What's In a Name?

Many people believe that art speaks for itself. “A picture paints a thousand words.” And it does. It speaks to each of us differently, but sometimes it adds greatly to the experience if the artist also whispers to us a little gem in the form of a name, a title. There is hidden meaning to be excavated in a picture with a title. When I come across an untitled painting I want to hunt the artist down and ask them if they've named it and just haven't told us. What did that painting mean to them? What are they hiding from me? Nothing infuriates me more than a pseudo title – ie. “Untitled Painting #4”. That's worse than no title. But then, I'm someone who loves words. I love how they sound rolling about on my tongue and in my head. I love how they can add an extra layer of depth to a painting. You might think “Mona Lisa” is rather a dull title, but don't you feel somewhat more intimate with this woman with the enigmatic smile, despite being separated from her by centuries, simply by knowing that her name is Lisa?

“That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet”, but as a child my parents went through a phase of growing rose bushes in our small Vancouver garden, and yes they were indeed all roses, but no they didn’t all smell as sweet. Some had barely any scent. Some were like tea; some like perfume. But they had the most delightful names that highlighted their uniqueness – Double Delight, Baby Masquerade, Royal Sunset, Seashell ... I knew them all and decades later I can often accurately spot one in someone else's garden. There was a familiarity to “Mister Lincoln” with his velvet blooms the colour of an aged Bordeaux, and his intoxicating perfume. It would have been far less interesting had the rose been “that nameless red with a strong scent”. How boring if they were just “Rose Species # 124” or “Rose Species #16”? Names are important. I spend a great deal of time making sure I have the right name for an image. Often in the beginning I give it a temporary title. I do that to give it a sense of direction and familiarity for myself, knowing full well that chances are it will morph into something more suitable as the painting grows from it's early stages into the finished product. My realism images are usually easier to name because they are intended to be visual storytelling from the get-go. The abstracts are more difficult most of the time as they often just happily happen. But even as they do, they begin to evoke a feeling or a resemblance to something.

“Kaleidoscope Sea” © Chris Cole

“Kaleidoscope Sea” © Chris Cole

Recently I had an image that refused to cooperate in the naming process. It was a happy accident abstract. It looked like a wave splashing across a background that was cheerful and airy. Initially the words “Bubblegum Splash” crossed my mind. But it sounded surfacey, cheesy, kiddie-pop and lacked the correct emotion that I felt from the image. I moved on to Oceanspray and Tsunami. But something wasn't right with those. I could feel it in my gut and I ended up doing something I NEVER do – I put it out to a vote. And I got equal numbers of people liking each name. Looking for a tie-breaker I asked a friend who is an artist herself – not of paintings but dance and choreography, and married to a composer. On instinct I added that if she had a better idea for a title to feel free to suggest it. She came back to me saying that Oceanspray made her think of air freshener and that she loved Tsunami but it conjured images of destruction and didn't feel right. It was a relief when she said it. She was voicing my inner discontent. She said “Call me, we'll talk about it.” So I did and bouncing ideas off another artist was incredibly helpful. The painting reminded her of a ballet she was working on set to her husband's musical composition. I agreed, and that led me down another avenue of ideas. We came close to a name but it wasn't quite there yet. I left it to percolate in my brain over night. I did some research and then suddenly bits and pieces joined together and I got “Kaleidoscope Sea”, which just felt right.

“At the Root of All Things” © Chris Cole

“At the Root of All Things” © Chris Cole

My painting “At the Root of All Things” isn’t really just a painting of a fanciful looking tree with an enormously messy root structure. It is symbolic of all the things that make us who we are “above ground” so to speak. Family of origin, life experiences, personality are at “the root of all things”. Even if the viewer doesn’t know what the symbolism refers to, the name can conjure a story in their own mind that speaks to them. And in the end, that’s really all that matters. Without the title, it’s still a cool painting … but with it, it embeds itself deeper into the psyche. It lends itself to story in the viewer’s mind.

So what’s in a name? You decide!