Writing your artist statement is a rite of passage for artists.
Your artist statement will be requested by everyone from gallery dealers to show promoters to curators to art writers, bloggers, and podcasters. But what is an artist statement?
In truth, there is no strict definition, and there are no precise guidelines for an artist statement. I suppose it would be a lot easier if there were a standard statement format, but there isn’t.
Because of that, I've developed this guide to help you write your statement.
[ Prefer to listen? Listen here. ]
What Is an Artist Statement?
Ask 100 people in the art community what they want in an artist statement and you’ll get 100 different answers. Here’s my definition:
An artist statement is a written document that guides viewers to a better understanding of your artwork.
My biases, reflected in that definition and the rest of this article, come from my background as an art historian and museum curator and educator, as well as more than two decades working with artists.
You will never convince me that art speaks for itself. For as long as it's been around, art (perhaps yours) has been written about, scrutinized, and categorized by those I mentioned earlier: arts writers, critics, gallery dealers, and curators. You might occasionally like what others say about your art, but more than likely you will wish you had found the words for yourself in the first place.
You can do more than simply react to what others say about your art. The right language can put you in control.
Communicating effectively about your art begins with your statement.
You have to understand what your art is about before you can share your message in other formats or through social media channels. This is accomplished through the process of writing your artist statement. And it is a process.
Why You Need an Artist Statement
The pensive and deliberate process of writing your artist statement can be a boon to your promotional efforts. Once you take the time to become intimately acquainted with your work and learn to articulate your ideas more clearly, you’ll find many uses for the language in all of your promotional materials. More about that coming up.
Writing your statement is the first step in marketing your art.
Contrary to what you may think, the establishment isn’t asking for an artist statement to torture you. They’re asking because they want to know about your art. They want to hear how you describe it.
You don't write an artist statement just because someone asked for you to submit one.
You write an artist statement because you are in charge of your art career.
Your statement is the backbone of your marketing because it’s all about your art. It’s your chance to guide the perception of your work. It makes little sense to hang a show, send out a press release, or apply for a grant before you develop a meaningful statement.
Why should viewers spend time trying to connect with your art if you haven’t spent time trying to understand it for yourself?
[ Prefer to listen? Listen here. ]
This Isn't Going to Be Easy
It’s difficult to stand back from your art and think about it objectively.
Your art comes from your soul. It’s a challenge to put into words what you have expressed visually. The process from which it evolves is complicated and words describing it rarely flow easily.
But you have to keep trying.
You certainly wouldn’t expect your art to improve if you didn’t work at it. Language skills are no different. View your artist statement as an opportunity that should not be wasted. It’s free. It costs nothing except time to communicate these ideas to your viewers.
A good starting point for your statement would be journaling about your art. This is a process I walk artists through in the Art Career Success System.
|Irmgard Geul and Sandra Mucha collected pages of words in the Art Career Success System.|
I understand that you would much rather be making art than talking or writing about it. Know that you are not alone. Many, many artists are in the same situation, but that’s no excuse to neglect writing your statement.
Don’t miss this opportunity to clarify your thoughts—for yourself and for others.
I won't lie and tell you this is going to be easy, and you shouldn't believe anyone who says otherwise. You must (must!) make time to write your statement. It will not be any good if you don’t work at it.
Don’t expect to get it right immediately. You’re too close to your work to uncover a deeper meaning without a lot of effort, but you’ll be rewarded for that hard work.
It’s important to collect your thoughts (and a lot of words) before you begin to narrow down what you want to say and how you want to say it.
Prompts for Writing Your Artist Statement
Respond to these questions in depth during your journaling time. Get a notebook out and do this the old-fashioned way. When you type into a computer, there's a temptation to self-edit. To make the words perfect.
This is no time for perfection. Allow the words to flow by using pen and paper without editing yourself.
1. What do you want people to see?
What is important to you? What do you want viewers to get about your art? Is it . . .
- Your labor?
- A special material?
- An emotion?
- Color? Line? Texture?
Write in your journal about how you handle this aspect of your work. The words you choose for your statement should be clues that lead viewers to these discoveries.
For example, declaring “I love color” is weak language. Who doesn’t love color? Show us exactly how you respond to color and use it to transfer meaning from your head and heart to the viewer.
2. What is a distinguishing characteristic of your art?
A distinguishing characteristic might be one of the items in the list under #1 above or something completely different.
What makes your art different from artists working along the same lines? Emphasize this quality when you speak and write. Help us to see what makes you an original.
Part of your job, if you haven't already figured this out, is to educate others how to look at your work. Most people haven’t had a visual education. They need to be shown, through words, what to look for.
3. What do other people find delightful or surprising about your art?
If it captures one person’s attention, it will probably be fascinating to others as well. Listen to what people say about your art. Their discoveries might shock or confound you, but trying to understand where they’re coming from is part of the communication process.
You might uncover new language by listening to their insights.
After you've responded to these questions, take a break—a day or two—and write more. See if you can collect enough words for 10 artist statements. Keep writing even if it doesn't make sense to you right now.
Your goal: More words that you can mine meaning from.
Guidelines for Your Artist Statement
Before you start writing a draft of your artist statement, here are some tips for the process.
Write in the first person.
It is a statement, after all. It comes from your lips (or pen or keyboard).
Stick to the body of work you are trying to define.
Do not dredge up past work that is no longer pertinent, but feel free to mention past work that is closely related. This helps us see your progression.
Do not include anything about the teachers and historical figures who influenced you. Whenever you mention someone else, the reader's mind starts wandering and comparing. You want them to stay focused on your art.
Which reminds me …
Avoid quotes from other sources.
When we first started writing as youths, our English teachers, bless them, taught us how to start an essay with a quote. Then, if you were like me, it became your favorite way to start all of your essays.
We're no longer in English class.
Use your own words to describe your art. To repeat: Any mention of other names will cause readers’ minds to wander to someone other than you.
Resist including biographical information.
Your biography (which is written in the third person) is not the same as your statement (which is written in the first person). These are two different documents.
Allow your statement to be organic.
It should grow, change, and mature along with your work. Don’t cast it in bronze and consider it done.
While I said this will take a lot of time and won't be easy, don’t labor so much that you think you have the perfect statement and never need to look at it again. You shouldn’t be afraid to change it and make it better.
Keep it short.
Most artist statements don't need to take up anymore space than a couple of paragraphs. Often, a single paragraph will do.
Always, always, always aim for brevity. If you decide to create a statement that is longer than two paragraphs, be sure that every word adds to your message. If not, leave it out.
The Ultimate Test
Think of your statement as a connecting device—something that connects viewers’ experiences with your art.
Above all, your artist statement should compel viewers to look back at your work. This is the ultimate test for a successful statement. Your statement has failed if people read the words you’ve written and then go on to the next artist without being intrigued enough to take another look at your work.
This advice I've given over the years has often been misinterpreted to be that you should be didactic with your language. I urge you to write without telling people (literally) to look at specific aspects of the work. See how Linda Hugues does this in the example below.
Writing a Draft of Your Artist Statement
It was necessary to get thoughts out of your head and onto paper. To collect words. That process was for you.
When you write your statement draft, you are writing for a reader. You cannot and should not try to find a place for all of those words you wrote previously.
Don't be so in love with what you wrote that you can't remove it for a bigger impact. Don't worry! You didn't waste your time. You might be able to use scraps you cut for other purposes, like social media posts.
This is where I leave you to write your draft.
I can't tell you to write this sentence first and then that one next. You're on your own to mold your words into impactful paragraphs. The onus is on you to select the most pertinent thoughts and present them to the reader as succinctly as possible.
Remember, at this point you are not committing the U.S. Constitution to ink. You are writing what author Ann Lamott calls a shitty first draft.
Allow the ugly phases.
If you want your words to improve, you will write and rewrite the same thoughts. This is sometimes difficult, which is why, again, you must allow time between writing and editing.
Once you have pulled everything together in paragraph form, you can begin to hone your draft.
Editing Your Artist Statement
My first rule of thumb for editing is to put aside your draft for a day or two before looking at it again. You need a little space between the writing and revisions.
There are 5 things to look out for when editing your artist statement.
1. Don’t say your art is unique.
Just. Don't. Do. It.
“Unique” doesn’t mean anything and, I'm sorry to say, odds are that your work isn’t unique in the clearest definition of the word. All art is informed by work that came before and anyone who knows art history can point to an artist who did it first place.
But your work does have qualities that make it yours rather than someone else’s. Instead of using the word “unique,” describe your work in a way that makes the reader think it’s unique. These are the distinguishing characteristics I mentioned above.
While this Facebook Live was recorded in 2017 when we were still Art Biz Coach, the information is still solid.
I think you'll understand the editing process if you watch.
2. Remove the phrases that many artists default to.
I see these phrases in so many statements that they put me straight to sleep. Do not use any version of these in your statement.
- I am excited by . . .
- I’ve always been an artist / I have always made art
- I have to make art
- My work is about the human condition
I could go into detail on each one of these and tell you why they send up red flags for me, but the bottom line is that the words that follow these phrases, and I'm being kind here, are usually less than interesting.
3. Beware of redundancy.
Say it one way and move on.
Don’t drag it out and duplicate the same meaning in a new sentence. Don’t make me be redundant by going any further with this warning.
4. Get rid of the lists.
One of the things I see in artist statements that makes me want to take a delete key to them is the overuse of adjectives. Lists of descriptors are a rampant virus in artist statements. Get rid of them!
If you have more than 3 or 4 commas in your statement, dig deep to see what can be eliminated.
5. Reduce the number of personal pronouns.
Yes, you're writing in the first person, but you don’t need all of those I/me/my/mine/myself words in there. Really! I challenge you to get rid of most of them.
After you’ve cleaned up these 5 things, give yourself a little more time and step away from what you’ve written. When you return to the document, look it over and (here’s a ninja move) read it out loud.
Does it make sense when you read it out loud? Are these words you would speak naturally? It is a statement, after all. Reading your draft aloud will help you uncover any odd passages.
Facebook Live from 2018, when we were still Art Biz Coach, shows how I go about editing an artist statement.
The process is the same today as it was then.
Example of a Good Artist Statement
Awhile back, I worked with artist Linda Hugues on her statement. The words and ideas are wholly hers. I just helped her massage the message. I think it stands up even after the passing of many months.
Note that Linda's statement is longer than a paragraph or two, but that it isn't redundant. Every word contributes to an understanding of her painting.
I paint sun-drenched cityscapes of Florida and Europe because I love the blend of architecture, history, and lifestyle in these favorite locations. My works are studies of the character and energy of each city told through a carefully balanced construction of the elements of urban landscape. Rearranging and enhancing these elements allows me to satisfy my search for beauty and order.
To that structure, I add the passersby, who bring the scene to life and contribute their own story. Viewing the activity from a comfortable distance I tend to wonder, “Who are they? What are they thinking about? What will their day be like?” My figures suggest answers to these questions through their posture and movement.
The steps of my painting process allow me to concentrate on one aspect of design at a time. Beginning with my photos of the scene and my memories of how I felt at that moment, I rearrange the elements, focusing on shape, contrast, and repetition to strengthen the composition. Before putting brush to canvas I make small sketches in oil paint and ink to try out different value and color ideas.
When I start on the full-sized canvas I use large brushes and big strokes, working to capture the emotion of the scene. Then I add in more detail, revising until I feel the work reflects my original vision. Ultimately, I want my paintings to be a love poem to the city and evoke the joy of that sunlit moment.
Notice how Linda has given us clues for looking at her work: sun-drenched, architecture, passersby, story.
How to Use Your Artist Statement
Linda's statement above could easily be broken up in to two different pieces of text: one about subject matter (the first two paragraphs) and the other about technique (the last two paragraphs). That relates to the final point I want to share.
Once you have a statement you're proud of, it will sustain you. Use your artist statement in the following situations.
- On your website.
This is obvious. But here's something that might not be so obvious: Can viewers see your art when they're reading your artist statement? I prefer statements next to the art, where they make sense, and not on a separate page by themselves. Remember that the ultimate test is that your words compel people to look at the art. I understand that some templates make this difficult, so please note it's just a preference, not a mandate.
- On a gallery label.
Your artist statement can serve as an introduction to your exhibition. [ Pointers on wall labels for your art exhibition ]
- As the skeleton for a section of your grant application.
- As the outline for your artist talk.
You only need a few sentences to build an entire talk around. The talk could be at an exhibition opening, for a private group, on IGTV, or in a video you post to YouTube.
- In a brochure.
By all means use it in your brochure, but there's no need to add an Artist Statement headline above. Most people have no idea what an artist statement is, so you can leave off those two words in marketing pieces intended for the general public. Without the formal “artist statement” above it, your writing will read it as more information about your art, which is exactly what you want.
- In a catalog.
A catalog, even when self-made, is an excellent marketing tool. It's also an opportunity for you to curate your body of work—recognizing the strengths and identifying common threads among the individual pieces.
- In your signature block.
Pull out your best sentence to use below your sign-off and name in your emails. Don't forget to include a link to your website.
A Final Word about Your Artist Statement
As I said way back in the beginning of this article, these guidelines reflect my biases. There are no hard and fast rules.
Regardless of what you read here, follow any guidelines for your artist statement that you’re given when entering an exhibition or applying for an opportunity. Always follow directions and you should be okay.
I hope this has clarified any questions you might have had about your statement. Remember, writing your artist statement isn't easy. It's a process—a necessary process.