5 Painless Fixes for a More Potent Artist Statement

I read a lot of artist statements. “Read” is a generous word. Mostly, I endure them.

I know you know what I’m talking about.

©2011 Barbara Gilhooly, Plenty of Appeal. Acrylic on birch.

©2011 Barbara Gilhooly, Plenty of Appeal. Acrylic on birch, 16 x 16 inches. Used with permission.

In my e-book The Relatively Pain-Free Artist Statement, I help you craft your statement through a journaling process. But once it’s written, you have to edit it.

Here are 5 things to look out for in the editing process.

1. Don’t say your art is unique.

“Unique” doesn’t mean anything and, odds are, your work isn’t. Almost all art is derivative of informed by other work and anyone who knows art history can point to an artist who did it first place your art in that context.

But your work does have qualities that make it yours rather than someone else’s. Instead of using the word “unique,” describe your work in a way that makes the reader think it’s unique.

2. Remove the things that every artist says.

I see these phrases in so many statements that they put me straight to sleep. Do NOT use these in any version in your statement.

  • I am excited by . . .
  • I’ve always been an artist
  • I have to make art
  • My work is about the human condition

And my favorite phrase to eliminate in a statement . . .

  • I love . . .

3. Beware of redundancy.

Say it one way and move on. Don’t drag it out and duplicate the same meaning in a new sentence. Don’t make me be redundant by going any further with this warning.

4. Get rid of the lists.

One of the things I see in artist statements that makes me want to take a delete key to them is the overuse of adjectives. Lists of descriptors are a rampant virus in artist statements. Get rid of them!

If you have more than 2 commas in your statement, ask yourself what can be eliminated.

5. Reduce the number of personal pronouns.

You don’t need all of those I/me/my/mine/myself words in there. Really! I challenge you to get rid of most of them.

If you can clean up these 5 things, I promise you’ll have a more potent artist statement.

If you need help drafting your statement, check out The Relatively Pain-Free Artist Statement e-book. I also love to consult with artists on their statements. To see more about how this works, click here.

What trips you up about writing your artist statement?

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46 comments to 5 Painless Fixes for a More Potent Artist Statement

  • This e-book and the Get Organized class are still the all-time top 2 best resources I’ve ever bought from you! Glad to see it getting dusted off a bit. :)

  • Alyson, I love the artist statements that say the artist was nearly born with a brush – or some other tool…..:) You nailed it! Great reminders.

  • #5 confused me. An artist statement is to be about ME and why I paint. It’s about what I want the viewer to see, what motivates ME. How can I have an artist statement that is not about ME,ME,ME?

    • The key to that is have someone else say the things about you using your first name etc. and then at the end make a couple statements yourself in quotation.

  • K – Alyson is referring to a writing style that uses as few “Me” pronouns as possible. People want to read an artist statement that engages “them” the readers. Too many artist statements have sentences that start with “I.” Try writing your statement with as few as possible – it takes some creativity but can be done. It is a whole lot more interesting to read as well.

  • K – an artist statement is about you but to connect with the reader/viewer. It’s about them to, to draw them in, connect or inform them. What about your work (not you, or in addition to you) is worth sharing?

  • Thanks . I read a few examples and see what you mean. I do try to engage the viewer through my artist statement but I preface it with “I want the viewer to…….” . I see that there may be a better way to state that.

  • I can appreciate where you’re coming from because in a previous life I had to read hundreds of grant applications — adjectives quickly devolved into florrid hyperbole and I always came back to let the work speak for itself already. 

    Good thing we met with applicants before their requests went to panel so we could talk them into taking a hatchet to their narratives (or artist statements) or there would have been more votes for zero because the grant read like a testimonial and  didn’t describe what was proposed well enough. I find the goals of being direct, concise, clear and fluid puts the kibosh on any inclination to be precious with “the woids”.

    I would never use the word “unique” to describe my work (poor taste and it’s for the viewer to decide how the work resonates for them). However to say that the likelihood is that your work is derivative — you poor thing what have you had to look at. I claim Degas, Rauchenberg, Cezanne, Hammons, Picasso, Carravaggio, Hero, Marisol and Lautrec as influences but I defy you to find diect references to any of the aforementionedvery in my work. If you know of artists whose work resemble mine please let me know — I’m sick of working in aesthetic isolation. 

    Lastly I won’t make the obvious boner pill reference but you should follow your own advice — potent? If “Artist statement” had not been on the heels of the word I would have never read your recommendations. 

    • Janet: Thanks for sharing your experience reviewing grants.

      You are absolutely right to question my use of the word “derivative.” As soon as I read your points, I thought of a better way to say it and am editing the post.

      Interesting that your mind went to “boner pill.” I never in a million years would have thought of that. Goes to show you how some words make connections – perhaps in ways that are unintended.

      Love your work, by the way.

  • #5 raises this question for me…is it standard practice to write A/Ss in the first or third person? They seem more personal and genuine if written in the first person…IMHO :-)

  • For something different, instead of using the “I want the viewer to…” constructs, maybe try asking questions. I’ve found it’s much better to say things like “Have you ever noticed trees? I’ve looked at trees and…” It’s more active and lends a more active voice to an artist statement (rather than, say, “I want the viewer to look at trees….”)

  • Elizabeth

    One strategy that’s helped me write less annoyingly about my work is to write about the steps I do as opposed what I think or feel about them. Interestingly, I’m now feeling a push from within my art community to talk less about process and more about the “why” of what I do. (It’s part of an attempt by practitioners of an emerging medium I work in to steer its reputation away from craft & toward fine art.) Feeling completely at a loss right now for to write about my work without sounding like a blowhard. Thoughts?

    • Elizabeth: So they don’t want you to share “secrets”?

      • Elizabeth

        It’s more like there’s a feeling that people are talking too much about process at the expense of what their work means and that this is creating a craft-vs.-fine-art problem for the medium. Unfortunately, I don’t always get to know what my work means or why I’ve made it, especially not right away, so I feel stumped about how to move forward.

  • I find many artist statements explain their work with way too many abstract obtuse concepts. They don’t even write it for an audience but to give their artwork greater meaning. Many artists actually seem afraid to let viewers fully experience the work on their own so they use a bunch of objectives to make sure the average person doesn’t get it wrong. Artists, if you’re mass exhibiting your work, you don’t own the interpretation anymore! So talk about the immutable facts … your inspirations, how you started, etc.

  • Joe, I’m going to have to disagree with you. An artist statement should be written in first person. It’s not about what other people have to say about you but what you have to say about your own work.
    A testimonial is other people saying things about you.
    A Bio is written in third person.
    I think that answers your question too Maureen

  • Burgy

    LOL and very nice post. May I add to the one about “human condition”: Can the word “dreamscape” just be not used again? Ever? kthxbye

  • Excellent info. Thanks!

  • I am getting ready to launch a new website.and have been updating all categories. Your info. encouraged me to go back and re-evaluate the artists statement and edit. Thank you for the assist.

  • After reading your post I reread my statement and ugh….rewrote yet again! If you are not a talented writer it really is quite a slog… but necessary. Thanks for the push!

  • Thank you for this information on the artist statement. Also, it is very informative to read all of the comments from everyone. I’ve tried to improve my statement after considering all of these points. However, I believe I’ll have to go back to the statement after a week or so to review/revise it again. Sometimes I do not see the problems with the statement until some time has passed. And also, I really relate to what Christine Sauer wrote in her comment.
    Thanks for this!

  • Alyson, many thanks for this post and the section of your book about writing an artist’s statement. Having read far too many statements that are both incomprehensible and pretentious, I’ve always been dead against them. Your book showed me their value so I’ve written one for the first time in my art career. I showed a draft to my sister and her immediate reaction was “Oh now I see the point of an artist’s statement.”
    I’m happy with my statement (for now) and very appreciative of your guidance, without which I’d probably never have written it.

  • DJ

    Thanks for the great tips! Going back to the drawing board – er, writing board – to edit and upgrade my pretentious verbosity once again. :-)

  • […] Stanfield (artbizblog) has 5 Painless Fixes for a More Potent Artist Statement which i’ve now included in my website How to write an Artist’s […]

  • My first attempt at an artist’s statement came to life after reading “I’d Rather Be in the Studio” a couple months ago. I am not yet happy with it but working on it. This post will help me refine the statement. Thanks so much!

  • About to tackle my version – again. Thank you for some good food-for-thought.

  • re: Pronouns

    James W. Pennebaker was doing an NPR interview about his book, “The Secret Life of Pronouns”…and it made me twice as careful about the “I”, “me”, and “my”. A profusion of them, among other things, portrays the writer as a person of lesser power than whoever the audience is.

    Google it. :)

    Nick

  • My eyes glaze over whenever I read a statement whose writer is “fascinated by reflections/light/the interplay of color/textures”. Aren’t we all? Isn’t that one of the main driving forces behind our work?

    Eeeeeek.

  • Thank you for the suggestions. Time to look over my statement again.

  • This was great! I feel like I’m on track with my artist statement. Thank you!

  • Very helpful post. Thank you! Now I just need to figure out what to wear for the opening night of the gallery show where my work will be displayed.

  • I absolutely dread art statements. Perhaps its time to tighten it up.

  • elizabeth j white

    I have read your tips on artists statements but I am still in Lala land I am going to put a brief statement on here and could you tell me what I need to change or advice please.

    I enjoy creating, and developing my craft, always seeking knowledge, I desire
    to learn something new daily. I guess I have been painting, drawing and creating as
    far back as I can remember, I only started exposing my work though, in recent years.
    My sister in law who lost her battle with cancer made me promise to do something with my art, so now I am.

    I am working on a series called in the pink, This is work I am doing in honor of
    my sis. When I sale a piece in this collection the proceeds will go to cancer research.
    All my art in this collection will have pink somewhere in it, and a pink ribbon as well.
    and as with all my work , there is a cross, at least one in all my art.

    My inspirations are. God, Family, Country. and the artist who made a difference in my
    life, uncle Ron, a commercial artist now retired, he gave me tips on how to draw a horse. then Norman Rockwell, and the late Great Painter of Lights Thomas K.
    I loved and admired his work so much I’ve done a water color series to honor him
    called lights out which is all under the night sky.

    I do Acrylic , I also do Oil, watercolor, charcoal, crayon marker and more.

    I am sure this is way to long, I have been told it needs to be brief, and 3 paragraphs
    I sometimes get biography and artist statement mixed up
    I won’t get my feelings hurt, I need to know what I need to change

  • elizabeth j white

    hope this can be fixed