Writing an artist's statement is one of the most difficult things an artist will ever do. While many artists find painting to be enjoyable, writing about their motivation for painting can be a laborious task.
This article is about the what, why and how of writing an artist's statement. I show how a sample artist's statement can be improved by making it more personal and removing most of the unnecessary clutter. Following these simple steps also makes it much easier to write!
To get started, I think it's important to go back to basics and understand what an artist's statement is.
What is an Artist's Statement?
When I meet customers at shows I'm always talking about my art. These are just short conversations in everyday language that explain why I painted what I painted.
If I'm 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.
So a good definition might be:
An artist's statement is a starting point for a conversation about your art.
Writing an Artist’s Statement is a Struggle
There are plenty of examples and outlines available online but many of them are unhelpful. When you try to write an artist's statement by checking items off a list you can capture the basic idea yet totally miss the point.
The difficulty is that you will be steered toward connecting things as diverse as your motivation, technique, materials and history. That's difficult to do while keeping it short and it's hard to make it sound interesting.
The other problem is that many of these things won't distinguish you from other artists—most oil painters use the same materials and techniques, for example.
To show you what I mean, here's a statement that I made using this boilerplate approach. It does everything that online guides suggest, but it's dense, generic and boring. In fact, you can't read this and have an understanding of me as an artist:
A Typical (Bad) Artist's Statement
For as long as I can remember I have been in love with paint. The idea that you can take this clumsy medium and try to say something with it stole my imagination even in childhood as I painted at the kitchen table. But it took me well into adulthood, after trying many other outlets, to find that I could paint as an artistic response to experiences.
At first I painted because I saw painting as a problem-solving exercise in how to represent the subject. With time my approach has become less mechanical and I explore properties like light, shapes and abstract representation. Above all, I strive to paint things that interest me, rather than things that are intrinsically beautiful.
My landscapes are about solitude, paint textures and the way a big space interacts with light; my portraits are about human connection, brush work and focusing in on a part of the whole. Despite the differences, these two threads of my work often intertwine and ideas will leap from one type of painting to the other.
Ultimately, my art is a vehicle for communicating and sharing with others. The most enjoyable part in the entire process is the point at which the paintings are first seen by my customers: the reward for all this work is to share in how other people use my paintings as a vehicle to connect with their own feelings.
A Light Bulb Moment
My artist's statement existed in this state for a long time. Even though I knew it was awful, I couldn't find a way to make it better.
But I thought that every artist's statement had this same dense structure.
A light bulb moment finally arrived in 2018 when I stumbled on a list of statements attributed to famous artists. These particular examples were short and to the point. As I read through them it became clear that they were all excerpted from interviews.
They showed me a new way to look at the artist's statement—not as a formal essay, but more as the way you might talk about your art over a cup of tea.
How do you actually write it?
I'm wary of trying to outline a set of rules for writing an artist's statement because they are personal statements that are much better when they're in your own words.
So the best thing you can do is to write from the heart and give voice to your art.
If you're the kind of person who finds some basic structure helpful, then a good way to build your artist's statement is to do it in two parts: an introduction and a main body. Each of these could be as short as a single sentence or as long as a paragraph.
Part I: The Introduction
You need an opening that provides context. I think this is the most important part of your statement.
You might open with a profound personal experience that shaped your art or an observed behavior that informed your sense of the world. Perhaps painting with your friends every Tuesday is the highlight of your week?
I find the use of observed behavior particularly compelling because it allows the reader to easily join in the dialog. So starting your artist statement with something like "Many people think monkeys are funny" is a good set-up.
Avoid the cold open of "My art is about..." because you'll immediately have to write about your art in a descriptive way.
Part II: The Main Body
In the second part you can now say how your art fits into this context. This is where you do the "My art is about..." bit.
And remember, this is supposed to be a starting point, not the entire conversation!
To finish the example 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.
A Better Version
Here's where I've put this advice into practice for my own statement. Each section is an artist's statement in its own right and each comes at it in a different way. Note how I've used a basic two-part structure for each (and I've only used the "My art is about..." approach in the first one):
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.
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.
Why This Works
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 don't say: there's no mention of things like education, technique, materials, methods, history, philosophy and influences. I haven't 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.
In real life the extra detail does occasionally enter the conversation, but only when a customer wants to know more—and the average person isn't interested in taking that kind of deep dive.
Since my artist's statement now mirrors the way I talk about my art with customers, I know I'm on the right track.
I hope that I've given you some help in writing an artist's statement of your own.