The art of naming art

Did you know the famous ‘Mona Lisa’ painting wasn’t known as Mona Lisa until after Leonardo da Vinci died?

Were you aware someone had the nerve to rename a Picasso? His descriptively titled, ‘The Girl With A Red Beret and Pompom’ was renamed to ‘Annabel’ by the nightclub owner who bought the painting. 

What about the painting, ‘Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1’? Ever heard of it? Neither. That’s because it was renamed ’Whistler’s Mother’ by the Royal Academy of Arts. 

The artist explains the reasoning behind his original drab title: “art should be independent of all clap-trap - should stand alone and appeal to the artistic sense of eye or ear, without confounding this with emotions entirely foreign to it…To me it is interesting as a picture of my mother but what can or ought the public to do to care about the identity of the portrait?”

‘Whistler’s Mother’ - by James Abbott McNeill Whistler (Source: wikimediacommons)

Next time your child brings home their artistic hodge podge of painted macaroni, pipe cleaners and cat poo, remember, you ought not concern yourself with emotion nor care as to the identity of the portrait (even though you know full well it’s a portrait of you in the morning before coffee). 

If famous artists of the past cannot title their work in a way that resonates with the viewer, should we really concern ourselves with the way we name our artwork today?


A rather involved 2015 neuroscientific study gained some insight into the impact the name of an artwork may have on our perception of it.

Firstly, I will say one of the most interesting parts of the study were the participants - 47 psychology students with no expertise in art but who were in desperate need of course credits. It’s amazing what people will do to avoid flipping burgers the rest of their life.

Participant numbers dwindled to 39 due to what the study vaguely describes as “technical problems”. I’d say being strapped down with electrodes, eyelids pried open with toothpicks, and watching a never-ending reel of contextless artworks and overwrought titles wasn’t the kind of stimuli they’d hoped for on a Saturday night. 


So what were the results of all the probing?

The facial recognition data suggests that in some cases there is a relationship between artwork titles and our appreciation of the artwork, but just how the title creates a pleasurable experience is still undetermined. 

The study seemed to suggest that a title that requires less mental effort to correlate (i.e. a picture of a fuel station entitled, “Gasoline”) works for some people, while challenging the mind with more complex or abstract tiles (i.e. coloured circles entitled, “Run”) works for better for others. 


Do my artwork titles strike an emotional reaction with you? Don’t worry, I’m sure once I have you strapped to a chair with a laser pointed at you you’ll answer correctly!

Sometimes I struggle to name my pieces, other times the title comes to me before I even put pen to paper. Here are a few examples of how I attempt to name my art (click the artwork titles to read more). 

1. Tell a story 

Use a title that tells a story to the viewer.

Drive Thru


2. Be factual

Name the work after what it is or what can be readily seen. I often use this with geographic locations. 

Noosa Heads Queensland

Still remains - Ancient ruins of Ephesus

3. Try quirky, funny or ironic

I try my best to avoid being too boring or cheesy. Adding a touch of quirk to the title fits in with who I am as the artist and as a person.

I want to speak to the manager’

Chip bandit

4. Provide insight into you

Similar to points 1 and 3, some titles give more of insight into you as the artist.

Do you have change for a denarius?

Rinse repeat

5. Allow the viewer to derive meaning

A simple title or an ambiguous title can allow the view to make their own connection rather than inhibit their experience. 



According to the aforementioned study, depending on your audience, leaving art untitled may be ok if the subject of the artwork is clear, but it may not work so well when the subject is abstract in nature. 

You can always change the title later. My parents did. Legend has it I went without a name for some time after I was born. Clearly my arrival came as some kind of surprise to my parents. Eventually though, the Royal Academy of Old Lady Cheekpinchers changed my name from “Untitled” to “Girl with the chubby Latvian cheeks”. 


What is the best way to name your art?

  • Tell a story
  • Be factual
  • Try quirky, funny or ironic
  • Provide insight into you
  • Allow the viewer to derive meaning
  • Leave it untitled

Based on my experience and 47 uni students strapped to chairs, there’s no definitive answer. Name it what you like. Name it what feels authentic. Or, like my parents, don’t name it all. 

Someone will resonate with your work, whether that’s because it’s title is simple, it’s title is a complex word-salad, or because they just enjoy what your work says to them visually.

If you think your chosen title may affect your chances at a sale, remember, some of the most famous artworks had titles that weren’t flavour of the month with “experts” and they sold for millions. 

x Candy

Want to read more scientific studies I have paraphrased and taken out of context to fit my own artistic narrative: Artwork feature: Chip bandit’ and ‘Left-handed problems’.

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