How to Explain your Art to Others

How to Explain your Art to Others

Explaining your art is trickier than most people might think. I remember being a kid, drawing hasty little picture books on printer paper, then explaining to my parents what they were about and being a little embarrassed.

A bit more recently, while I was in art college, we went to Manhattan for a few days. I had to explain one of my paintings to a group. I don’t even remember what I said because as soon as I said. “This painting is about” in my relatively thick Midwestern accent, everyone including me, was laughing too hard. I didn’t think much about the painting after that!

If you’re not used to people caring about your art, it can make explaining it tricky. Half the battle of explaining your art is overcoming the fear of vulnerability.

To reveal what your art means is to reveal something personal about yourself, perhaps a hurting part of yourself. My rural paintings are my way of grappling with homesickness and desperately clinging to the past, and I don’t always want to talk about it!

If you’re not with someone you like to share your feelings with, make up an entirely fake explanation for that painting. It’s your painting; you decide what it means! You can choose for it to mean more than one thing! Let me show you an example.

This painting is about summertime and the expectation of being out with friends making loads of fun-stuffed memories. In reality, the fair isn’t as fun as it was when you were a kid, and all your friends have other friends they are closer with than you.

But, the painting is just a goofy cat with a book and an ice cream. So I tell people it’s about a goofy cat who has a book and an ice cream because he likes books and ice cream.

Another scenario where you might have trouble explaining your art is if there isn’t an explanation. Sometimes you just draw something because it looks cool. Never feel pressured to have a “deep” meaning for a particular piece.

I draw plenty of things for no other reason than they look cool. Just because the people who get into museums have deep explanations for even the most mundane-looking paintings doesn’t mean you have to. Here’s another example from me.

This hypothetical children’s book page was literally just typography practice and nothing else. I made it in school. It has no inherent meaning other than I thought my typography practice ought to have some cool imagery.

Yes, the little squirrel guy is from one of my projects that have meaning, but this image itself has no significance other than the fact that “Moonrise over the Meadow” has two M’s in it.

It’s totally fine for this image to be meaningless because I think it looks cool, and the general public will accept that as it is. If anybody asks about this piece, I focus on the process of creating it rather than any meaning it has.

Now, I could easily retrofit a meaning to the image. Sometimes you want an image to mean something. If you’re like me, you might think that explaining your process is a bit boring. I’m going to create meaning for this image in case somebody asks spontaneously, and you’re going to read that meaning fresh from my brain right here:

“The act of going out to watch the moon rise over the meadow suggests that one is contemplating one’s smallness in relation to the cosmos. In addition to smallness, this image also deals with how delicate life is. The night is cold; there isn’t anything green or growing in that season of the year. The only warm, living thing is the character, and he’s very small. By looking at this image, you will have an increased sense of the tiny, transient nature of your life.”

That meaning may or may not appeal to me next week or tomorrow. Still, for now, I can use it if somebody asks what the painting means, and I don’t feel like admitting it was only for typography practice and then talking about how the crosshatching took three hours. You can absolutely make up a meaning for a painting because it’s yours and you can do whatever you want with it.

Before I go, I want to tell you another secret: You don’t have to explain anything about your art. The enigma of the project could be part of the project deliberately.

I’ve seen movies that don’t say whether or not each character got a happy ending, and I think about those movies a lot more than I think about the ones where the characters got a post-credits epilogue telling us how much longer they lived and what they did with their lives.

Your paintings could stick with people in the same way if you decide to go the mysterious route!

At the end of the day, how you explain your art and whether or not you choose to do so are entirely up to you. There are benefits to knowing how and when to explain your art, deciding on one painting at a time. Remember, it’s yours, and you can do what you want! 

Elsa Wahlstrom is an illustrator and graphic novelist based in Minnesota. She specializes in all things cozy and calm, but adds humor where she can. When she isn’t drawing, she enjoys playing musical instruments, but you’re more likely to see her staring at some silly tree or something. 
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