Tip for Artists - Talk About Your Work

“Art Talk” by Mary Edwards


When was the last time you were asked to talk about your art?  Did the words come easily?  Were you confident or did you stumble and freeze?

Sometimes artists think that they shouldn’t have to find the words to “explain” their art.  After all, you’ve already put your time and talent into creating it!  But someone who doesn’t know you or your work needs to get inside your head and heart with a few chosen words, from you.  Just think about your experience with a good docent in a museum.  By pointing out specific details in the artist’s style or materials or process, a good docent helps you focus.  Gradually you begin to understand how the art conveys its meaning. 

This is what you do when you talk well about your own art.  Such opportunities often come at you unexpectedly.  You meet someone at an art opening, or at a family reunion, or at a neighborhood party.    When people find out that you’re an artist, sometimes they ask you about your work.      

Try to make the most of these inquiries.  They carry little risk and give you a chance to practice.  You can hone your verbal skills so that you will be ready to talk to a collector or a gallery owner, or to make a presentation to a curator.    

Prepare three or four clear sentences that highlight key elements in your work.  Social occasions require a more personal narrative rather than a formal statement.  The language is conversational and in your own voice.    Listen to these “before” and “after” versions of an artist responding to questions about her work.

Artist (unprepared)

“Oh well, hmm . . . .  I don’t know.  I sort of work with materials I find and I make collages out of it.   They are really landscapes I guess.”  

The artist sounds like she doesn’t want to talk about her work but she was just scared and unprepared.  In her nervousness she pushes the question (and the questioner) away.  She sounds doubtful about her own work.  The person who was asking wandered off and seemed a bit disappointed. 

In fact, the artist’s work was colorful, vibrant, and made with interesting materials.  She learned from her experience and prepared three strong sentences to use in the future:

Second try:

“I like to make collages from paint and paper and old materials I find in antique stores and flea markets.  First I paint colorful abstract shapes, and then I add unusual materials, like old wallpaper.  I call these works “urban landscapes” because they convey the noisy energy of the city.”

Notice how much information the artist has packed into her response.  She keeps the tone easy and conversational, but offers interesting detail about her process and materials.  When she uses a term like “urban landscapes,” she explains what it means.  She invites a conversation.  The language is specific enough to make the listener want to see the work.   When this happens, the artist could quickly show images on her phone, and follow up by offering a studio visit.  Those three sentences accomplished a lot!

Talking about your work to a gallery owner is a little more formal.  You are talking about the work as you present it.  Here’s an artist rehearsing what he planned to say at his meeting with a gallery owner. 

First try:

“I call this my water series, because it is inspired by my concern for the environment.  Each painting explores a different aspect of our relationship to nature.”

The artist sounds serious, but his description could apply to thousands of artists whose work depicts nature or is concerned with the environment.  His comments are too general to engage the viewer.  He sounds boring even though he is  passionate about his work.  After preparing, here’s what he said:

Second try:

“My water series is about the effects of climate change on the San Francisco Bay.  In this painting you see abstract shapes that look like separate pieces of land floating together, but you’ll notice that they are actually disconnected.  At first glance the painting looks like a pleasant harbor, but when you look closely you get a sense of dislocation, that something has gone wrong here ….”

Notice that artist draws attention to details in the painting.  Instead of talking about a general idea, like nature or the environment, he shows how his work reveals a specific meaning.  He asks the gallery owner to look more closely at the painting to see HOW it conveys meaning.  This is the kind of language the gallery owner might use when talking to a collector.

Talking about your art is one of 10 key behaviors that characterize successful artists.*  When you talk well about your art you make people want to see it, to look at it longer, to look at it more closely.  Remember, nobody falls in love with a work of art, or even considers buying it, until they understand what it’s all about. 

Mary Edwards, Ph.D.

Career & Life Coach for Artists                


*If you’d like a copy of the checklist, please visit www.coachingforartists.com  & click on “Free Tips for Artists.”



Mary Edwards Is a Career & Life Coach for Artists, based in the San Francisco Bay Area.  She works with artists across the United States and all over the world.

Mary has a Ph.D. from the University of Michigan and received her coach training from the College of Executive Coaching.  She brings a unique combination of business knowledge, art world experience, and professional coaching skill to her practice.

Her latest article, “How Art Careers Happen,” was recently published in Professional Artist Magazine. 




Artists & Photographers

The C4E directory has more to offer. Sign up today to get our monthly newsletters, and gain access to many more listings not available in the public site.




Promote your event. Get a listing in callforentries.com today.