Michael Divine

Titles of Paintings Are Like Poems

Most often, the title is the only chance the artist has to share any words with the viewer in regards to the painting. The title is like a signpost, suggesting a direction for the viewer to head in. It is a collection of words (or perhaps just a singular word) there to evoke a feeling and nudge the viewer in the direction of the artist’s intention.

I like it when a title sings. To me, a good title has rhythm and cadence, even if it is just one word, capturing the mood and embodying the painting. A ten word title is ok and, sometimes, that’s what is necessary. A twenty word title will beleaguer itself with its own verbosity. We are, after all, in the business of looking at art and not reading books. Our titles should be like short poems, not sonnets. The painting is the sonnet. It is the epic. The title is the final moment and is there to offer the viewer guidance.


But the title should not be the obvious. It should not point out what is in the picture. That’s just redundant.  And, unless that really is all that there is to be said (as in “Boy in Blue” or “Hunters after the Hunt”) then it should point to what is NOT in the picture. It should point to the intention, the vision, the emotion of the experience.

A good title offers not just a clue to the vision but are almost enigmas unto themselves, unveiling yet another facet of the artwork. A painting – this collection of lines and colors and visual cues – is something of an enigma. A good painting draws the viewer in – showing, not telling. We are especially talking here of the paintings of the more internal world – not still lives and landscapes – paintings that have recognizable elements that diverge into flights of fancy.

In those dreams, words echo through like afterthoughts. Sometimes I have a wisp of a word that wanders into my mind while making a painting and I seize upon it. That’s the one! Or two… or three… I try to remember to write it down so that later I’m not wracking my brain trying to remember.

Later, while sitting writing, I draw upon that thought and others… and distill out that thread a statement that eventually solidifies into what seems like an impenetrable idea and that becomes Title. Sometimes Violet (my wife) listens to my title, says no, no good. And gives me a better one. Or we bounce it back and forth until something more prefect arises.

Sometimes I have no title at all and can’t think of a thing and so I leave it to her and she gives me a little piece of poetry that ties it all together.

Titles: they are poetic accents to a masterpiece.

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