In the art world, few things cause so much stress for the artist as being asked to provide an artist's statement. Requiring no small amount of introspection and self-analysis, they are notoriously difficult to write and often end up being long and difficult to read.
In this article I want to show you an easy way to create a more reader-friendly version. One that will easily work on an application form that has a 200-character limit for your artist's statement. A statement that you might also find useful.
To get started, I think it is important to understand what an artist's statement is.
An Artist's Statement is a Brief Conversation About Your Art.
When I meet customers at shows I am always talking about my art. These are just short conversations in everyday language that explain the relationship between myself and my work (what I mean by this will become evident when you read the examples I have provided later in the article).
If I am not around to have that conversation because my work is in a show or perhaps when a juror wants to know more about my work, then the artist's statement stands in for me.
Our definition of an artist's statement hinges on the word "conversation". I think this is the key to transitioning your statement from a tangled block of text to something that is more effective.
If you have ever done an online search for famous artist's statements, you will have seen excerpts of interviews where someone has reverse engineered an artist's statement from their speech. You end up with statements that can let you truly see the connection between the artist and their art.
Your own artist's statement will benefit greatly if you think of it as conversational speech rather than formal written text.
Above all, you should avoid the following:
- Do not have it describe your art. You can assume that it will always be read in conjunction with a viewing.
- Do not check items off a list you find online. You will be steered toward connecting things as diverse as your motivation, technique, materials and history. That makes it impossible to encapsulate your art in just a couple of sentences.
- Leave out any mention of your process. It will not distinguish you from other artists so only talk about it if it's unique or essential to knowing more about your work.
- The longer it is, the more likely it will go unread.
Creating Your Statement
There is a simple way to go about building your artist's statement which makes the writing process much easier.
It can be constructed from two parts: a preamble that sets the stage, and a second part that talks about your art directly. Each of these could be as short as a single sentence or as long as a paragraph.
To continue, let's think about those two parts separately:
Part I: The Preamble
The main purpose of the opening is to provide context.
Avoid talking about your art directly. Instead, describe something like a personal experience that shaped your art or an observation that informed your sense of the world. Or perhaps painting with your friends every Tuesday is the highlight of your week?
Here are some suggestions that you may find easy to adapt to your own needs.
- Opening with an observed behavior is compelling because it allows the reader to easily join in the dialog. A statement such as "Many people think monkeys are funny." is attention grabbing and punchy.
- A description of an event can be lengthier but may be easier to write, for example: "One day in 2017 I looked out and saw the sky over Elliott Bay in a completely new light."
- A statement of your feelings provides the most personal introduction: "I love plein air painting!"
Part II: Your Art
In the second part you say how your art fits into this context. Here you should talk about your art directly, i.e. this is where you do the "My art is about..." bit.
To finish the examples we started in Part I:
- "Many people think monkeys are funny. My art examines their behavior to see whether it's really different from that of our own." — an artist's statement that's short and to-the-point.
- "One day in 2017 I looked out and saw the sky over Elliott Bay in a completely new light. My art is about bringing the viewer to my window to share these extraordinary moments in time." — an artist's statement that relates a personal experience.
- "I love plein air painting! My work is all about the joy of being outside with good friends and surrounded by flies. Lots of flies." — this is starting to get silly, but you get the idea.
If you feel more is needed, it may be better to expound on the context rather than on your art. It is very easy to get the reader to switch off when you start to ramble.
Edit, Edit and Edit Some More
Just as you might make lots of preliminary sketches before you commit to a painting, the best plan is to write many versions of your statement then select and edit, pick and choose phrases until you have a good version.
If you start off by writing and trying to edit one single block of text, the writing process will often take longer.
A Real-Life Example
Here's where I've put this advice into practice for my own art. Note how I have used this basic two-sentence structure:
Artist's Statement For Simon Bland
I prefer to explore the outside world as a solitary figure, looking at the landscape and finding places that become my own world. My landscapes are about sharing that personal communion with nature and what it represents: the idea that things often lie hidden and overlooked.
The above example is my actual artist's statement. It shows you how I talk about my art using everyday words.
The most important part is what I do not say: there is no mention of things like education, technique, materials, methods, history, philosophy and influences. I have not tried to convince anyone that I know more about art than they do. By leaving out these things I've made it easier for the reader to relate.
The two-sentence structure will fit the needs of most artists. An artist's statement like this is perfect for things like show applications, websites and even printed brochures.
But for some artists, this may not be enough. Your gallery might ask you for a bigger statement (presumably to justify asking higher prices), or you may have a more complex business.
If your gallery requires a longer statement, my advice is to stick with the two-sentence structure as an opening paragraph, then add a second paragraph to fulfil the gallery's requirements. The idea is that you want to keep the opening part of your statement as interesting and easy to read as possible so that the reader is encouraged to read on.
If you find yourself struggling to fit all your artistic endeavors into a single statement, then it is better to write a separate artist's statement for each stream of your business. Likewise, if your art varies considerably between shows, you can write separate statements for each series of works.
For my own business, I decided to separate my landscapes, portraits and still life paintings. Here are the other two:
I have one job to do when painting a portrait and that's to get out of the way. Everything I need is right there—I just pick out the important parts, subdue the unimportant. Once I've figured out the design, the rest is a matter of making sure that the subject emerges from the canvas as I disappear into the paint.
I take these everyday objects, things that anyone might have lying around their house, and bring them together on a canvas to create art. Even the most commonplace objects have an aesthetic quality if you look at them in the right way.
A Final Test
An easy way to tell whether your artist's statement works is to imagine saying it out loud to someone else. Does it feel like part of a casual conversation with a curious shopper or a formal speech to a society of art historians? Does it sound like your normal voice? Can you get through it in a few seconds?
In my case, my artist's statement is close to the way I talk about my art with customers. A little more formal, perhaps, but near enough. That means I am probably on the right track.
To leave you with a few final thoughts—you may think the whole process of writing an artist's statement is not worthwhile, especially if you are just starting out on your art journey. But I would encourage you to write one anyway, even if all you do is to keep it hidden in a drawer. Take it out occasionally to see if it needs changing with the progression of time—it will help you understand, develop and think about your art as you continue on your journey.
Originally published in March 2018, this article was substantially rewritten and edited for content in May 2020.