Ah the artist statement.
The two scariest words in the English language for an artist.
How do you strike the balance of sounding intelligent without sounding pompous, sounding like you know your art without forcing others to experience your art in the same way, sounding like your art is well-thought-out without sounding contrived?
It’s definitely a delicate balance and there’s no one trick that can get you there. But I can talk you through a process that will leave you with a strong artist statement you can be proud to share.
Always start by thinking.
The best artist statements happen when you’ve taken a few minutes to collect your thoughts before writing a first draft. If you jump in without any thought, a lot of what you write will be useless and sound amateur. It’s better to take a few minutes to look at your work and think through the major themes before sitting down to write.
If you’re stuck, think about how you would explain your work to a friend. She’s come to your studio to have coffee with you and look at your new work, but she doesn’t know a lot about art and can’t pick out the concepts herself. What would you tell her about what’s on the canvas? Those are the exact ideas you should be explaining in your artist statement, just with a little more refinement and purposeful word choice.
Then try to stop thinking.
Ha! I know that’s counter-intuitive, but a great first draft – a draft you can really work from – stems from just getting all your ideas down and not worrying so much about how it sounds. If you’ve thought about your work before, you’ll be able to write down a few good ideas now.
Don’t censor yourself if a thought comes in an incomplete sentence or is worded strangely. Just write it down and trust that you can edit it later.
Make sure you hit the key points of overall themes in your work, any elements of reflecting those themes that frequently appear in your art, and your inspirations or influences.
Take a break from it.
I’m not talking 20 minutes for a cup of tea. I mean take a few days away from it. Stop thinking about it and worrying about it and stressing about it. Just let it be there and don’t mess with it. When you come back, you’ll have a new perspective and hopefully a calmer mindset.
Begin refining, without pressure.
You’re still in the draft stages so if this whole thing gets trashed it would be fine. Keep reminding yourself that if you don’t like it, you don’t have to publish it. It doesn’t have to get seen. So it’s safe to work on it and play with it and not criticize yourself for what you’re writing.
How should it be structured?
So this depends a lot on the content. So it depends on how and why you create what you create. But a good outline to follow is:
Introductory sentence that summarizes the most major theme of your work.
3-5 sentences discussing what this theme means to you.
2-3 sentences explaining how this theme shows up in your work (colors, subject matter, lines/shapes/patterns, etc).
1-3 sentences detailing your inspiration and/or influences.
So it’s a pretty simple concept; 7 – 12 sentences. It’s just that when you start to fill that outline in with actual words, you start to question your work and your value and your place in the art world.
It gets a bit heady, right?
If you feel the creeping overwhelm, take a break. But this time a short one. Spend a few minutes doing something completely unrelated – bake brownies, read a fantasy novel, play fetch with your dog. An hour away from it will calm your nerves and allow you to revisit the statement with less pressure.
Choose strong words.
Once you’ve got a decent draft together where you actually like the ideas on the page, you can start picking the right words to express those ideas. One of the things that kills artist statements so often is that artists tend to pick the most generic words in an effort to sound professional. But those words are boring. When a curator is reading your statement and it bores them, it’s going in the trashcan. You want to be interesting.
Of course the most important thing is that the statement explains the themes in your work, but there’s no reason that can’t coincide with captivating language. So go to your thesaurus and start playing around with new words that jump off the page (or screen). Even better? Match the style of words to the style of your work. If your work is very emotional, use emotional language. If your work is playful, don’t be afraid to use really fun words that don’t sound very professional.
The best thing you can do is err on shorter. No one, even big art world insiders, wants to read an annoyingly wordy artist statement. The more you write, the more amateur you look. So take some time after you’ve got the language right to go through and remove unnecessary words and even whole sentences. Watch for areas where you’re being redundant. Those are spots where you’re worried about sounding good and that’s going to come across to the reader as a lack of confidence in your own art. Gross.
On top of that, your statement should make people want to learn more about you and look at more of your work. If it’s really long, no one is going to be hungry for more. Keep cutting back until you’ve got the most necessary pieces in place.
Look at your work again.
Sometimes we get so involved in the words that we can forget what we’re really trying to say. Go back and stare at your work again. Remind yourself of what you create and make sure that your statement really does reflect your work.
Read it out loud.
This is the last step, but it can help you catch awkwardness in the wording. If you stumble over something, the reader might stumble too. You may need to restructure the sentence if it sounds weird when you’re saying it aloud. And you’ll always see those moments when you sound like an elitist, pompous jerk because they sound worse when you have to voice them.
Remember that this is a living, breathing document. Just like your art evolves and changes as you experience life, your artist statement will need to grow with you. It’s not set in stone and no one can tell you that you have to keep it. If you tire of it or decide it sounds inexperienced later, you have the power to change it. So don’t be afraid to put this iteration out into the world.
And first and foremost, always, will be your art – not anything you write about your art.
If your work doesn’t have a lot of concept to it, writing an artist statement can be even more difficult for you than for other artists. Instead, explore the reasons you use the medium you do or the tools you prefer. Also talk about color, shape, and line. And consider even blatantly addressing how non-conceptual your work is and tell everyone why your work isn’t concept-driven.
If you know there are concepts in your work but you’re just too deep in it to see them, then try thinking about what emotions you want people to experience when they are looking at your work. If you’re still completely blocked, show your work to friends and family and ask what they think about when they experience your work. What emotions come up for them? Do they see themes you might not? These are concepts that might prompt you enough to get you writing.
If you find yourself using technical terms or getting overly philosophical or political, your statement is probably going to fall flat. The goal of your statement is to tell people about your work when you aren’t actually talking to them. So your statement needs to be approachable for almost anyone. Try taking your statement and rewriting each sentence so it would make sense to a 12 year old who likes your work. Expect them to be interested, but not to know art terminology or heady academic concepts.
If your statement clearly tells the reader what they are supposed to experience when they look at your art, you need to reframe the sentences. It’s not that your concepts are wrong but that you should let people come to your art with their own perspective and experiences. Your statement is not meant to direct them but rather to provide them with information about how you yourself experience your art. So rephrase your statement so that it expresses concepts you put into the work, not concepts they should necessarily be experiencing when they look at your work.
If you’re still confused and really need to see these concepts in action, here are a few good artist statements to spark you:
Sarah Graham (scroll down)