From Cory: I’m so glad Lisa reached out with this post. It’s a solid explanation of how to tell the story of your art. We’ve published articles similar to this in the past, like How to Tell the Epic Story of Your Art and Tell Your Story, Sell More Art. It’s an important topic and one that we cover extensively in our Content Marketing for Artists Course.
Life can sometimes seem like an endless series of exhibitions. For those of us involved in the art world, there are times when we’re constantly visiting gallery after gallery, taking in as much as possible and getting to know the work of artists from far and wide. But there are some artists whose work consistently stands out. Some artists’ work lingers in the thoughts and hearts of an audience long after the show is over, and these tend to be the artists who are more popular with serious art buying audiences. I’ve noticed over the years that these are often the artists who have grasped the technique of telling the story behind their art.
These artists aren’t just selling paintings – they’re selling an experience. Whether we like it or not, we’re not rational creatures. We’re emotional, and when an artist touches our raw emotion, by bringing out our shared deeper experience through storytelling, that artist makes a lasting impression.
Roxanna Kibsey is one of these artists. A native of Sept-Iles, Quebec, her paintings are often bleak depictions of frozen tundras or autumn trees so bright they could nearly burn a hole in the canvas. When I met her at one of the Global Art League exhibitions in Montreal she couldn’t wait to tell me about the place in her paintings. “Where I grew up we had nine months of winter every year. It’s really quite a tough place” she said. As we chatted and she re-lived a part of her childhood while we stood in front of her painting, the image evoked for me memories of driving through the snow-covered countryside during my own first winter in Canada. I could almost hear the crunching ice under my feet as she described to me the idyllic (if absolutely freezing) countryside she grew up in.
Businessmen may have their elevator pitch, but artists, too, need their 30-second story which rolls freely off the tongue. That’s why it’s so important that for each piece you might be exhibiting, you can conjure up a story behind it, and tell that story to your audience in a way that helps them connect with your work, and ultimately makes them want to buy a piece.
Israel Tsvaygenbaum is another Global Art League artist who beautifully captures the story behind each of his pieces. His paintings often represent bustling scenes of his birthplace in Eastern Europe and bring together mystical, semi-surrealist tapestries of Jewish history including evocative imagery of the Holocaust. His paintings describe his own family history, and also the histories of millions of Europeans and North American immigrants. On his website, he includes YouTube videos with narrations over some of his most popularly-exhibited pieces.
How to construct the elements of your story
If you want to sell your work, one of the fundamental challenges you have is building a deep connection with your audience. By capturing their imagination, you can create this feeling of connection. Fortunately, there are a few simple tactics which can help you build up the stories around each of your paintings.
For landscapes, you have situate the audience – and not just geographically. Many artists simply mention the town, village or region, but by give more information you’re creating a deeper shared experience.
Some questions you will want to consider for your story:
- How did you arrive at this place?
- What drew you to that place in particular?
- How long did you stay there?
- What other activities did you do while you were there?
- Your own connection to a place is generally made up of the attitudes you have, drawn from the activities you did, the people you met and your general mood. How have you captured this in the painting?
- Do you know some human stories that bring the place alive?
- If you create cityscapes, how do you feel when you look at the buildings?
- They may be stone cold indifferent monoliths in real life, but who lives in these buildings and what do they do?
- If there are any historical facts that you feel add a dimension to the scene then be sure to mention them in your story, too.
For figurative pieces there is often a soul to describe, which can even make your job more difficult. Some questions which you will want to consider for your story:
- Who or what is it that you’ve painted?
- Why did you paint this object or person?
- What did you learn from painting it?
- What feelings does this thing or person stir up inside of you?
- Does the painting show something of historical significance (even recent history)?
- What are the cultural connotations of this image?
- Does the image hold a personal significance to you?
There may be times that you struggle to come up with an actual “story”, and that’s OK. Perhaps you just thought that you’d found a particularly nice scene with a tree against a blue sky and you wanted to paint it. What is it about that tree that you like? Where were you walking? Did you have a reason to be there other than painting? What does the process of painting feel like for you?
These are the types of questions which can build up your story and create the shared experience of your artwork. Sometimes you may find that a painting is quite personal, and you might not want to share the answers to these questions with strangers. That’s OK too. This is why it’s important to practice your story ahead of your exhibition, so that you’re comfortable with how you’re going to tell the story to a potential buyer. There is never any need to share more information than you’re comfortable with.
Where to tell the story?
Some artists have the opportunity to exhibit their work in front of art buying audiences. At these exhibitions, experienced artists will be talking to as many people as possible, and sharing story after story with anyone who will listen. But for those artists who are not exhibiting their work at the moment, there are other ways to share the stories of your work.
You wouldn’t dream about submitting your portfolio without an artists’ statement or a biography. Think of your artworks’ stories as the biography of each piece. If you’re submitting a selection of work to a gallery or art organization, include the stories of your work in your application.
YouTube offers a great narration tool, as Israel Tsvaygenbaum shows us on his website. The benefit of videos like is that you can zoom in on a particular part of the painting if you want the audience to look at a particular detail. Your stories can also go on your website, alongside each painting, giving your website valuable content and giving your website visitors an insight into your work.
When you delve into the stories behind your paintings and share with your audience a narrative which includes your motivations and emotional reactions to the world you’re sharing with them a meaningful experience. At this point you move beyond selling a piece of art to selling an experience. By taking the time to take your audience on a journey you are creating the kind of connection which makes it much easier for them to buy from you.
Lisa Baum is a Montreal-based freelance writer and Head of Communications for The Global Art League. Her role at The Global Art League involves promotion of member artists among the international art community as well as organizing the annual exhibitions. Originally from the UK, she is a keen traveller and a passionate supporter of the arts.