For many years I’ve refused to talk about what my paintings mean. I would get frustrated when people asked me. “It isn’t about ME – it’s about YOU: I just want you to react, to have your own personal relationship and response to the painting, leave me out of it!” My stance was based on Magritte’s definition of art as mystery, a little bit of interest in Zen philosophy, and a general dislike towards speaking and arguing with people.
I understand my previous opinion, and still support it – however I’ve learned that it just won’t work if I want to be a ‘real’ artist.
You HAVE to have something intelligent to say about each one of your paintings. Why you painted it, how you painted it, what for, what it means to you, how it makes you feel. Words are an integral part of human cognition and understanding. While they may feel an emotional response to a painting, it will only trigger their curiosity. They may want to know more about the piece, about the artist, about life in general.
I used to think a painting was a mountain scene to be awed by; or perhaps a smooth forest pond that gives the viewer a reflection of themselves.
It isn’t. Actually – it’s a window into the mind of the artist. It can either be a dirty window, that a viewer peers into fruitlessly and soon moves on, or it can be clean and shiny, full of fantastic and interesting things inside, that makes the viewer stay and look, fascinated.
Luckily, you have the power to create the scene the viewer sees. The painting is the window frame – the description of your paintings is the fanciful decoration and action taking place inside the frame.
I’m not a big talker, and I usually panic when someone asks me to explain “what it means” (something I’m obviously working to correct, because it is a necessary skill). However I like to write. Recently, the curator at my last exhibition printed out all of the comments and descriptions I’d written about my paintings – on Facebook, Flickr, and my website – and put them up next to the paintings.
It was amazing. At first I felt a little naked – I was really putting MYSELF out there now, all of my limited, opinionated, and controversial beliefs. But I noticed that the visitors spent much more time in the gallery, reading everything, and had a much deeper response and interaction with me and my work. Even better, I didn’t get harder any questions like “what does it mean/what are you trying to say” because it was all written down.
If you’re like me, you just like to paint and don’t really think about a specific ‘thing you’re trying to say’ with your paintings. But people will still want to know and you MUST be able to answer them. So tell them about yourself. Think about who you are, what you believe in, your hopes, dreams, fears, how you feel when you paint, what you want to do/discover/learn in your life – these are all things that may have influenced your work.
When talking about a specific painting, look at it for a while, drink a glass of wine ; how does it make YOU feel? What does it remind you of? A special time or place in your life? Something deeper?
Write it down if it helps. Practice saying it out loud. Post it on your website/printed materials. Be consistent, concise and eloquent… otherwise you end up stammering with your pants down.