Writing about art
"Writing about art may seem like a paradox: to translate into words works that were created to say what words cannot." Catherine Rickets
Writing about art, especially your own art, might be intimidating and even seem nonsensical.
The reality for professional artists is that writing is part of the job, no matter what their preferred medium.
Unfortunately, it’s not sustainable to just love art.
Any artist who wants to sell their work or live off the craft they love so much will need to be able to write about their art and articulate their artistic vision.
We hope this brief guide will help you discover strategies for writing effectively about your art.
Let's take a look at some real-world applications of when you might be asked to write (or even talk) about your art:
- AFO Major Declaration
This is coming up near the end of your AFO year at VCU!
- Artist's Website
Great for marketing and promotion.
- Job/Internship Applications
Staples for getting work.
- Artist Statements
The foundational piece of writing for the artist.
- Cover Letters
Often the first impression during the interviewing process.
- Narrative Art
Develops the storytelling of your work.
Provides context for your viewers.
Tips and Tricks
Here are some general suggestions to follow when writing about your artistic vision and ideas:
- Avoid maintaining a "rock bottom" or overly self-involved mindset. While it may be tempting to share the darker parts of your lived experience, those more vulnerable parts of your story can actually pull focus from your writing. At the same time, giving the impression you are better than everyone else can prove equally distracting.
- Instead, take your reader on a journey. Remember that art is an interactive experience! Think about the little experiences that lead to growth and breakthroughs. Focus on your current work rather than your past, or talk about where you find joy in your art and how that connects to what you want to do with your work.
- Avoid flowery language. Overly elaborate descriptions may seem impressive but can be alienating and confusing for your audience.
- Instead, focus on substance. Consider the needs of your reader and what they would find enjoyable or frustrating. Play to your strengths! Favor clarity and relatability over a thesaurus.
- Avoid weak phrases and word choices. Phrases like I'm trying to... and I hope to... or words like aspire and attempt can come across as insecurities.
- Instead, use confident language. Active verbs like explores, examines, questions or challenges can be more engaging and talk about what your art actually does, rather than what it wants to do.
- Avoid others' ideas and obscure references. Plagiarism can get you into big trouble in your academic and professional career, and obscure references can alienate your readers.
- Instead, utilize your own voice. Your audience wants to get to know you through your art and the things you have to say about your art, not someone else's ideas.
A Note on Accessibility of Language
Focus on using language that accommodates people of all ages and abilities, including those with cognitive disabilities, low literacy skills, and those whose first language is not the same as yours.
Consider the following:
- Use an active voice instead of a passive voice
- Avoid filler phrases
- Write out any acronyms you need to use
- Use examples or analogies to convey more complicated ideas
Let's take a look at some examples of writing about an artist's work:
- “When people ask me what my work is about, I can only answer “everything!” My paintings come from my daily life, and are attempts to make sense of the world. They express my wishes and dreams for a better world, they celebrate happy occasions, my sadness and frustration, as I explore life’s dualities.” Mary Edwards
Email Pitch to a Gallery
“My name is Kelsey Rodriguez and I’m a young, emerging abstract artist in Minnesota. My work is inspired by the brilliant colors and motions of the universe and the ongoing discoveries of extrasolar planets. I typically work in fluid acrylics on round wood panels of various sizes. I would love the opportunity to be represented by your gallery. My work typically retails for around $100-$600 depending on size.” Kelsey Rodriguez
About the Artist (Promotional Website)
- “Sheona Hamilton-Grant is a graphite artist who works exclusively in black and white, creating photorealist works whose subjects are domestic animals and their interaction with humans. For her, the power of the pencil is its simplicity, and its effectiveness as a vehicle for applying the philosophy less is more. Throughout her work, Sheona reveals a deep appreciation for animals and their relationship with humans. The intricate detail and anatomical precision of the work, more than just an attempt to duplicate reality, serve to explore the whole context of domestication." Adam Eisenstat
- “Idelle Weber is associated with the Photorealists. In the early 1970s she became interested in studying and depicting the piles of cast-off objects lying along city gutters and sidewalks. Weber searched city streets for accidental arrangements of litter that she found evocative in terms of color, shape and texture." The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
Practice writing about your preferences, artistic work, and life experiences by responding to the following prompts:
- Look at your latest project. Write out a list of specific adjectives that describes your work. Connect these adjectives to your senses.
- You have a chance to mentor an incoming AFO student at VCU. What would you share with them about your experience?
- What do you consider to be uninteresting in your chosen field of study? Why did you choose these aspects or elements?
- How have you changed as an artist from your Freshman year of high school to now? Describe at least one major transition or turning point in your artistic or educational experience.
The following activities might help you to engage with more writing about art:
- Go to a local museum. Spend time experiencing the art and reading the labels attached to each piece you come across. Talk to the staff about the art.
- Browse the internet for different artists' websites or social media pages. Read each artist's biography or "About Me" section. Explore the use of adjectives and narratives in these descriptions.
- Pull out an art history textbook or a printer art magazine or journal. Find descriptions of the art and the featured artists.
- Draft your own artist statement, biography, or major declaration essay. Visit the VCU Writing Center and discuss your work with a writing consultant.
By following these tips, guidelines, and activities, we hope that you will feel more confident in your ability to effectively write about your artistic process and vision.
Remember that writing is a practice like any other: the more you try your hand at it, the more comfortable and skilled you will become. Make use of your teachers, peers, and campus resources. We are here to help!
Best of luck to you as you continue on in your personal and professional development. Stay curious, passionate, and dedicated.