Your art may speak to people, but your art will not speak for itself.
If only there were a Lorax-type character to appear in galleries and, instead of speaking for the trees, speak for your art. Alas, this mythic creature does not exist. Rest assured, you don’t need a Dr. Seuss character to get people excited about your art.
You are the Lorax for your artwork. You speak for your art.
Whether you are preparing yourself for an artist's talk, an interview, or simply want to be prepared to speak about your work, these tips can help you come from a place of confidence.
Truly believe in the value that you bring to the table as an artist
The value of your art, and you as an artist, isn’t a math problem.
It can be tempting to try and measure yourself and your work with measurements. Yes, you spent "X" amount of hours in the studio, paid "X" for materials, and dedicated "X" amount of years to progressing in your artistic practice. These input measurements, while important to consider, do not create an exact value output.
What you can do is use these numbers to affirm your background and expertise as an artist. You dedicate time, energy, and mental space to your art.
If you are having a hard time thinking through what makes your artistic perspective valuable, take a moment to do this exercise. Make yourself a cheat sheet for an artwork. Set a timer and free-write for five minutes about that specific work. Span process, ideas behind the art, challenges, motivation for creating, what the work means to you, and why you create.
Having a record of what makes you engaged in your art practice in hand for a specific work will allow you to channel this excitement in order to gain clarity when speaking about your art.
Give this exercise permission to be a free write for your artist statement or bio or as the start for the description of a work or collection. Use revisiting and re-evaluating your art to help you continue to talk about it even if you made it a long time ago.
Embrace your path
People want to know about the person and experiences behind an artwork. Your work comes from your unique perspectives and ideas—make sure to include this in your story.
In addition to being prepared to talk about an individual work itself, think through how you came to create the work. What inside and outside of your art practice helped you to create this work?
Artists tend to shy away from their experiences outside of the art world. If you have a day job, a family, a backstory, think how all of your art is partially a sum of these many ranging experiences.
Having other jobs and demands does not make you less of an artist, it probably makes your art more interesting. Lean into who you are and what you do outside of your art. Take snippets of your outside life and let these parts of you help to inform your conversation.
Being able to talk not just about your art but about yourself will make your viewers more interested in you as a creator and in how your art relates to your path.
Embracing your path helps to humanize and complicate you as an artist.
Become an expert in communicating your process
Demystify the art-making process and show your skill by explaining to your viewers how a work is made and the unique approach that you take in that process.
Be able to speak about the process of your art in both technical and laymen’s terms. Try to fluctuate between the two depending on who you are speaking with. Don’t assume knowledge on the part of your viewers, but don’t treat your viewers as if they are ignorant to art-making.
If you want to practice preparing for these types of conversations, work through this exercise.
Make a list of art terms that are specific to your art media. Make notes about your step-by-step process. If you haven't already, take the opportunity to learn more about how your medium has evolved with research for yourself.
Don’t get bogged down in trying to explain complicated theories, philosophies or even techniques, however. Try and keep it as simple as possible, while still getting the point across. Save the art jargon and engage your listeners by connecting with them through direct, concise and clear language. This will both help you to not trip over your toes, but also to connect with your audience.
Value clarity over complexity.
Listen and read the room
Being able to speak confidently about your art overlaps with being confident in the first place.
While preparing to speak about your art is key, understand that when viewers engage with you they likely only have a few moments. Remember that different viewers will be interested in different elements of your work and in you as an artist. While creating an elevator pitch is appealing, allow yourself flexibility. Don’t monologue at your viewers.
To make sure that you are natural and confident when speaking about your art, practice. Regularly speak to other people, artists, friends, family members, strangers, about your work. The more you are interested in speaking about your work, the more it comes naturally.
Be interested in who you are speaking with as well. Ask them what draws them to your work, why they are interested in art, or if they are creative as well. Creating a back and forth allows you to build a relationship with your viewer that can continue outside its initial conversation.
Construct a storyline for yourself
The best talks, movies, and novels, follow a plotline.
Instead of simply showing your work and saying how you made it, think about why someone could learn to cheer for you. Why should they be invested in your work at all? Where did it come from? What did you overcome? Where did you start? What made you want to create the work you are now? What makes you passionate? You want to make yourself the protagonist of your own art story.
Artist and art coach Sergio Gomez suggests sprinkling facts around that story for added depth, noting that most of the successful Ted Talks do this. “I believe a good artist talk will make the viewer engage more in-depth with the work. The talk should provide context and present a point of departure for a deeper conversation between the viewer and the work,” says Gomez.
We all have stories to tell. Moments that ignited our artistic flame, changed the direction of our practice or hooked us for good. These moments that bring up the most emotion for us, are also often the most engaging narratives for our audience.
Remember, you are the top authority on your artwork
The great thing about being an artist is that you are the resident expert on your work. Who knows more about your technique, background, or subject matter than you? No one.
Remind yourself that you aren’t being quizzed or challenged when you are giving your talk.
Generally, people who engage with you about your work will have a genuine interest in getting to know a little more about you. And what’s more, oftentimes they have a great appreciation for art but don’t know all that much about it. It’s your job to educate, inform and maybe even charm them.
Be prepared for questions and follow-ups
If you have been an artist in any capacity, for any amount of time, you know that there are a few questions that you get asked over and over. Don’t get caught off guard. Practice your responses by anticipating what people might ask you about your work.
If you have a unique technique, you will probably get questions about that.
Or, if your subject matter is a little off-beat, it’s probably about that.
Perhaps you have a large or successful social media account, you can anticipate questions about that as well.
While you still have your friends and family as a captive audience after your timed rehearsal, ask them to shoot you a couple of questions. Give yourself the same time constraints to practice (say, 30 seconds or so).
If you are at an opening, a show, or other public events, make yourself accessible to the people. Walk around and introduce yourself to anyone that wants to speak with you. Be prepared to meet gallerists, potential collectors, and clients at all art-related events. Be ready to not only talk about your work but to present yourself professionally. This means having business cards available as well as lists of your available works on hand.
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