How to name and write descriptions about your art

By in How To


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Giving your artwork a great title can make all the difference when it comes to how the audience perceives it. A good title pushes the themes or story behind a piece of work to the fore, allowing the viewer to make connections whilst leaving room for their own interpretation. Think, for example, of René Magritte’s famous painting of a pipe wittily named The Treachery of Images (This Is Not A Pipe). With this title, Magritte pulls into discussion the complexities of representation. It is not an explanation of the work, but a starting point, a catalyst for further thought that propels the viewer back into the painting. Likewise, a good description will keep your viewer engaged by offering supplementary information that may not be apparent in the piece itself. This extra information could make or break a sale, so it’s important to get it right.

Side view portrait of young Black man looking at paintings and thinking at art gallery
Providing just the right information in the name or description or your artwork could make or break a sale. | Photo by iStock.com/SeventyFour

Naming your artworks

Naming your artwork is all about balance. Ideally, a title should gesture to the theme, inspiration, or concept featured within the work, without giving it away completely. The title should act as a prompt that tells the viewer how to approach the piece, giving them an entry point to access the narrative. Take Edvard Munch’s famous painting Jealousy for example; this simple title clarifies the relationship of the three figures within the painting. From just one word, we can distinguish each character: The green face of Munch identifies him as the forgone lover, the woman as his love, and the second male figure, his rival.

Choosing to name your piece ‘Untitled’ is generally not advised. However, in certain cases, it may be warranted, especially in conceptual works where the absence of a label is considered part of the artistic statement. The minimalist Donald Judd, for example, used ‘Untitled’ for many of his works to erase any trace of himself or his decision-making. For smaller, preparatory works such as sketches, a simple descriptive title should do the trick: ‘Still life study in pencil 2020’, for instance.

When painting portraits or landscapes, it’s wise to use the name of the person or place as a title to provide context. When James Whistler came to paint his mother in 1871, he named the piece Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1, a rather vague title for a portrait that has since come to be known by the more revealing Whistler’s Mother.

In abstract works, it is all the more important to provide the viewer with a ‘key’ as a means of entry. When we approach Mondrian’s Composition with Red, Blue, and Yellow, we can conclude that his interests lie in formal design and colour theory. This assures us we can take the piece at surface level. Alternatively, the title of Jackson Pollock’s 1947 painting Lucifer reveals a dark energy at work, a beautiful angel who fell from heaven. The formal elements of the piece work together with the title to suggest a beauty in chaos.

Writing descriptions for your art

Writing descriptions can be another tricky skill to master. Descriptions should provide the viewer or potential buyer with the necessary background information beneath the work. A great description grabs the viewer’s attention, helping them to forge a deeper connection with the piece which thereby increases the chances of a sale.

There are two main types of information to include when writing descriptions:

The first is your inspiration, the context behind the work. This could be a historical moment, a person, or a personal experience. Whatever it is, explain how you incorporated the essence of your subject into the work, be it through colour, texture, or composition.

A historical or personal anecdote can be included to make it memorable. One of my favorite descriptions is of Lucian Freud’s painting Interior at Paddington, at the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool. It tells how the sitter of the portrait, Harry Diamond, was bitterly unimpressed with the artist’s depiction of him. He claimed the artist had made his legs too short, to which Freud replied, comically frank, “They were too short.” Background information imbues the work with narrative. Every time I see this painting now, Diamond’s sulky expression makes me laugh, as I imagine the pair squabbling during the sitting. Your audience is looking for something that grabs them, so whilst providing insight is crucial, it’s important to keep descriptions concise.

Around 200 words is plenty when it comes to descriptions, so be economic with your language. Steer away from art jargon, and opt instead for clear, simple sentences, making sure that your tone is consistent throughout. If you refer to a historical period, art movement, or person, briefly clarify this with a short explanation — never assume that your audience already knows.

The second part of a description is more straightforward. It should include the exact dimensions of the work, as well as all the materials used to create the piece, including the type of paper, canvas, board, etc. If your work is for sale you may also want to include information about your packaging and delivery services. For example, how will artworks be packaged, rolled, or stretched? What are your courier and shipping times? Though there is no perfect formula to writing descriptions of your works, these guidelines can steer you on the right path.

Further reading: How to write an artist statement


About The Author

Stephanie Gavan

Stephanie is a writer and visual artist from Liverpool, UK. She graduated from Goldsmiths College, London in 2014, where she studied Fine Art and History of Art. Previously, she worked as a Communications Assistant for Liverpool Biennial and co-edited feminist zine Queen of the Track. After two years of studying and teaching languages in Venice, Italy, she is currently undertaking an MA in Writing at the Royal College of Art.

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