Inside an Artists's Head: What's in a Name?

Have you ever wondered how artists decide to title their artwork? If it isn’t obvious (like, “Mill Pond Bridge”), is there a secret meaning behind the titles of artwork? I used to think this was a mysterious language only understood by artists, especially when I visited the modern art collections of museums and galleries, and the titles didn’t make sense to me.

Detail from, “Birch Trees, Fall”  


Oil on canvas   

While slightly abstract, this painting has a simple title which helps viewers immediately recognize/relate to the subject.

Daily art

I’ve been creating art on a daily basis for the past 9 years and I’ve (finally!) realized I don’t need to come up with a deep and profound title for each piece. I’ve moved into a more abstract style in the past several years, and have stopped focusing on titles. If a name comes to me while creating, or if the piece is based on a specific concept, then I use that. Sometimes I even name a piece after music I'm listening to while I'm working. But oftentimes my work is an experiment with texture and color, and so the title becomes a way to keep track of my progress. For example, “Yellow #2: Circle Back” is the second in a series of (22 and counting) pieces which start with a yellow ground, and in this particular piece I experimented with layers of circles. 

Left: “Yellow #2: Circle Back” is from a series of mixed media pieces which start with a yellow ground. Right: “PHF Fields No. 1 (Frost)” is an experimental piece from of a current project where I’m testing specific techniques to use on a larger scale.

"Farm to Frame" series

Currently I’m working on a project-specific series relating to The Princeton Hulu Farm, a local organic farm owned and operated by an immigrant family. I create several experimental pieces every day for this project. They are small and made with oil paint, cold wax, and other materials on paper, focusing on techniques that will be used in the final larger pieces. When I started developing work for this project, I thought about long fancy names, but was creating so much that I decided to simplify in order to keep track of my progress. So now the small pieces are titled with abbreviations related to the series. “PHF: Fields No.1 (Frost)” is derived from the name of the farm (Princeton Hulu Farm), and the textures, layers and colors of the fields underneath frost. This abbreviated version makes it easier (for me) to follow the path of my evolution.

It's all part of a journey...

Maybe the next time you look at artwork and the title doesn’t make sense, consider that what you’re observing or experiencing is part of a process whereby the artist is developing a technique or teaching themselves how to use a new medium. There’s always a reason behind what an artist creates, and every piece you see represents part of a journey, and may not necessarily be the end goal. Some artists use obvious titles, while others use titles to remind themselves of where they were in the progression.


This article was inspired by a conversation I had with a customer who confided that she felt embarrassed she didn’t understand the title for a piece of art she liked. She thought she was missing something by not immediately knowing what the title meant, and didn’t want to admit to (what she perceived as) ignorance by asking. We wound up having a wonderful conversation about art, symbolism, and language.

Yours in paint and nature, Karen

"Composition IX"


Oil on canvas   

Wassily Kandinsky, 1936

Kandinsky considered his "Composition" series to be the most resolved of all of his paintings, indicating that he was consciously working through a process to achieve specific results.