The Importance of Writing About Your Work
Brandon Long – Creative Director
One of my artist friends and artist-in-residence at the Community Arts Center, Mark Wilhelm, came to me the other day and said, “I’m going to start blogging more about my art. I’m going to try to cover all of my styles and bodies of work, kind of like a retrospective. I’m calling it ‘Dishes & Dragons.'”
You have to know a bit about Mark to know why that title is such a great fit. He specializes in what he calls “nerd art” – video game fan art (his series that mashes up Destiny with famous paintings is not to be missed for fans of either), pop culture references, and plays on words are his forte. He’s also gotten into pottery lately and is making Japanese-influenced ceremonial tea bowls. So “Dishes & Dragons” is a great play off of “Dungeons & Dragons” (revered as its own class of nerdom) and his recent dabbling in pottery. Mark has bounced among lot of different styles of work, and I appreciate his willingness to explore his journey and try to reconcile all of the multiple directions he’s traveled. His announcement about his blog (click here for dishesanddragons.com) led to a great discussion about the importance of writing about your own art.
I know that most artists would much rather create visual, tangible things rather than write about them. After all, you consider yourself an artist – not a writer. You’ve figured out how to convey emotions with brushstrokes, mood with lighting, meaning with palette choices, but have you ever tried to sit down and just write it all out? What does it all mean? How does this piece relate to the rest of your body of work? How is your art relevant in modern society? What are you trying to say? When I’m working with artists to schedule their exhibitions at the Arts Center, they’ll often hit a brick wall when it comes to presenting me with an artist’s statement – especially if it’s their first show. Why do we have such a hard time putting it all into words?
Writing about your work can put your entire direction as an artist into a much sharper focus. To truly succeed and stand above the rest (and golly, there’s a lot), you have to find out how your art is different than the others. You need to discover the importance and relevance of your work. Writing is a great way to process these bigger questions and make you a much more confident artist as you gain more knowledge about yourself.
Where do you begin? Knowing where to start writing about your work can be a bit tricky, especially if you haven’t put a lot of thought into it previously. Some artists just love to recreate beauty. They see something they consider beautiful and want to reproduce it without really considering their subject matter or how their work improves or comments on the original thing (landscape, figure, equine, etc.). If you love painting sunsets, for example – you need to go a bit deeper than just the fact that they are pretty (and they are!). You need to consider what the time of day that sunsets occur represents. How do the colors make you feel? Are there specific memories you are referencing? Are there scientific phenomena tied to the atmospheric effects that you find interesting? While this may seem like a far departure from just painting a pretty sunset, it is essential to think about your work at this level in order for you to find your direction, your voice, and create work that can mean more than the sum of materials it’s made of.
To begin, I like to think of my work in terms of likes and dislikes. Create a chart of likes and dislikes regarding your work. You’ll put all kinds of things into these lists. Some art related, some not. You might put types of food in the list (is your art more like a salad or like fried chicken?), music (is it more like James Brown or James Taylor?), feelings (is it angry and volatile or peaceful and serene?), memories (is your art like the time you fell down the stairs, or more like the time you got your first puppy?), places (is your like rural Kentucky, or like New York City?), and even more specific places (is your art like a gas station bathroom, or like a hotel swimming pool?). You can get very creative with this chart as you start to sort your art through these various filters. By making up your mind about the things you are “for” or “against” in your art, you can begin to see the direction you are taking, and begin to understand more of what goes into your work both on and beneath the surface.
Another direction to take when writing about your art is to imagine that you’ve never seen it before. Separate yourself from the mode of the creator and try to be the viewer. Imagine yourself as an art critic writing about the piece. Without knowing the ideas or the story behind the piece, has the artist (you) conveyed those ideas or stories effectively. What mood does the piece convey? Is the art different enough to stand out and be easily identified as a (fill in your name) piece? Please note that this method of mode-switching between artist and critic should only be done once a piece is completed. We don’t need art critics barging into the studio to see half-finished work – even if it is yourself.
Writing about your work can help you find the relationships between what may seem to be rather disparate bodies of work. You may think that your work from ten years ago has little or nothing to do with your current work, but with a little reflection and introspection, you may find that these two different eras in your work are more tightly woven than you might think. After all, they were created by the same artist. If you’ve been creating work without a long hiatus, the connections should reveal themselves rather easily.
Honesty with yourself while reflecting and writing about your work is very important. Don’t be overly critical of yourself or your progress. On the same note, avoid inflating yourself to thinking that you are the most amazing artist the world has ever seen. You probably are, but keep that to yourself for now. If you try to make things overly complex or super-intellectual, it will show – whether by weakness in the writing or weakness in the artwork – if you aren’t being honest. Remember, every other great artist is just a person, not a superhero – so don’t feel the need to turn yourself into one. People want to see the real you in both your art and your writing, so try to stay as real as you can.
One of the greatest things about writing about your work is that you can always throw it away if you don’t like it. The trash collectors will not rummage through your garbage, find your creative musings and say, “Huh… This guy thinks he’s Picasso…” You don’t have to publish your writing. You can keep it as a journal, or just keep a few notes in your studio. I encourage you to set aside some quiet time, reflect on your work, and start writing what it means to you. I can guarantee you’ll find a lot more depth that you could imagine, and having new insight into your work will push you into bold new directions with much more focus and intent.