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Why Storytelling is Crucial for Artists

At first glance, there is very little in common between Velazquez’s poignant painting “Las Meninas” and Jasper John’s tiered painting “Three Flags.” The former is a 17th-century masterpiece; the latter, a formative symbol of American Pop in the mid 20th-century.  Yet the Google search results for the “story behind” these two artworks results in nearly 1.5 million hits combined. Through the centuries, society has sought to better understand artists and the meaning behind their legendary artworks. Artists who identify and satisfy our ongoing search for meaning by describing art they create have already discovered this crucial truth: artists that engage in storytelling create a compelling reason for collectors and admirers to invest in their work.

Storytelling is a crucial part of the art-making process for the artist as much as the art viewer. As artists’ careers evolve, their professional journey is embedded within the work they create. When artists shift from one medium to another, there is a reason for that change. Artists who adopt unique viewpoints or processes in their practice have made specific choices in determining their art careers. Some artists, for example, only use recycled objects, while others only use all-natural materials. Understanding and articulating how one’s artistic practice has evolved can help artists better uncover parts of their own practice they may have overlooked. Describing art and explaining the different facets of your practice in a unified narrative can hold interest for a wide audience if an artist knows how to tell their story effectively. Storytelling for artists, then, becomes a tool to both better understand your practice and engage new audiences.

While some personalities are better suited to storytelling, there is no reason why every artist can’t – and shouldn’t – construct a compelling and clear narrative about their work as an artist. As an artist, you are responsible for giving the art-going public insights into the type of work you make, and why and how you work in that vein.

Jon Bunge is an interdisciplinary artist whose found tree-branch sculptures have been featured in solo and group exhibits in the greater New York City area. Reflecting on his work and the importance of storytelling for artists, he notes the hidden aspects of art-making that could – and often, should – be explained to a wider audience. Bunge observes, “Describing [art] work helps artists to understand and think about what [we’re] doing because often the creative process is intuitive, unconscious and nonverbal.  And in talking about the work, audiences can gain more insight and appreciation of what the artist is creating.”

Audiences can gain insight from artists about their work, but where does that lead? Why does storytelling make the artwork more appealing? Artists are continually reminded that their work is a part of their overall “personal brand.” When considering audience responses, it is helpful to look to how brands approach storytelling – as an investment in their profitability. As an artist looking to have some impact with your personal brand, it is important to emphasize the aspects of your work that are most genuine to your personal values within your storytelling narrative.

artist storytelling
Artists must strike a delicate balance between revealing too much and aptly telling the story behind their work.

It’s not enough to expand on aspects of your “core” brand, however. Skyword notes in “Building Customer Loyalty Through the Art of Storytelling”   that “connections are usually made on an emotional level where… the backstory begins.” This indicates that presenting compelling themes within your practice that resonate with your personal brand will make a strong impact on those encountering your work. By allowing others to see aspects of themselves within one’s creations, artists can allow a much deeper appreciation for their work and make a stronger impression.

Storytelling for Artists Involves Documenting and Describing Artistic Process

Artist storytelling narratives should be developed around concrete aspects of their practice, such as artwork medium and process. Bob Clyatt, a sculptor based in New York, notes that these are “safe areas” to discuss for an artist. Clyatt observes, “Material and technical, or craft, aspects of [one’s] practice are [areas that] people enjoy knowing more about.”

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By incorporating emotional touchpoints into one’s artistic practice, viewers have more impetus to use their imagination. Imagining is a powerful tool inviting viewers to speculate about a work, placing themselves within the narrative how they see fit. This is why storytelling for artists is such a delicate art: it’s crucial to allow certain details around a work to emerge without saying too much. It’s the ‘fill-in-the-blank’ portions of the art’s storytelling narrative that allow audiences to participate within that narrative. And it’s through this feeling of participation that artists will find dedicated “fans” who will continue to support and follow the artist as they evolve in their careers.

And how do artists employ storytelling techniques with visitors who encounter their work when they are not present? Learning how to describe your artwork certainly involves some thought, but it doesn’t have to be overly complex. Some stories can evolve with the viewer through pure optics if the artist works in a figurative manner, or through the emotional weight of the materials used. Clyatt points out this latent ability to construct meaning through one’s medium, indicating that by “..choosing materials that not only have visual interest but also intersect with meaning relevant to your work can also be a poetic way to convey meaning without further explanation beyond the title and materials caption for the work.”

What lessons are held here for artists who work between multiple disciplines, such as painters who sculpt, or sculptors who create installations? In this case, adhering to related themes either in one medium or potentially across one’s entire artistic practice will allow audiences to better relate to an artist’s work.

Another key component of successful artist storytelling is online through one’s web presence. Artists should have clearly designed, easy-to-navigate websites that incorporate not only images of their artwork, but information on their evolution as an artist. One way to provide context on an artist’s website is to offer visitors an “About” page featuring not only a brief bio on the artist but also an artist statement. Each can be a few paragraphs long, and each offers a unique lens through which to view the artist’s practice.

The bio should be a carefully edited narrative of one’s evolution as an artist, including educational background, work experience and any notable developments or opportunities the artist has pursued. The artist statement should provide a succinct yet compelling look into what informs the artist’s work. This can span from influences that have inspired the artist, to background on why the artist works in a particular medium or with a particular subject matter.

Additionally, what visitors are ultimately seeking on an artist’s website are images of the artist’s work. In addition to including specifics of each artwork as a caption on the site (with information such as title, date, medium, and dimensions specified), effective storytelling for artists involves explaining each body of work in an alluring way. By including concise and engaging descriptions in each photo gallery of images, arranged by series, visitors will have a better sense of how artists approach their work. Inviting visitors into one’s artwork with interesting descriptions will result in greater impact and increased audience engagement.

How Can Artist Storytelling Lead to Sales?

The best way to transform a penchant for storytelling into art sales? This is a matter for debate among artists who use storytelling, as building emotional connections with fans can yield immediate results – long term sales, for example, or another platform for the artist to exhibit their work.

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artist storytelling
Resonate with a broader audience by telling the story behind your work.

The trickiest part of the equation seems to be describing art without revealing too much within your artist storytelling narrative. But at what point does an artist venture into “TMI” territory? Is there a surefire way to tell when enough has been revealed about one’s practice that a visitor feels they have an understanding of the work, but that there’s still more to explore? Clyatt again speculates on the dangers of sharing information on one’s art: “If I tell you too much it might take away the mystery of the piece [or] limit the experience… [but if] I tell you too little you may simply glaze over and move on.”

In general, an artist’s best bet is to read into the nonverbal cues that a visitor is sending. Are they leaning into view the artwork more closely? Are they thoughtfully listening to an artist describing art, or are they more attuned to their cell phones? The right moment to begin asking visitors targeted questions about how they experience themes in your work is right before they begin to tune out.

Arguably, the strongest approach is by making suggestions for how the art would be displayed, and soliciting visitor feedback. This request for feedback also plays to another emotional touchpoint for the visitor – exclusivity. Allowing visitors to understand that they’ve had a truly unique and exclusive look at one’s work – and converting them into email subscribers for future newsletters – is an important factor in the sales equation.

By paying attention to what guests want to learn, and what they want to take away from their visit, artists can form better relationships with those encountering their work. Artists who develop great listening skills, alongside good artist storytelling skills, can also discover “new ideas and inspiration from conversations with my viewers”, as Jon Bunge notes. Ultimately, artist storytelling should inspire some level of understanding within a viewer, and a desire to learn more about the artist’s work. Artists that can capture that sentiment – and channel it into sales – have effectively mastered the art of storytelling for artists.

How does describing art affect your ability to sell your work? Let us know in the comments.

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About the author

Audra Lambert

Audra Lambert is an independent curator and art critic based in New York, NY. The founder of Antecedent Projects (2014), a sustainable urban curatorial consultancy investigating site-specific heritage, and is Editor-in-Chief, ANTE. Mag. Lambert manages ART360 by Orangenius, an immersive, 3-D art viewing experience, and serves as Managing Editor, Artrepreneur.

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