Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Writing an Artist’s Statement

If you’re an artist, chances are someone has said, “What is your painting about?” or, “Explain this photograph to me,” or, “What the hell is that brown thing?”

It’s human nature to try to make sense of what we see. Writing an artist’s statement is a great way to help your viewers understand what they’re seeing. Even if you never share your written statement with anyone, just taking the time to sit down and write it out will help you talk about your work more easily.

Keep it (fairly) short
Write enough so that you can get your ideas across, but keep it to one page or less. Nobody wants to read a multi-paged artist’s statement. That’s what manifestos are for. Conversely, you might think your one-sentence artist’s statement (“I paint landscapes that are pretty”) is funny and ironic, but you might also come across as a gi-normous smart-ass.

Keep it simple
Avoid academic or flowery language. Even if you’re in grad school, your viewers will most likely include some non-artists and non-academics, so you don’t want to alienate them with sentences like, “I find this work menacing because of the way the subaqueous qualities of the figurative-narrative line-space matrix threatens to penetrate the essentially transitional quality.”*

I know. I read New American Paintings. That’s the way everybody in grad school (or who’s been to grad school) writes artist’s statements. Well, it’s just wrong. Don’t do it. Save all those big words for your prospectus or the paper you're going to present at CAA. They live for that.

Where to start
Think about a painting, photograph, or exhibit that you’ve seen that you loved, hated, or didn’t understand. What did you want to know about it? Did you wonder what materials the artist used? Why did she paint clowns? Why were the clowns so scary? Was the artist traumatized by a clown? How did she decide to combine photographs and painting? What is her process? Etc…

Then think about a time when someone was viewing your work and asking you questions. What did they want to know? What were they most curious about?

When I wrote my very first artist’s statement, I sat down and just imagined that I was talking to a non-artist friend about my work.

It's also really helpful to collect artist's statements when you go to shows. Or surf the internet and read the statements on artists' websites. You'll see examples of both good and bad statements. Be inspired by the good ones and know that you can do much better than the bad ones.

Start with the “Why?”
Why did you choose your particular subject matter or imagery? You can mention influences (artistic or otherwise), inspirations, and past experiences that led you to your subject. Some artists often refer to the work of other artists that inspired them. Others might be influenced by media or popular culture. Still others might have been traumatized by clowns… It doesn’t really matter how you came to your subject matter, but the viewer will be interested in knowing why you chose it.

Then talk about the “How?”
Most viewers will want to know something about your materials or your process, especially if the materials or processes are unusual. It’s not necessary to write a step-by-step guide to the watercolor process, or list every chemical that you used to process your photographs. You might just mention that you use watercolors and that you were drawn to them for their unpredictable nature and their transparency. Or you could briefly describe the process used to create cyanotypes and what made you love it. And if there’s an unusual technique or material, mention that. And seriously, what is that brown thing?

Act like you know what you’re doing
Avoid phrases like, “I want to…” or, “I’m trying to…” or, “My intention is…” Just say what you’re doing: “I expose the gritty underbelly of urban life…” or, “These paintings explore the wonders of nature and the beauty of our world…” Don't be wishy-washy about it.

Not so much “me,” “my,” and “I”
It’s hard to do, but try to avoid using the words “me, my, and I,” repeatedly. It’s annoying to read a whole page of sentences that start with “I.”

Update it
If you’re a working artist (creating new work often) then you’ll need to look at your statement every now and then to make sure that it still reflects your current work. A good rule of thumb is to update it every time you ship work off to a show. This keeps the statement fresh and helps you to prepare to talk about your work.

Multiple statements
Most artists only have one statement that they update every few months or as their work changes. You might have multiple bodies of work that require different statements, especially if you work in different mediums.

It’s so useful
Once you have a good artist’s statement, it will come in so handy in so many different ways:
1. Writing it will prepare you to talk about your work in formal or informal settings.
2. Frame it and hang it on the wall near your artwork to explain the work when you’re not there.
3. Use it as a basis for a press release when you’re promoting your show.
4. A reporter might use it to write a story about your show (if that’s all they have to go by).
5. Send it along with slides when you approach galleries.
6. Post it on your website along with images of your work.
7. Make your mom read it so she will finally understand.

* generated using the CRAP Generator – a grad school “must-have”


etre-soi said...

loved the crap generator hehehhehhe :) your soooooo right :)

I'm loving your blog and I'm going to see your artwork now.

I have a blog about artists, an eye candy ;-) if you'd like to see it

Unknown said...

Thanks for the artist statment tips. I'm trying to write one now.

Jason Brockert said...

Wonderful post with excellent insight into one of the harder things an artists has to do. Write those darn statements.

The only issue I question and I have heard both sides is the use of "I." In some sense I agree that it is a little off putting to hear someone refer to themselves over and over as we read their statements to gain insight into the work. In another sense, it is a chance to put a personal stamp on your statement that lets the viewer delve into who you are as an artist that makes the work.

I don't think simply dismissing the use of "I" as a rule is necessarily the only way to go. If the statement is about the artist then it makes sense to use "I" because who else would feel or think or create this art but myself?

Deanna said...

I agree. I use those words in my statement, but I try not to start every sentence with "I." "I do this. I paint that. I scratch into..."

I have tried to completely eliminate "I," and it sounds really awkward and passive, "Paint is rubbed into the scratched lines..."

It also depends on your audience. If you're writing for academia, artspeak and passive voice is the way to go.

Ultimately it's your work and your statement and you know what's right for you.

Unknown said...

thank you for this. it comes at the perfect time since I'm trying to write one now, as well.

Anonymous said...

its not about the use of "I" (or lack of it) its just where it is in the sentence i.e. not at the beginning!

for example instead of "I paint this way because..."
"Painting in this way means that I..."

chop the sentence up, rearrange it and then change a few connecting words and there you go.

and yes I know its not that easy, but its a starting point.

Anonymous said...

The CRAP generator is so funny. I printed off a version to show to my english teacher.

The artical was alot of help. My art teacher makes us do one for every one of our projects.


Unknown said...

hello there .. seriously this article is very helpful, it helped me allot in writing my artist statement but i guess i still have some difficulties with my English :)

Kris said...

The Crap Generator is by far the best artist statement advice I've ever seen. It is soo much fun! How many of these have we all read in show after show. Just reminds us how important it is to be authentic. Sadly though, there are people out there who believe it can't be art unless they don't understand it.

(Thank you for the real tips and advice— very helpful.)

mlh said...

My favorite artist's statement (and it's a real one):
"Basically, things that catch my attention, past and present events, literature and anything visual that I come in contact with, all have their play within my work. The recombination of ideas and visual materials becomes my story. The process intimates an authentic sense of self even as it exposes personal stereotypes. I realize that most of the forms I respond to are loaded with meaning invested by our culture/social background and within the personal experiences each of us carries no doubt this phenomenon has something to do with the appeal I find in appropriating such images. The work itself may and most likely does end up detaching from this process and takes on a life of its’ own, based on an aesthetic experience, that seems to exist separate from my thinking process and connecting directly with the way I feel thing should look." said...

thank you! I'm blogging this at my place...

: )
fibre artist in Canada

myhomor said...

maybe if someone asks "what a hell is that brown thing?" writing the artist statement is not the best way to fix the core issue........... it's that brown thing, that makes no sense and needs an explanation outside the primary medium. I see artist statements as enhancements to WEAK artwork. Sincerely Viktor

Deanna said...

It's helpful to think about the questions that people ask most frequently about your work. If you get questions or statements that bother you, then yes, perhaps you need to rethink what you're doing.

Anonymous said...

very helpful! i have work to go in a show...just waiting on that elusive artist statement. (why is it sooo stink in' hard to write about yourself??)