Why Storytelling for Artists Works So Well

As an artist, your storytelling creates conversations abouut you when you aren’t there.

— Barney Davey

Effective communicators understand failing to answer this ever-present and unspoken question, “So what?” is a deal killer. You can’t bore people into giving you their attention, much less buy your art. So you should resolve to do your best to quit the bad habit of finding excuses to avoid telling Your Story.

There are terrific books on using Story as the centerpiece of your marketing. Building a StoryBrand: Clarify Your Message, So Customers Will Listen by Donald Miller. The other is Story Driven: You don’t need to compete when you know who you are by Bernadette Jiwa. Both are business books primarily, but the lessons and insights differ. The messages from both apply to artist-entrepreneurs.

Here is the framework from Bernadette’s TheStoryofTelling.com:

How to Find Yourself in the Art Business
Success leaves tracks — learn to find and follow them here.

The Story-Driven Framework by Bernadette Jiwa

  • Strategy – align opportunities, plans, & behavior
  • Vision – aspiration for the future
  • Purpose – a reason to exist
  • Values – guiding beliefs
  • Backstory – journey to now

I suggest you read those essential points carefully to let them sink in deeply. Even better, read the book.

Bernadette tells us there is an alternate path to success that doesn’t hinge on the concept of competing to win. I think this idea will resonate more with artists than the general population.

Quoting Bernadette Jiwa, who says:

Every one of us—no matter where we were born, how we were brought up, how many setbacks we’ve endured, or privileges we’ve been afforded—has been conditioned to compete to win. Ironically, the people who create fulfilling lives and careers—the ones we respect, admire, and try to emulate—choose an alternative path to success.

They have a powerful sense of identity. They don’t worry about differentiating themselves from the competition or obsess about telling the right Story. Instead, they tell the real Story instead. Successful organizations and the people who create, build, and lead them don’t feel the need to compete because they know who they are, and they’re not afraid to show us.

How to Find Yourself in the Art Business
Success leaves tracks to find and follow.

Why the “So What?” Question Dims Buyers’ Interest

When you say you have an MFA from Rhode Island School of Design, the unspoken reply is, “So what?” If you tell me going to RISD was a lifelong ambition growing up because your favorite artist, Jenny Holzer, is a graduate, you gain my interest. If you further tell me that getting into RISD was nearly impossible for personal and financial reasons and that the admission process was the easy part, I’m all in. I want to know more because you have intrigued me with the human-interest aspect of your Story. I need to know what happened.

You’ve Got More Storytelling Pizazz Than You Think

It may seem that your Story is not as dramatic as the example I’ve given. You might be right or not. What is more likely is your Story is unique, more than you realize. It’s natural. You have lived every day, so how can you not take things that others find fascinating for granted? Besides, it’s a good bet you are too modest when tooting your horn.

It is typical for many people, and perhaps for sensitive artist types, to tamp down touting themselves and their work. Such conditions strengthen the argument of “art for art’s sake.” I get how anyone would feel that art should sell on its merits as a work of art. It seems the natural order of things should be that way. But it’s just not so now and never was. More goes into the psychology of why people buy art.

Backstories Are Part of the Arc of Storytelling

In a situation where all things are relatively equal in the “art for art’s sake” category for potential collectors considering several pieces, the backstory will seal the deal. Your brand, reputation, and backstory are part of your storytelling arc.

Most buyers intend to show their new artwork in a place of honor. They anticipate comments and questions about it. You can expect they will enjoy sharing engaging tidbits about the artist because they bought the artist and the artist’s Story as much as the art.

How to Find Yourself in the Art Business
Success leaves tracks — learn to find and follow them here.

Storytelling about Your Art Creates Proud, Fun Moments

Just imagine a new buyer’s pride in mentioning that Georgia O’Keeffe inspires this artist. And how the artist went to great lengths to follow in O’Keeffe’s footsteps. She attributes her guiding light in creating artwork to this great quote:

It is only by deduction, by elimination, by emphasis, that we get at the real meaning of things.

— Georgia O’Keeffe


The new owner proudly tells an appreciative viewer that you can see the O’Keeffe influence in her work when you know details from the artist. And that’s why they had to buy it. And now that viewer is educated and informed about the artist, and perhaps a new buyer or fan.

As an artist, your stories create conversations about you when you aren’t there.

— Barney Davey

It’s Phenomenal How Word-of-Mouth Works!

Word-of-mouth happens because you enable it with storytelling. It lights the path from an avid collector to an evangelist. Storytelling cultivates art buyers who exert influence in your favor. They’re happy to have evolved in their relationship with you, starting with stories of your art and you.

Art Chose You

I’ve often said most artists did not choose to become artists; it’s more like art selected them to become artists. You know it’s not the easiest career path on multiple levels. But you chose it nevertheless because you were compelled to do so. Perhaps over the objection of your family, who hoped you’d be a teacher, a doctor, or any career with a steady salary.

Indeed, some version of what I just said is your Stomust need to flesh it out, make it real, and find the human interest angle. Was there a life-changing moment, or did you overcome an unforeseen difficulty? Did you receive an opportunity from the most unexpected source? What zigs and zags did your path to becoming an artist take?

Your history is an outline waiting for the twists and turns that make it unique to you. Every piece of art you make traces back to your origin story of why and how you became an artist. It would help if you never embellished it to make it enjoyable. By that, I mean don’t hide pain or failures because they are part of being human and are naturally intriguing. Most often, it takes time to drill down to the real nuggets… but it is oh so worth it!

Every Piece of Art Has a Backstory

Up to now, the conversation is about your backstory, which is essential. Storytelling goes beyond and delves into the truth that all art has a backstory. Read this 2008 interview, Every Piece of Art Has a Backstory, with the artist Mary Heilmann. She discusses her formative years in California, her evolution from literature to ceramics to painting, and many inspirations, including video games and roadways.

There is no guarantee your Story will come easy; sometimes, you must dig deep for it.

Here is a fictional interview showing how to get the heart of the matter:

Q: You chose to follow Georgia O’Keeffe and use her life and art as an influence. Why?
A: Because she is a strong, independent woman and a free thinker.
Q: Okay, but why are those attributes important to you?
A: I want to live life on my terms, not dictated by others.
Q: Why is living life on your terms as a free thinker necessary?
A: I have seen what happens when someone takes charge of their life.
Q: Tell me more.
A; When independence, peace of mind, clarity, and purpose align, it allows artists to live their higher self and be of service in ways not possible when others rule your life.
Q: Keep going.
A: I believe women hold the keys to the safety, security, sanctity, and sanity of our world. I want to inspire women to become leaders. Women must take control if we are ever to avoid war, famine, global warming, and unacceptable inequality.

Self-awareness Is a Generous Gift Artists Give Themselves

Okay, that little made-up scenario may or may not resonate with you. Hopefully, it gives insight into what happens when you drill down with total honesty and self-awareness. You’ll get to that objective spot where the truth lies and where the foundations of your Story exist.

You can drill down in the same Socratic method with the art you create. Nothing happens in a vacuum. Everything around us informs, inspires, incites, and moves us in ways we don’t always recognize without introspection. The lyric and melody of a song, the color scheme of some object, the art of your heroes, the shape of a bicep, the undulating curves of a roadster, how light shimmers and falls through tree limbs at sunset, the sound of a brook babbling or children laughing at something silly, and so on.

It’s All in There Even If You Don’t Notice

Nothing escapes your notice. Your conscious mind may not always “take a note to self,” but your unconscious mind rarely lets anything slip. When you conceptualize a new piece, any or all of your overt and hidden influences come to bear.

You don’t need a psychological evaluation and breakdown of every instance and nuance in your life to do a backstory. It’s just helpful to recognize what influences you and your work. You draw me closer when you help me understand you and how your work came into existence. Just as with friends and lovers, only when we both let our guard down do we have a chance to make a meaningful connection.

Selling Art Is Not Serendipitous

Those who most likely align with you in ways that cause them to want to buy your artwork may not have their guard down iniBut, likely. But, like a friendly smile, your authentic backstory invites a buyer to be open and let your work inspire and influence them.

Entice your potential patrons with your storytelling and then let the art for art’s sake value of your work close the deal.

— Barney Davey

My Story

I write this blog because it is an artistic endeavor for me. I have always had a way with words and the desire to use them. The blog is my creative outlet; it is my art, if you will. I’m inspired to help artists because my mother, a talented visual artist, taught me to love art early.

In a decades-long pursuit as an ad exec for a visual arts business magazine and art trade show producer, I worked with hundreds of successful artists. I learned powerful lessons from their stories. Their experiences, good and bad, became priceless bits of wisdom that helped me to help artists.

Having the chance to use my words, skills, and experience to be a guiding light for artists gives me joy and a sense of satisfaction. I was drawn to doing this work. I aim for my words to provide you with enlightenment, encouragement, and pleasure.

How to Find Yourself in the Art Business
Success leaves tracks — learn to find and follow them here.

Leave a Reply