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Tell Me A Story: Focus on the WHY

by Luann Udell on 5/12/2011 9:25:49 AM

This post is by  Luann Udell, regular contributing author for FineArtViews.  Luann also writes a column ("Craft Matters") for The Crafts Report magazine (a monthly business resource for the crafts professional) where she explores the funnier side of her life in craft.  She's a double-juried member of the prestigious League of New Hampshire Craftsmen (fiber & art jewelry).  Her work has appeared in books, magazines and newspapers across the country and she is a published writer.  She's blogged since 2002 about the business side--and the spiritual inside--of art.  She says, "I share my experiences so you won't have to make ALL the same mistakes I did...." You should submit an article and share your views as a guest author by clicking here.


Magicians don’t explain their tricks, and neither should you.


Last week, Keith Bond beat me to my own punch in his FAV article, How versus Why.  He argues that anything we say about HOW we make our art is inherently less interesting than WHY we make it.  I firmly agree.  Thank you, Keith, for the perfect lead-in.


Not only is pure HOW boring, I’ve found that few people really want tons of information about HOW we make our art.  In my experience, the people who are only interested in the HOW are a) other polymer artists and b) teachers.  (They want to teach the technique to their class.)


And we love tell people HOW we did it, too.  I’m revamping a friend’s artist statement for him.  As I cull 30 years worth of previous statements, I find 90% is HOW he makes his work.  Right down to the type of glue he uses to assemble his work and what temperature it cures at. 


Why do we fall back on HOW?  Because it’s comfortable.  And safe. We know the HOW inside out. We’ve told the HOW for years.  So why should we quit doing it now?


The biggest reason to stop is this:

Your true audience doesn’t really want to know HOW you do it.


They’ll SAY they do.  In fact, the first question a potential customer asks is often about your techniques.  But people ask this question simply because they want to talk with you.  And this is the easiest way to get started.   


If you take this question at face value, you are a like a magician who gives away his tricks.


Everyone loves a good magic show.  It’s fun to believe, if only for a brief moment, that magic exists in the world—that a blindfolded person really can tell what you have in your pockets; that a rabbit really can disappear up a sleeve.


We ooh and ahhh and scratch our heads.  We wonder, “How did he DO that?!” 


Very few professional magicians will come out and tell you.  Because they know….


Once you know how the trick is done, your response is disappointment and disillusionment. 


Once you know what sleight-of-hand or misdirection that created the illusion, all the fun is gone.


That sense of magic is a huge part of the art sales process, and it’s a delicate thing.  If you, the artist, take away the magic, you have to work really, really hard to get it back.


People who work with unromantic materials get this or die as craftspeople.  We have to be careful how we present our medium.  There’s a sculptor who makes simply beautiful, fluid work—out of plywood.  He says so in all his marketing materials.  Beautiful object—plywood!  Plywood??!!  Does…not...compute.  I cringe every time I see his lovely work, and that awful word, next to each other.


I’ve learned the hard way, too.  People would pick up a horse artifact and ask me, “What are these made of?”  I’d say, “It’s polymer clay!”  They”d put the horse down and move on.  It was a sales-squasher.


I’ve learned to sidestep the whole question of HOW I make it.


Instead, I reframe the answer in the context of my story.  I tell the truth, but I stress the WHY instead of the HOW. 


Sometimes I ask them, “What do you THINK it is?”  They usually say wood, or ivory, or fossil bone.  I say, “I’m glad you think it looks old and organic—that’s exactly what I want it to look like!”


I tell them why the artifacts look that way.  I encourage them to touch the piece and draw their attention to certain details. I talk about the cave as the source of my inspiration. 


I relate the artifact to my own life, and to theirs.  I ask which animal or artifact they felt most drawn too, then tell what that animal has meant to me.  Soon they’re telling me what it means to them.  A powerful connection is forged.


For those who want less talk, I have a wonderful little sign/display of objects I’ve made to use in my work—artifacts that look like real bone, ivory, shell and stone, shell--and suggest they look for those examples in my work.  This gives them a chance to read, absorb, ponder—and then go look at the work again.  The sign also says I have a powerful story to tell, how an ancient cave came to be a metaphor for my own life as an artist and writer.  I chose polymer clay as a medium because it lets me tell that story seamlessly.


Need one more reason?  Times have changed.  Nowadays, anyone can easily learn about your techniques.  As my friend says, “30 years ago, sharing my techniques was pretty safe. I was unique in my field.  Even if I shared information openly, it was hard for people to learn more about it.  These days, if I tell potential customers about my special glue, they hit the internet and instantly find all kinds of information, from descriptions to sources, even videos on how to use it.  Worse, they might also find dozens of other people using the same technique.”


Fortunately for my friend, his combination of skill, technique, design evolution and reputation keeps him tops in his field.  But he’s changing his approach to something that’s more about him, and his story.


Because the story of WHY you chose your work, and WHY you make it, will always be unique to YOU.  Tell your WHY and your own unique, magical, passionate story. 


No one can Google that away from you.

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Backstory: About Clint. Email EditorTwitter. Republish. ]

Related Posts:

Tell Me a Story: Writing About Your Art

The Myth of Selling Art

Selling Pointers

Make Amazing Art, Be Authentic, Tell Your Stories and the Art Will Sell

How versus Why

Topics: art marketing | FineArtViews | inspiration | Luann Udell | sell art 

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Good article, Luann. It could be the bottom line for the recent article about copyrighted images of art work--

People anywhere and everywhere can copy the how, but never the why. Makes us all breathe a little easier, eh?

Later, KC

Bea Lancton
Excellent article. It came at a good time for me and I need to read it every day. Thanks.

Sandy Askey-Adams, PSA
this was a wonderful article. I loved it with good reason. Well stated. ..Makes it all so clear.

Thank you.

Brian Sherwin
Just an observation-- some of the best art professors I know keep their personal artwork out of the classroom-- and I think it has to do with the same 'magician' concept, if you will.

Based on what I've observed over the years it often appears as if art students respect professors more if the professor keeps their own art out of the class OR never reveals their art to their students.

Obviously that direction won't work for all art professors-- but for those who take that path it leaves the students in wonder... which spurs an odd sense of motivation that is hard to explain. One professor I know does not reveal his work to his students until their senior year-- at which time he offers it for critique.

Joanne Benson
Hi Luann,
Another excellent post! You clarify even more the "why" and make it more compelling. I'm still stuck somewhat in the how but I'm going to try to be more creative in my story.

Brian, I like your observation about art professors that don't share their work with the students. I think that is an excellent approach because students might otherwise feel compelled to emulate the professor.

I think this is a very difficult concept for artists to grasp. When I look at any art, I am most concerned with the how rather than the why. The why really doesn't interest me. It's probably one of the reasons gallery workers and museum docents can spot the artists in the crowd because they typically have their noses up as close to the art displayed as possible, trying to unravel the process.

Sue Betanzos
This is a great article because it not only relates to marketing, but also to the ups and downs of sharing information as an instructor. It's true, most people prefer a a bit of mystery and buyers buy based on the emotional why, not facts. Most everyone likes a good story, something intriguing that draws them. Facts can be like dry toast!
Also as an instructor I don't mind sharing some info, especially beginner info. But I do not share everything on my personal work, however tempting. I encourage students to find their own voice based on their Own experiences.
There is actually a video on TED about the Why of decision making and the Why is what drives people more that the How in most of the decision making. It was pretty interesting and worth watching.

Katarzyna Lappin
What a great article.
I believe that artists should remain little more mysterious and keep certain areas of their experience for themselves. In the present times there is too much TALKING about art. Art talks for itself. The fruit of artists hands is the message.
In my opinion art should remain sacred in a way and all that talking doesn't serve its spirit. It would be better to leave all that talking part to the viewers.
This is just my opinion.

mimi torchia boothby watercolors
@Brian, I would never take a class if I was unable to see the work done by the instructor. I took many art classes while in school and I was always (even as an adolescent in college) interested in what my instructors could do.
I try to let people know what is behind every painting I paint. No, not how the paint dries on the paper, but what it is in my life or my mind that makes me paint that thing.

Carol Schmauder
Thanks for the wonderful article, Luann. I definitely agree the HOW is usually boring, and I don't often have anyone ask me how I paint a landscape or whatever, however, I ALWAYS have people ask me how I execute the painting of one of my Shattered Reality pieces. It never fails. So, I tell them, and they always seem interested. I have often thought I would like to sidestep the answering of the question but don't know how I would do that gracefully, so I answer.

I think I know what you mean, Katarzyna, and I've wondered, for instance, when exactly did artists putting out artist's statements? Did Degas or Whistler or Sorolla feel pressured to wordsmith an artist's statement? Not likely. Some artists back then were vocal and did talk about their art in various publications, and a lot of them certainly liked to gather together socially and talk art, but I think back in the day the art for was expected to do the talking to the broader public for the most part. I think a lot of this probably originated in the mid-20th century, and now with the internet it has become customary or expected.

Carol McIntyre
I love the magician metaphor. Great way to explain how Why is more interesting than How.

Donald Fox
You make a compelling argument Luann. Writers have known for a long time that of all the forms information may take, the most engaging is the narrative. Personal stories that affect the reader the most are those that stress what an experience meant to the writer, i.e., the why rather than the how. The how of it may have some interest while engaged in the making or doing, but it's the why that's transmitted through the how that makes the end product enduring because it separates the inspired from the merely mechanical.

Donna Robillard
I was so glad to read this article. I've seen many an artist statements with so much dedicated to the 'how'; and frankly, it is rather boring. Reading the 'why' gives more meaning to the work of art. It confirms to me things that should, or should not, be mentioned in my own. Thanks.

jack white
Nice job. Are as we say in Texas, "You done good."

Writing we also depend on WHO. Who's the audience we are attracting? FASO people tend to want to know why but a craft magazine might want to know how. All of us have read a lot of how along the way.

George De Chiara
Thanks Luann for such a great post. I'm going to go back through my written materials and make sure they are centered around the "why" rather then the "how". The magician example really proved the whole point.

Bonnie Samuel
Well put, Luann. I think you are right that people may ask 'how', but really don't care. Although I work in a medium - textile art- which strikes people and very different and so the "how" does make sense. But! while I may give a brief description of basic process, I don't give away much in doing so.

Really though, it is the 'why' that draws interest and is the story of the art. It may be more difficult to put it into words, but something we should all ponder and work on in our artist statements. "Why" has power.

Jo Allebach
I guess it comes down to the how can give the art interest at a cerebral level but the why gives it the meaning at the emotional level. The magic analogy really is great.
I definitely need to do more "why -ing". :)

Brennen McElhaney

This is brilliant advice! Thanks for sharing your insight on how to encourage and maintain interest in your art.

Cathy de Lorimier
I have just finished revamping my website into categories, and now I want to go back and see how much I have included the "why" in all I wrote. Your article makes so much is people yearning for the connection with other people that we are all striving for. Our stories are powerful and unique! Thank you so much for articulating this so well.

Cathy de Lorimier
The website link I gave in my recent comment was inaccurate, so I just wanted to make sure you had it. WHY? So others can visit my website and give me feedback. I need all the advice I can get! ;)

Sharon Weaver
I have to reevaluate how I talk about my art so your examples are very helpful.


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