How Artists Can Use Storytelling and Why It Works

“As an artist, your stories create a conversation for you when you aren’t there.” Barney Davey

These two words sum up the power of storytelling and explain why it works—human interest.

There are two more words in the form of a question that the best communicators use. So what?

When you veer into dry facts, it’s over. Plain facts are boring. You instinctively know you can’t bore people into giving you their attention, much less buy art from you. Do yourself a solid and resolve to do your best to quit bad habits that include finding reasons to avoid telling Your Story.

Live Your Best Artist's LIfe
Live Your Best Artist’s LIfe

There are terrific books on using Story as the centerpiece of your marketing. Building a StoryBrand: Clarify Your Message, So Customers Will Listen by Donald Miller. And Story Driven: You don’t need to compete when you know who you are by Bernadette Jiwa. Both are business books primarily, but the lessons and insights differ. The messages from both apply to artist-entrepreneurs.

Here is a graphic from Bernadette’s website and book.

story driven framework

The Story-Driven Framework by Bernadette Jiwa

  • Strategy – align opportunities, plans, & behavior
  • Vision – aspiration for the future
  • Purpose – a reason to exist
  • Values – guiding beliefs
  • Backstory – journey to now

I suggest you read those essential points a few times to let them sink in deeply.

Bernadette tells us there is an alternate path to success that doesn’t hinge on the concept of competing to win. I think this idea will resonate more with artists than the general population.

The Guide to Art-related Careers
Learn about art-related Careers.

Quoting Bernadette Jiwa, who says:

Every one of us—no matter where we were born, how we were brought up, how many setbacks we’ve endured, or privileges we’ve been afforded—has been conditioned to compete to win. Ironically, the people who create fulfilling lives and careers—the ones we respect, admire, and try to emulate—choose an alternative path to success.

They have a powerful sense of identity. They don’t worry about differentiating themselves from the competition or obsess about telling the right story. They tell the real story instead. Successful organizations and the people who create, build, and lead them don’t feel the need to compete because they know who they are, and they’re not afraid to show us.

Even If You Don’t View Selling Art as a Contest, You Must Show Up

Perhaps you’ve heard it said (maybe even on this blog) that people buy the artist as much as the art. That’s a tough one for some artists who believe art should sell on its merits as is. You know, without the artist’s name or any history or relevant facts about the art and artist.

The Power of the Silent “So What?” Slays Interest

When you say you have an MFA from Rhode Island School of Design, the unspoken reply is, “So what?” If you tell me going to RISD was a lifelong ambition growing up because your favorite artist, Jenny Holzer, is a graduate, you gain my interest. If you further tell me that getting into RISD was nearly impossible for personal and financial reasons and that the admission process was the easy part, I’m all in. I want to know more because you have intrigued me with the human-interest aspect of your Story. I need to know what happened.

The Guide to Art-related Careers
Learn about art-related Careers.

You’ve Got More Storytelling Pizazz Than You Think

It may seem to you that your Story is not as dramatic as the example I’ve given. You might be right or not. What is more likely is your Story is unique, more than you realize. It’s natural. You have lived every day of your life, so how can you not take things for granted that others find fascinating. Besides that, it’s a good bet you are modest when it comes to tooting your horn.

It is typical for many people, and perhaps more so for sensitive artist-types to tamp down touting themselves and their work. Such conditions make the argument of “art for art’s sake” stronger. I get how anyone would feel that art should sell on its merits as a work of art. It seems the natural order of things is that it should be that way. But it’s just not so now and never was. More goes into the psychology of why people buy art.

Backstories Are Part of the Arc of Storytelling

In a situation where all things are relatively equal in the “art for art’s sake” category for potential collectors who are considering several pieces, the backstory will seal the deal. Your brand, reputation, and backstory are all part of your arc of storytelling.

Most buyers intend to show their new artwork in a place of honor. They anticipate comments and questions about it. You can expect that they will enjoy sharing engaging tidbits they have about the artist because they bought the artist and the artist’s Story as much as the art.

Storytelling about Your Art Creates Proud, Fun Moments

Just imagine the pride a new buyer has in mentioning that Georgia O’Keeffe inspires this artist. And how the artist went to great lengths to follow in O’Keeffe’s footsteps. She attributes her guiding light in creating artwork to this great quote:

“It is only by deduction, by elimination, by emphasis, that we get at the real meaning of things.” Georgia O’Keeffe


The new owner is proudly telling an appreciative viewer that you can see the O’Keeffe influence in her work when you know details from the artist. And that’s why they had to buy it. And now that viewer is educated and informed about the artist.

“As an artist, your stories create a conversation for you when you aren’t there.” Barney Davey

It’s Phenomenal How Word-of-Mouth Works!

Word-of-mouth happens because you enable it with storytelling. It lights the path from an avid collector to an evangelist. Storytelling cultivates art buyers who exert influence in your favor. They’re happy to have evolved in the relationship with you, starting with stories of your art and you.

Art Chose You

I’ve often said most artists did not choose to become artists; it’s more like art selected them to become artists. You know it’s not the easiest career path on multiple levels. But you chose it nevertheless because you were compelled to do so. Perhaps over the objection of your family who hoped you’d be a teacher, a doctor, or any career with a steady salary.

Indeed, there is some version of what I just said that is your Story. You need to flesh it out, make it real, and find the human interest angle in it. Was there a life-changing moment, or did you overcome an unforeseen difficulty? Did you receive an opportunity from the most unexpected source? What zigs and zags did your path to becoming an artist take?

Your history is an outline waiting for the twists and turns that make it unique to you. Every piece of art you make traces back to your origin story of why and how you became an artist. It would help if you never embellished to make it enjoyable. By that, I mean don’t hide pain or failures because they are part of being human and are naturally intriguing. Most often, it takes time to drill down to the real nuggets… but it is, oh so worth it!

Every Piece of Art Has a Backstory

Up to now, the conversation is about your backstory, which is essential. Storytelling goes beyond and delves into the truth that all art has a backstory. Read this 2008 interview, Every Piece of Art Has a Backstory, with the artist Mary Heilmann. She discusses her formative years in California, evolution from literature to ceramics to painting, and many inspirations, including video games and roadways.

There is no guarantee your Story will come easy. Sometimes you must dig deep for it.

Here is a fictional interview showing how to get the heart of the matter:

You chose to follow Georgia O’Keeffe and use her life and art as an influence. Why?
– Because she is a strong, independent woman and a free thinker.
Okay, but why are those attributes important to you?
– Because I want to live life on my terms, not dictated by other people.
Why is living life on your terms as a free thinker necessary?
– Because I have seen what happens when a person takes charge of their life.
Tell me more.
– Independence, peace of mind, clarity, and purpose all come into alignment, which allows an artist to live as their higher self and be of service in ways not possible when others rule your life.
Keep going.
– I believe women hold the keys to the safety, security, sanctity, and sanity of our world. I want to inspire women to become leaders. If we are ever to avoid war, famine, global warming, and unacceptable inequality, women must take control.

Okay, that little made-up scenario may or may not resonate with you. Hopefully, it is a little insight into what happens when you drill down with total honesty and self-awareness. You’ll get to that objective spot where the truth lies and where the foundations of your Story exist.

You can drill down in the same Socratic method with the art you create. Nothing happens in a vacuum. Everything around us informs, inspires, incites, and moves us in ways we don’t always recognize without introspection. The lyric and melody of a song, the color scheme of some object, the art of your heroes, the shape of a bicep, the undulating curves of a roadster, how light shimmers and falls through tree limbs at sunset, the sound of a brook babbling or children laughing at something silly, and so on.

It’s All in There Even If You Don’t Notice

Nothing escapes your notice. Your conscious mind may not always “take a note to self,” but your unconscious mind rarely lets anything slip. When you conceptualize a new piece, any or all your overt and hidden influences come to bear.

You don’t need to do a psychological evaluation and breakdown of every instance and nuance in your life to do a backstory. It’s just helpful to recognize what influences you and your work. When you help me understand you and how your work came into existence, you draw me closer. Just as with friends and lovers, only when we both let our guard down do we have a chance to make a meaningful connection.

Selling Art Is Not Serendipitous

Those people who most likely align with you in such ways that cause them to want to buy your artwork may not have their guard down initially. Like a friendly smile, your authentic backstory is an invitation for a buyer to be open and let your work inspire and influence them.

Entice your potential patrons with your storytelling and then let the art for art’s sake value of your work close the deal.

My Story

I write this blog because it is an artistic endeavor for me. I have always had a way with words and the desire to use them. The blog is my creative outlet; it is my art if you will. I’m inspired to help artists because my mother, a talented visual artist, taught me to love art early.

In a decades-long pursuit as an ad exec for an art business magazine and trade show publisher, I had the chance to work with many successful artists. I learned powerful lessons from their stories. Their experiences, good and bad, became priceless bits of wisdom that help me to help artists.

Having the chance to use my words, skills, and experience to be a guiding light for artists gives me joy and a sense of satisfaction. I was drawn to do this work. I aim for my words to provide you with enlightenment, encouragement, and pleasure. 

The Guide to Art-related Careers
Learn about art-related Careers.


art marketing, storytelling

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  1. Thank you Barney! As always, you are right on time with great advice. I’ve been asked to do a Zoom meeting about my abstract work for an art gallery featuring my work in June. Because some of the viewing of the exhibit will occur digitally due to Covid-19, they wanted artist stories to go along with the online presentation. I nervously agreed to do the Zoom meeting, assuming it was with a group of artists. No, it’s just me and one other artist. Oh NO! Lots of time to fill. What will I say? How will I fill the time? Barney to the rescue. Thanks so much! I’m grateful for your guidance always. I’ll let you know how it goes!

    1. Hi Jana, Congrats on the invite. I hope it goes well and inspires you to seek more ways to use Zoom to connect with the world. It’s very gratifying to know you will use my work to help you. Please do keep us updated. Consider using one of your images as your virtual background. Here is a YouTube video to show how to use it.

  2. Hi Barney.

    Greetings from the mountains of South West China (am from NZ, but living a van life here, after backpacking the developing world for 30 years).

    Anyway, I’ve been following you for years but this is my first comment here. Simply, thank you for your endless encouragement and wisdom!

    Storytelling will be my way to an art break thru, one day 😃

    Regards – Michael.

  3. Hey Barney, I hope you’re having blessed day 🙂

    I just read this article and I cant see how I can storytelling my live using photography .

    I want to be an artist by using photography and create images that show the masterpieces of our Lord Jesus.

    At really gets my attention is sunrises, sunsets (the way we seen the colors and their effect on the clouds! ) , wildlife and nature.

    Around me I always had the feeling that “photo-art “ is only good as an hobby but I believe that it can be our work.

    I feel like I’m trying to get to a destination but I don’t have all the directions 🙂

    What would be your advice??

    Thank you and may our Lord bless you !!

    1. My advice is to go for it. Make the connections between your faith and your images in your stories. Be genuine and show your passion for your faith and your imagery. Be as professional as you can. You have everything to gain and nothing to lose.

  4. This was a very helpful article. I've resd other articles on this topic but this one allowed me to see how to "connect te dots." Thank you!

    1. Hi Diane,
      It is a challenge to get started, especially on your own. Keep asking “Why?” and “And so” to uncover the info you need. Why did you become an artist? What obstacles or boosts to your goal of becoming an artist did you encounter? Who helped you? What is it about art that pulled you in? Think up as many questions like that as you can. If you were a reporter asking a famous artist questions what would you ask them? Whatever answers you give, ask the follow-up question, “And so?”

  5. I very much enjoyed reading your article. It was very helpful in making me understand the importance of the "personal story" or "journey" as a conduit to the art itself. I have painted and composed music for many years. I understand that we live in the digital age, whether we like it or not. I am at times daunted by the task of communicating in that world, however, I know that I must. Art can be a very lonely endeavor, but it becomes much more so when one fails to communicate with others. I am at that crossroads. I might add, finally, that your joy in helping us understand the work of the artist, is very evident. It's great to find that thing which gives one joy. That. I believe, is how good art is created.

    1. Thanks for your observations and comments. You’re right about the digital age it is full-on. We may be headed for new frontiers, but the tech and we still rely on stories for the heart of their communication. Stories are vectors that scale to meet the need. You are telling stories in your comments. There are threads to build more thoughts and communication. Don’t sweat communicating in the digital age, you’re doing a fine job of it here. That’s what you do. Find some places where you feel comfortable to comment on posts or offer something of value in other ways. The platform is secondary to the interest. Find places you like to hang and you will fit right in with your tribe there.

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