Supply Your Why In Your Artist Story

Your artist story is an opportunity for you to connect with readers, followers, and potential buyers. Your brand revolves around it.
Your artist story is your Why.
In his TED talk, Simon Sinek famously says, “People don’t buy what you do; people buy why you do it.”

This is powerful stuff. Your Why differentiates you from other artists and entrepreneurs.
Your Why can help you sell more art.
Getting to your Why isn’t as easy as it sounds.
I’ve read too many artist statements that say something like: “I make art because I have to.” This isn’t a Why. And it isn’t helpful for making a connection with people because it’s vague.
Non-artists do not understand making art because you have to. It's not in their DNA. You must be more explicit.
When you write a flimsy sentence, which I define as a bunch of words that could be attributed to any number of people, you have to dig to find something more meaningful.
You owe it to yourself, your art, and your audience.
Why do you have to make art? You aren’t going to perish if you don’t make art, but you might be less whole.
What specific need or desire does making art fulfill for you? Specific.

More Whys

While you’re at it, throw these Whys into the mix.

  • Why do you choose the materials, techniques, and scale that you do?
  • Why do you live where you live? How does it inform your art?
  • Why do you show your art at certain venues or install it in a particular manner?
  • Why do you teach? How are you a better artist as a result?
  • Why do you spend every February on the Oregon Coast? What does the cool, drizzly weather do for your creativity?

Eke Out The Stories

Answering these questions for yourself is a first step, but don’t present them so matter-of-fact in your bio or on your About page. Make stories out of them.
Here are a couple of examples.
Instead of saying, “I use clay because . . . “ you could say, “Molding a slap of wet clay takes me back to my childhood when we used to make sand castles on the beach. I remember . . . ”
Rather than, “I renew my creativity every February on the Oregon Coast,” try “I go to the Oregon Coast every February to escape the dry climes of the desert. The gray, damp air forces me inside – literally and emotionally. I hole up in my small studio and find warmth in a rush of creativity.”
Not every occasion begs for a story, but stories can help sell your art. Practice your Why on your social media updates. When you're temped to type a flimsy sentence, stretch yourself by getting to the Why of the matter.
Are you supplying the Why in your artist story?

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30 thoughts on “Supply Your Why In Your Artist Story”

  1. What a POWERFUL video and POWERFUL message, Alyson! LOVE this guy! Just have to go to his website and check him out 🙂
    I’ve done the exercise in your “Relatively Pain-Free Artist Statement”, as well as read Vicky’s “Art-Write”. And only then, did I come up with my Artist Statement. I think I have got to the WHY I make art. Here is the last paragraph of my Artist Statement:
    “I believe art tells stories and reveals feelings. Through my art, I am asking where you are on your inner journey, and reminding you of your stories and memories. It is my hope that my paintings engage you on a personal level, and serve as a bridge connecting not only you and me, but also you and everyone who experiences the paintings.”
    The rest can be found on my website. I would love to hear what everyone thinks. Does it move you?
    Thank you.

  2. I can only speak for myself here obviously, but as a collector (I am also a painter) I couldn’t give a hoot about why the artist did what they did! I am interested only in whether I love the work , whether it speaks to me and whether I want to look at it everyday.
    A friend of mine, also a painter, also a collector, is the same. Of course it could be that artists who collect art may differ from other collectors in both how they approach art and motivation for buying a piece, but for me as a primarily visual person, it is the aesthetic that counts.
    I do of course include my story and an artist statement on my website, but I sell through Etsy, which includes neither, just a brief bio.
    I am not actually convinced that art is exactly the same as anything else – I don’t mean to exalt it by that statement, just that it is different to say, a computer or a new car both of which have fierce competition from other similar brands and both of which are bought for a range of reasons which apply to many people. Art on the other hand is usually unique and usually bought for either very personal reasons and/or as an investment. The why may well come into play if it is bought simply as an investment, but its irrelevant if it is bought purely because the collector responds to it in the way I describe above.
    This turned into quite a long comment – I am always wary of sweeping statements as to why we all do what we do, I think they obfuscate as much as they illuminate, and human behaviour is more complex than generalisations allow for. Whilst for marketing purposes we may need to go with the generalisation I also think it is worth bearing in mind that it is just that, a generalisation, not the ultimate truth.

    1. Victoria Pendragon

      I’ll keep this simple: Your response makes a lot of sense to me. Thanks for taking the time to write it out.

    2. Hi Birdie, I think your view does make sense. You are a painter and an art collector, so you have an eye for art, you have the knowledge to see art. However, many people, who rarely comes to contact with art directly, is not trained like you. And as an artist, and as a financier-turned artist who had nothing at all and rarely even looked at art before, I do believe that we have the duty to “educate” these people about art, about how to look at art. Even if they are not a collector, it’s good for the world if more people develop an eye or a taste for art. It does make the world a better place. For starters, as they appreciate art more, they will encourage their children to just play with paint, clay etc. and we have a more creative and adventurous next-generation. This post can be long, but I’ll stop here.

    3. Alyson Stanfield

      Birdie: Thank you for your thoughtful response.
      I actually think the Why comes into play during the emotional buy and that’s from experience. I told lots of artist stories to people in the art museum (where I worked for 10 years). I know that the story can connect people who had zero response to the work in the first place.
      VERY few people buy art for investment – especially those outside the NY artworld. Art is usually an emotional purchase.
      Yes, they might respond to the aesthetics immediately. But, if they don’t, the story comes in handy. Even if they never buy it, they won’t forget a good story.

  3. Of course it could be that artists who collect art may differ from other collectors in both how they approach art and motivation for buying a piece, but for me as a primarily visual person, it is the aesthetic that counts.

  4. I think this perspective is a helpful addition to your already great advice for artist statements. I really like the idea of making the artist statement to speak to the everyday person who, of course, is more likely our audience. In college, my artist statement was for my professors and I kept that one for a long time. After awhile, I even forgot what all of the ‘art speak’ meant and it didn’t really say what my art was truly about. I thought I needed this college statement for my future high end galleries as well, but they would probably rather have a statement they can actually use to explain and sell my work! Keep up the good work, Alyson!

  5. What a revelation! I’ve been stuck at “how I’m different from x”. Re-doing artist statement, changing the way I talk to people about my art, NOW!

  6. I took the class “Hello Soul Hello Business” with Kelly Rae Roberts and Beth Nicholls…it was amazing how had I had to work to get the my WHY and I’ve been in the art biz for a long time…when I did things feel into place like never before…any new idea I have I see if it is true to my “WHY” ….my mission…it’s worth the work to get to the “WHY”

    1. Alyson Stanfield

      e’Layne: I recently articulated my Why in a video that I will soon post on my home page. It only took . . . 11+ years! I’d been telling the story here and there, but only recently did I realize it was my Why.

  7. I drink my coffee & tea with something called a Hot Straw…I’m under the illusion that it is keeping my teeth whiter to drink it this way…The lady who invented Hot Straws did so because she noticed that Parkinsonian patients were tremoring & they were spilling their drinks…With the straw they can drink without spilling…This is a why that makes me want to cry it is so beautiful…For those who care only about aesthetic I urge you to look deeper…There are some beautiful whys out there…

    1. Alyson Stanfield

      Great story! I never heard of Hot Straws and now, of course, I’ll never forget.

  8. the “why” definitely helps me define and clarify for myself why i do what i do. what my motivations are helps me live a truer life. i know this reflects in my art and why certain people connect with it!

  9. Yes, this is really powerful stuff! I watched the video twice. Thinking about it, then looking at some muddled works in progress has helped me to clarify what I want, and what direction to go with these projects. Now, its time to take another look at my statement and “elevator pitch”. Thanks Alyson for another post outside the artist’s box.

    1. Alyson Stanfield

      I’m glad you enjoyed the video, Christopher, and are inspired to take action.

  10. Tara Hutchinson

    Alyson, this post really moved me. I have been following your blog for a few years now, and as a jewelry designer have found most of the information very relevant. I am in the middle of redesigning my informational literature, and have struggled with how to describe the “Why”. After reading this post, it was very clear to me: My business model is structured to help women realize some of the self-confidence and feminine charm I felt I lost after I was injured. There is nothing more rewarding then watching a woman’s face when she looks in the mirror with a piece of my jewelry on that she loves; it makes everything I have gone through to get here worth it.
    So yesterday I was having lunch when I saw a woman who was totally my target customer eating at a nearby table with her family. I thought about my “Why”, and realized I HAD to tell her about my jewelry. So I walked over and introduced myself, and we had a great conversation. I think this post has pushed me over the edge, and I will be conducting my business differently from now on. Thank you, Alyson.

    1. Alyson Stanfield

      Tara: You have a terrific, moving story and I’m glad you’re going to start sharing it more fully.

  11. Sandrine Pelissier

    Alyson, this is a great post and a great video, made me realize it is time for me to rework my artist statement and communicate more with the “why” I am doing art, I am usually more comfortable with the “what” and the “how”, so much easier to figure out!
    I started thinking about the “why” and looked at other artists answer to their why and I can’t help to notice that some why are self directed, for example ” Art is necessary for balancing my life”, “Art helps me make sense of the world”, “Art is a form of therapy”…. And some why are more about sharing:” I want to share the beauty around me” ” I want to communicate…” ” I want to make people realize…” What are your thoughts on that? I am thinking the why that are more about sharing might have more resonance to an audience but sometimes don’t sound very personnal, I guess reasons for making art are a bit of both (making art for you and for sharing) ?

    1. Alyson Stanfield

      Sandrine: I believe the Why usually (not always) belongs in “About” info rather than a statement.
      To “Art is necessary for balancing my life” I would, again, ask “Why.” What does art do that nothing else can do?
      The problem with almost all of the examples you give is that they are vague.
      Dig deep to find the Why. e’Layne (above) talks about how hard she had to work to find the Why. It’s not on the surface and can’t be articulate with easy words and phrases.
      No one else could write your Why.

  12. Bill Sotomayor

    I find it strange that we all ask the “Why” of people, products or things never fully expecting to get an honest answer in return. The “Why” answer becomes formulaic in nature because we really believe that no one wants the honest answer but only one that works. The answer to the “Why” is actually a very personal response. It is easier and less personal to answer the “What” about something but not the “Why.”
    I find that the more you believe in yourself and what you do, the answer to the “Why” becomes easier. Now when I answer why I create my art as I do, it gives me great joy in providing people with a very personal snippet of who I am and how I see the world within me and around me. People buy art because they are buying a piece of who you are and what you represent just like Martin Luther King says “I have a dream” as Simon states. All you have to do is look at well known people and their fan base to see what we believe in and want to know more about.

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Get a transcript of episode 182 of The Art Biz (Rethinking Mailing Lists for Artists) followed by a 3-page worksheet to evaluate the overall health and usage of the 3 types of artist lists.

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