Tips for artists #3: How to talk about your work

Many artists consider that their works should speak for themselves.
Even though these artists are not totally wrong, I assure you that talking about your work and knowing how to do so is more than necessary.
Because it’s something you will have to do sooner or later.
Let’s imagine the following situation: you‘re nominated for a prize, and you have to convince the jury to award you. Logically, you must talk about what you’ve created. And you should take this speech very seriously.

Prepare your presentation

As soon as you know that you’re going to talk about your work (at a lecture, a portfolio review, an opening…), take a sheet of paper and write down everything you should say about your work.
Then read it, re-read it and repeat it aloud at least once a day.
Rehearse your presentation alone and in front of your family and friends.
This may sound silly, but it will help you to see if your presentation is understandable, and these people may give you useful feedback. It will also make your presentation more natural when you have to give it in front of other people.
Plus, rehearsing should prevent you from having memory lapses!

A few years ago, I saw an artist talking during a portfolio review. This person hadn’t prepared his presentation, and I can tell you that it didn’t go well.
Lack of preparation is something that the jury and the audience can easily notice, and it won’t be good for you. Being an artist is a job, and like any other job, you have to take it seriously. Don’t play the “I don’t care” card: it won’t work!

The content

Remember what an artist statement should contain? Well, what you should talk about is the same as your artist statement! So you should talk about the starting point, the inspiration, the creative process (like a behind-the-scenes description), the message your artwork conveys…
Don’t say things that are too obvious (don’t say “ there are trees in the background” if the audience can see them) unless it’s important for the rest of your presentation.
Some people like to hear about the difficulties you’ve faced during the creative process or if you’ve faced personal difficulties that have had an impact on your work. But once again, it depends on the context and how important it is to your work and presentation.

Here is a list of “don’ts” that you should consider before your presentation:

- You shouldn’t flatter yourself. Don’t say things like: “my artwork is great, isn’t it? I’m one of the best living artists in the world”. Nah, forget that. Nobody likes a presumptuous person. Be honest, be humble. But don’t be too modest or too hard on yourself: you have to find the right balance between humility and modesty.

- You probably want to sell your work, and that’s normal. But don’t mention it. In fact, your work and the way you talk about it should be compelling enough to make people want to buy what you’ve created. So only talk about money if someone else talks about it first.

- Don’t make things up. People can easily feel when you’re talking nonsense just to give the impression that you know why you’ve created your artwork.
So don’t force yourself. It’s ok not to have all the answers.

- Don’t read notes! I’ve seen artists using notes, and I’ve always found it strange: to me, an artist should know his work by heart. I have to say that at the beginning of my career, I used to have memory lapses due to stress. Thanks to my preparation, this no longer happens, and I never have to use notes.

- Don’t talk about your day job or personal life unless they’re related to your art.

- Avoid using words such as “I’m trying to, I want to…”.
Instead of saying “I try to show the true human nature”, say “I show the true human nature”. You should always sound confident.

- It doesn’t matter if you don’t say the words that were written on your piece of paper. At long as your presentation makes sense, using other words is fine.

- Even though you know your presentation by heart, always try to sound spontaneous, as if it has not been prepared. You shouldn’t sound like a robot.

- Remember to time your presentation.

- Don’t talk too fast. Breath and take the time you need (while obviously respecting the time limit).

In short, you should always talk about things that are useful and interesting to the audience (that’s why rehearsing your presentation in front of people is essential).
Look at how artists talk about their works. This is one of the best ways to see what you should and shouldn’t do.

The audience

When you present your work at an opening, a conference, or a lecture, the audience is usually made up of people working in the art field and people who are ‘just’ curious. So you should speak in a way that is understandable and accessible to everyone. Don’t use pretentious jargon. Keep it simple. Your words should be clear and concise. But don’t treat people as if they were ignorant.

Your presentation may change if you speak to a gallery owner or an average person like your grandfather who doesn’t know much about art: for example, some people know what the word “medium” means, while others don’t.
Just be aware that talking to someone who knows nothing about art may require some additional explanations. But always keep in mind that every discussion is useful ;)

At first, when I met people, and they asked me what my work was about, I was so nervous that I just said: “I make hm staged hm photographs”. That’s all…It’s interesting, isn’t it?
I was so nervous and unprepared that those were the only words I could say. It’s so much better now, and people seem to be much more interested in my work, as my answer leads to deeper conversations.

Presenting my work at L’Institut pour La Photographie (Lille), in December 2019

Trust yourself

Even though I’ve been a professional artist for over 7 years, I still get stressed when I have to present my work. I don’t think stress management is something that people can teach you, but it’s certainly something you need to work on. And to do so, you have to trust yourself and your work. Yes, I know, it’s definitely not easy.
But one thing you should tell yourself is that art is subjective and can’t please/interest everyone. Also, you shouldn’t be judged on the creation of your artwork. Unless you’ve copied an artwork (and then you deserve to be judged), you’ve already done something that matters.
The fact that you’ve created an artwork already gives you a reason to trust yourself. Furthermore, people can’t judge you on what you say about your work since, as a matter of fact, it’s YOUR work.
You need to know that the more you‘re convinced (or at least seem to be) of what you’ve created, the more people will be convinced. This is not an easy thing to do, especially when you lack self-confidence. That’s why preparing your presentation in advance will help you a lot. Many people are surprised by my confidence when I present my work, but they don’t know that in my head, I’m shouting: “I can’t make it”(haha).

Accept questions and opinions

I’m someone who likes to anticipate, who likes to be in control of things.
That’s why I like to say a lot about my work. But experience has taught me that it’s also good not to say too much and so you should let people ask you questions.
If you talk too much, what else can they say but “thank you, see you later”?

Make yourself accessible to the audience. Listen to what people have to say about your work. Most of the time, it’s very enriching. You get to know how people perceive your work. This can sometimes be stressful because they may ask you questions you didn’t expect, but that’s okay. Answer them as best as you can. Turn every experience, every discussion into something that will make you move forward. In fact, these exchanges are one of the best parts of the presentation.

A few years ago, I exhibited two photos in an important group show, and someone yelled at me because of one of my photographs. This person hadn’t read my artist statement and, although it made me feel uncomfortable at the time, I turned that opinion into something useful.

What happens next?

First of all, the more you talk about your work, the more you get used to doing it.
So make the most of it. Whether it goes well or badly, it’s always beneficial. You can take inspiration from what people have said about your work to create your next piece. You can also network, and potentially work with the people you’ve met…There are so many advantages so…go ahead, and apply for that portfolio review you’ve just found!

PS: This article is based only on my opinion and my experience. But being an artist for over seven years, I don’t think I’m wrong, am I?
PS-2: Don’t hesitate to leave me a comment if you have any questions or remarks about this topic.

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French visual artist

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Pauline Le Pichon

Pauline Le Pichon

French visual artist

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