I remember the exact moment when I knew I was an artist. It wasn’t as a child. Art was the friend I set aside when it was time to be a grown-up. No, it was much later, when I was well over fifty. I don't know why it took so long. But in a way, I'm glad that it did.
We all experience life in ways that prod us toward such realizations. Eventually, we find ourselves talking about that progress. When I first got out of art school, I was invested in the philosophical influences I had learned. I relied on Art Speak, a lot. I spent most of a decade painting and explaining while eyes would glaze over until I had lost my audience. And in the end, I lost my confidence.
While the process of learning can be uncomfortable, you can’t always fix your inexperience through art speak. It is not an effective way to control the impressions people make about your work. But you can learn how to better engage your audience. I have discovered at least three keys to effective Art Speak: these insights might be helpful to you.
Key 1: Start by nurturing the human connections. People are curious about their attraction to art. They want the story. What were you interested in depicting? Why did you pick that subject? Through this shared conversation, something interesting happens. The viewer becomes invested in the work, making their own connections. It is no longer a work that must be justified. It becomes a form of collaboration.
Key 2: Discuss the entire canvas. The example of developing the entire block in before the focal point applies here. While it's obvious that your painting is about a child sitting in the shade beneath a tree, by pointing out how the loose abstract in the background helps to describe the dappled light, or the thickness of the paint on the folds of the shirt provide dimension - it's the details that add richness to the visual experience. At a recent art walk, I enjoyed a long conversation with a group of college students. Their curiosity ranged from questions like ‘what is this about?” to “how did you achieve that and why?” I finally asked if they were art students. To my surprise, not a single one had ever taken an art class. They just found the discussion interesting, seeing the art with new insight.
Key 3: Be curious about what others see when they look at your work. This isn’t always comfortable for the artist. I remember standing in front of a self-portrait, listening to someone say it would probably look better upside down. He was probably right, and he had no idea I was the artist. But the experience reinforces an important point. Most people want to connect, but human experiences are not unilaterally universal. I have always found the best insights this way, realizing that I was too focused on getting something perfectly right when most people saw the work in a different light.
If there is isolation for the artist when creating work, there is also the need for connection. At some point, you will be asked to talk about your work. It may feel awkward to walk up to a stranger and start a conversation, but in the end you are both after the same result.