is emotional involvement with the subject. ... First fix the characteristics-the essences of the subject-in the fewest possible words. Seven or eight should be plenty. When thinking of subject matter do not neglect the less trite concepts." -- Edgar Whitney, "Complete guide to Watercolor Painting".

      You might also like to see Virgil Carter's thread on WC about "Painting what I see vs. Painting what I feel"

  12. Jackie this is a lovely painting. Love the colours you've used in the girls dresses and the exxpressions you've
    captured on their faces. They look a little apprehensive to me, like they're waiting for something. When I was young
    I hated being picked out for special attention so my suggestion for the title is:

    "Please don't choose me!"


  13. Forgotten Tutu.
    Beautiful pastel painting.

  14. Firstly let me say....I am a BIG fan of your work.

    If I were to choose a Title for the ballerina piece it would be 'The Dream Team'. In the painting I notice that some ballerinas are looking in one direction (I presume they are watching their teacher) and will probably end up being great at ballet while the others are too young to focus and are dreaming of other things.

  15. "Are We Next?" Thanks for the hints on giving titles, Jackie. I need them!

  16. I loved this post!!! All the info you have here, along with the story of your mom, and how its put together I found very inspiring--Really. Very thoughtful stuff, and I could picture most of it. Love your blog.

    For me, two tittles popped into my mind....

    1. Courage
    2. Calm before the storm........Its a wonderful refective painting.

  17. Love the painting. They are all lined up thinking "Some Day" I want to do that!

  18. thanks everyone.......the ideas keep coming, so until it runs out of steam, I will delay a firm decision. Some nice ideas from you all! Glad the post inspired. Jackie

  19. Title Contest:

    "We Are All Beautiful"

    Richard Jordan

  20. Girls Will Be Girls - there's my title for the ballet class. I like the different personalities and the way some of them seem thrilled to be there and others more shy, others less confident, some not even interested but stuck in the class anyway because they're supposed to be there. The variety of size and shape and posture in it is wonderful. They grow like kittens - legs or head or torso will get way out of proportion and a few days later the rest catches up or grows more.


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