how to talk to an artist

my high school art teacher once gave me a fantastic piece of advice, when faced with an incomprehensible piece of art. we'd been talking about children's artwork, especially the scribbling stage of art, like so:

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he advised saying, 'tell me about your picture,' instead of asking, 'what is it?'

wise man.

this advice has served me well since i first heard it twenty years ago. i've used it with children i've temporarily acquired afternoon custody of; interns presenting me with a design, and adults.

gigi conot's written a helpful chart laying out what to say to an artist when looking at their work. an example:

what you shouldn't say: "I have a friend who wants a portrait of his cat. Can you do it?"

what the artist is tempted to reply: "Sure. While I’m doing that, since you’re an engineer, can you fix my car?"

that made me laugh; if i had a dollar for every variant on that i've been asked, i wouldn't need to be working.

also in the category of things repeatedly said to me: 'i can't even draw stick figures.' artistic skill is a skill, which can be learnt by most people. when i hear someone tell me that they can't draw at all, or that they can only draw stick figures, i ask them when they stopped trying to draw. without fail, it's usually between the ages of 10-15, which puts them in either the naturalistic or decision stages of artistic development.

 Portfolio Drawdev Streetscape

 Portfolio Drawdev Portrait
decision stage

the decision stage is so named, because that's when the decision to pursue art is made. that's when most people give up on it because they get discouraged and quit. but if they'd only keep going, they could develop a basic level of competency.

one thing i've noticed about non-artists looking at art is that they feel intimidated by it, because they think it's something they can't do, because they never worked on improving their skill; or they didn't go to art school, or take art history courses, so they feel like they lack the vocabulary to talk about art. when really, all that's required is a bit of thought. people have no problem telling you what they like about their favorite band, even if they're not musicians. someone who doesn't know what a perididdle is can still say, 'i like the beat of the drums because i can feel it in my ribcage, and that makes me feel connected to the music.'

it's not as difficult as you think to talk about art. or to talk to an artist.

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