Suggestions For Explaining Your Art to Viewers

Q: I want people to understand what my art is about. The subtler aspects of my work aren't immediately obvious and I want viewers to get my overall intent. How can I do this?

A: These days, most people look at art online rather than experience it in person. Even if they see it in person, you can't always be there to talk about it. As a result, the the best way to make sure viewers understand your art is to provide written introductions or explanations online as well as whenever and wherever you show your work. This writing works on your behalf no matter how or where people come across your art. You can write either about your art in general, about specific series or bodies of work, or about individual pieces (assuming they each have their own stories). Explanations or descriptions don't have to be long-- a page or so at the very most, but more like a paragraph or two, or even a sentence or two if you can be that concise. If writings get too long or detailed, you risk confusing readers and complicating matters rather than clarifying them.

The information you provide might include your artist statement, your statement in combination with a brief explanation of the particular series or body of work in question, and if necessary, or a brief description or information about each piece. Documentation like this not only helps viewers and collectors to understand your artwork in the present, but also benefits everyone who will see it at any point in the future. In fact, the sooner you start documenting your work, the bigger the payoff will be as time goes on. Regularly providing written information to accompany your latest art as you progress and evolve as an artist is almost like writing your autobiography and giving viewers a glimpse into your present as well as your past.

Good explanations and documentation positively impact the value of your art in several ways. From a cognitive perspective, people can better understand its origins and inspirations-- how it came into being, what its significance is, and where you're going as an artist. From an aesthetic perspective, you can call people's attention to various physical aspects or characteristics of your work, their relative importance, your creative process as a whole, and so on. From a financial perspective, collectors generally pay more for art that they can understand and appreciate on a variety of levels than they pay for art they know little or nothing about or have to guess at what it means (assuming they pay for it at all... and they often don't). The important thing to remember is that you won't always be around to talk about your art or explain it to viewers, so the sooner you begin to provide written explanations or descriptions, the better for all concerned.

If you're not good at writing or have no idea what to write, consider taking a census of sorts before you start. Either ask people you know to talk about what they see in your art. Or explain your art to them and then see whether your explanations make sense in terms of what they're looking at. Don't limit yourself only to your best friends or inner circle or only to people with art educations; also include ordinary everyday people who just plain like art, especially ones who don't already know you or your art. Be prepared for anything here, and don't be too sensitive or insulted if people respond to your art in unexpected ways. The more input you get and the more diverse the people you get it from, the better. This is how you get ideas for what to write.

If people consistently have trouble understanding your explanations, figure out what you'll have to add, subtract, or change in order to make things clearer. You might even ask them what they don't get. If you repeatedly get similar feedback, comments or suggestions, think about incorporating them into your writings. Remember that the point of this endeaver is to help you convey the meaning of your art to others, to bring people closer to the work.

When you're ready to start writing, beware of the tendency to neglect the viewer and get too caught up in your own personal experiences or history; always consider the viewer in your narrative. Of course your creative process reflects progressions of events, insights, and growth within your life. And seeing yourself and your life evolve through your art can be tremendously fulfilling and exciting-- to you. The important part is writing in such a way that readers feel involved or excited as well. Best procedure is to start slow, keep it simple and avoid overwhelming readers with too much information. Too much detail can actually compromise their overall experience or appreciation of your work. People want to know what your art has to offer them, what it communicates or represents, how it deepens or enhances or investigates or explores certain themes, concepts or ideas. The faster you can get them there, the better. Don't worry; those who want to know more will ask.

Whatever you decide to include in your explanatory, keep it brief. You'll have plenty of time to get complicated later Give basic information only, just enough to entice or intrigue readers, and avoid the temptation to go overboard with words. Imagine yourself looking at another artist's art, for example, and having that artist go on and on about what it means or why it looks the way it does. Nobody wants that; people want to start slow, get a feel for what they're looking at, and move forward at their own speed. With practice, you'll learn to provide just the right mix of information to maximize viewers' experiences like that. Remember-- it's ultimately about seeing your art, about progressing people from reading to looking. Your writing is the bridge between understanding and experiencing.

One caution-- avoid micromanaging how people experience your art. Don't tell them how to look, what to do, where to stand, what to look at, what to feel, etc. Nobody likes being told what to do. Offer enough in the way of explanation to stimulate interest, and then allow them complete freedom to explore the art however they see fit. This might involve a certain amount of self-discipline or non-attachment on your part, but letting them see what they see, believe what they believe, and think what they think is always the best way to go.

By the way, one of the great fringe benefits of the documentation process and writing about your work is that it allows you to step back and think objectively about what you're making, critically evaluate your art, and reflect on where you've been as well as you're headed. Many artists, particularly those who've been at it for a while, tend to become automatic to a degree in how they think about and make their art. Some even become divorced from the passion and energy that got them into art in the first place. Writing about your work is a great way to reconnect with the original motivations and inspirations for wanting to become an artist, and with what art-making ultimately means to you. And everyone profits from that.


(art by Carrie Lederer)

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