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Why Storytelling for Artists Works So Well


As an artist, your storytelling creates conversations about you and your art when you aren’t there.

— Barney Davey

Storytelling for Visual Artists Starts with This

Effective communicators understand the pitfall of failing to answer this ever-present and unspoken question, “So what?” They know it’s over when they veer into dry facts because they are bland. You instinctively know you can’t bore people into giving you their attention, much less buy art from you. So please do yourself a favor and resolve to do your best to quit the bad habit of finding excuses to avoid telling Your Story. Instead, make it a central pillar of your art marketing plans.

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 the framework from Bernadette’s TheStoryofTelling.com website and book:

How to Find Yourself in the Art Business
Success leaves tracks — learn to find and follow them here.

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

Please read those essential points carefully to let them sink in deeply. It’s a framework for a life story packed with compelling storytelling potential for artists. You can use the framework to go as deep as you dare; as you do, your stories will reveal themselves to you.

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. Quantity of sales shouldn’t determine the quality of one’s life is another way to look at it.    

How to Make Answering the “So What?” Question Get Attention

When you say you have an MFA from Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), the unspoken reply is, “So what?” But 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.

And 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 of your RISD experience, 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. How did you manage? Tell me more, and so it goes.

You’ve Got More Storytelling Pizazz Than You Think

It may seem 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 live it every day, so how can you not take things that others find fascinating for granted? Besides, it’s a good bet you are too modest when tooting your horn.

How to Find Yourself in the Art Business
Success leaves tracks to find and follow.

Self-promotion is hard. I’m a writer, and my hardest writing is about me. So I truly get hesitation and understand the difficulty. If you see the value, you can overcome the resistance, which is odd because when you objectively think about it, you realize it’s mostly in your head. You can choose to stop getting in your way if you want to do it.

Stories Create Quality Connections

Storytelling is powerful. We feel we know the artist better when we hear or read their story. Good stories move people and open gateways to connections. And in your life and business, your connections are everything—stories enable making them.

Backstories Are the Arc of Storytelling

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

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

How Artist’s Storytelling Creates Proud, Fun Moments

Just imagine a new buyer’s pride 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:

How to Find Yourself in the Art Business
Success leaves tracks — learn to find and follow them here.

It is only by deduction, by elimination, by emphasis, that we get at the real meaning of things.

— Georgia O’Keeffe
georgia_o_keeffe_quote

The new owner proudly tells 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, and perhaps a new buyer or fan along with your collector and budding advocate.

As an artist, your stories create conversations about you and your art when you aren’t there.

— Barney Davey

Repeating the quote is intentional because the power of storytelling for artists concepts cannot be overstated.

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

Word-of-mouth happens because you enable it with storytelling. It enables avid collectors to become evangelists who will do wonderful things for you just because. Storytelling cultivates art buyers who exert influence in your favor. And they enjoy growing your relationship that began with your stories.

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, some version of what I just said is a story source. You develop it to make it real with the human interest angle. 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 it 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 for artists 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, her 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:

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

Self-awareness Is a Generous Gift Artists Give Themselves

Okay, that little made-up scenario may or may not resonate with you. Hopefully, it gives 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 of your overt and hidden influences come to bear.

You don’t need 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. You draw me closer when you help me understand you and how your work came into existence. 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

Stories create connections that lead to chances to show your art and communicate with stories. Like a friendly smile, your authentic backstory inspires potential collectors to appreciate and own your artwork.

You can’t count on spontaneous sales to support your art business. You must attract a buyer’s attention first, then use the attention to connect with your prospect and use stories and marketing to turn their attention into interest and awareness of your art and, finally, a desire to own your artwork. It’s a process.

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

— Barney Davey

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 you with encouragement to develop your artist stories because my mother, a talented visual artist, taught me to love art early.

In a decades-long pursuit as an ad exec for a visual arts business magazine and art trade show producer, I worked with hundreds of successful artists. I learned powerful lessons from their stories. Their experiences, good and bad, became priceless bits of wisdom that helped 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 doing this work. I aim for my words to provide you with enlightenment, encouragement, and pleasure.

How to Find Yourself in the Art Business
Success leaves tracks — learn to find and follow them here.

Tags

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. https://youtu.be/3Zq-b51A3dA

  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.

  6. Hi Barney, great stuff. I've been receiving your emails for some time, but haven't delved into them, geez! Anyway, this one hit home, yes! I hear this everywhere but you say it so succinctly and eloquently. I will do this more from now on. I am compelled to tell my story about the "calling" that we all get that just won't leave us alone! A good story to tell.

    thanks so much!
    Lucy

    1. Hi Lucy, Thanks for your comments and kind words. I’m pleased my words and concepts inspired and informed you. That’s my goal. All the best for all you do and especially your storytelling.

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