If you’ve been following me for long, you know that I am a huge advocate of the artist biography. I feel a well-written, nicely laid-out biography is a powerful tool that will help you build relationships with collectors and give you credibility. A biography allows a potential customer to become acquainted with your background and get to know you, even if the buyer can’t meet you in person.
Often, when I’m discussing biographies, I hear some variation of the question:
“Should I include negative or depressing details of my life in my biography?”
This is a thorny issue, and I would like to spend a few minutes today discussing it and, hopefully, provide some guidance that will help you decide how to handle unpleasant details in your biography.
First, let’s stipulate that many artists have lead extremely challenging lives. Many of you have overcome incredibly adverse circumstances or terrifying events to become the artists that you are today. Like it or not, those challenges have likely had a huge impact on your life and have helped shape who you are and your outlook on life. To a certain extent, your followers can’t truly understand you without understanding those events. However, sharing your difficult background should be done with care – you wouldn’t want to shock or depress a customer to the point that they no longer feel like buying your work.
The main purpose of your biography is to help people make a connection to you, to help them understand where your art comes from, and to help them move toward a purchase. With that in mind, if you are going to include references to difficult life experiences, you should strive to do so in a way that emphasizes not the problem, but rather the amazing way you overcame it and went on to become the amazing artist you are today.
- Don’t go into too much detail. Talking about the specifics of your challenge might be too much for a reader to handle.
- Avoid shocking language. Words like “abuse,” “assault,” “murder,” etc. are all very heavy, challenging words. While it may be good to provide some insight into your life, shocking words have the power to completely transform a person’s perspective and thought process about you and your work.
- Keep the general narrative positive. While talking about your past can be powerful, focusing on the process you used to overcome your challenges will inspire. Share how the pain of your life has made your work better.
All of your life experiences belong to you, and no one can force you to share what you don’t wish to. If a life experience is just too raw, distressing, or embarrassing, or if you just aren’t ready to face the pain, you should feel no obligation to do share. I know of many artists who have chosen to gloss over or forget about incredibly difficult experiences. If you don’t feel comfortable sharing your life with the world – don’t. Focus instead on other aspects of your life that are positive.
Read the biography we helped Carolee Clark create to get ideas of the types of details and formatting we suggest for your artist’s biography. Note that Carolee’s bio does not reference negative life experiences – this is just a sample to show you how useful a biography might be for you.
What Do You Think?
Have you shared your difficult life experiences in your biography? Why or why not? How has your biography helped you build better relationships with clients and make more sales?
Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below.
Jason is correct when he advises not to get too detailed or lengthy with your past hardships or obstacles. Although it may be pertinent to how you got to where you are as an artist, the public is likely to get lost, somewhere along the way, or even be turned off if you get to wordy about your personal life. Focus on your technique and why you are creating what you create. At times there are things in an artist’s work which are not real apparent to the public. Point those things out, and the significance they play in your work without over stating the facts. That is what will bring more light on your commentary.
My bio has a very brief statement about my vision issues which helps explain my style and how I turned something negative into something positive. I don’t mention the 7 eye surgeries I’ve had in the past few years, just that I have very limited vision due to what I call “stupid eye”
Once folks understand this, it really helps them understand my artwork and it definitely helps sell my work
Adversity is part of the “landscape” each person inhabits.
It’s not so much the difficulties, life-changing events, etc. as it is what we do with them.
Put yourself in the shoes of the listener for a moment.
What is your reaction to someone giving you the date, time, location and blow by blow of the tragic event?
If you are like me, you don’t really need or want to be there. They have not exactly dealt with it themselves.
What would be your reaction to someone who in one or two quick sentences says something to the effect of, “This (fill in the blank) happened to me a while ago.” As a result, I’ve been able to do ____. No pity required and no time shift to the past.
I’m listening to myself read what I just wrote. I ought to take my own advice.
That’s a very helpful prompt, thank you. It helps me better re-write my own lines on this very topic.
That’s definitely the best approach to this kind of info, but even then I would ask “does this enhance or detract from the primary narrative of my bio?”
I’m thinking, whatever you include as an “event” should have a conclusion in your artwork and how you work.
The hard part I think is staying focused and directed toward the purpose of the artist biography.
It is important probably essential to have a second or third pair of eyes on the bio- and a red pencil.
I process much of my personal adversity through poetry. What I’ve done in showing art is to post a poetic piece next to the visual so that the emotions evoked complement each other. I’m still learning what people want to hear in a bio. Process seems to interest potential buyers, either in conceiving the art or executing.
I think artist biographies are boring most of the time, and that artists should stick mostly to writing about their work and what informs their practice, and only include personal details if it is relevant to the content of their work. “I started painting at a young age” and “I switched from watercolors to acrylics” and “My family had paintings hung in their house”, etc. etc. That’s all very boring stuff. Don’t care. Don’t care.
They may be boring to us because we’ve heard the details in other artist bios, but a collector isn’t coming at it from the same angle you are – they want to know about the creator’s background. A well-written biography is an awesome tool for an artist and for galleries.
I agree that a well written background helps create a connection to the potential clients and to your audience. As for the negative details, there are obviously some circumstances where beg for a fuller story, as in the case of my artist friend Stephanie who had an accident that left her a quadrapelegic, which is not a fact she can hide.She has trained her self to use what little muscle power she has left to paint horses, which she loves and she is also a rider, despite her situation. So this is a remarkable and inspiring story, as tragic as her accident was. It made me want her work more not less. But normally, I’d advise against it , not to be dishonest, or to hide anything, but to be considerate and wise is to stress the good in your life.
Is it just me, or is this really long? I had no idea I should go into such depth. I, personally couldn’t read the whole thing, just too much, although I’m sure it has lots of pertinent info. I’ll go back and real it all, later and see how I feel then. Maybe it’s because I’m very visual, I have a hard time concentrating on lots of text.
let your art speak,clients should not end up feeling burdened by your issues. Unless they are the help everyone personality you just lost a sale. If upon meeting a client in person there is an interaction that is appropriate for that discussion then do so. in a bio not really. Personal example; my clients are mainly highly successful individuals who have limited time and emotional capacity to burden themselves with others issues , outside of their tight inner circle. Most know i have high level global collectors, what i paint and something about how and why. They do not generally know that i have lived for years in wheelchairs and often paint strapped into a harness that allows me to stand. They know i have had physical and neurological issues for a lifetime but very few specifics more than that until the relationship becomes of a more personal nature. Focus on the art not upon yourself. Allow the client the grace to discover you and your art over time, that is how they become friends and collectors. By doing so you earn their respect and loyalty.
After reading your suggestion in an earlier post, or maybe it was in the class, I added something of my past to my bio. When I was interviewed for Womankind Magazine about the inspiration for my pensive women in surreal environments mixed media pieces it seemed necessary to explain that I was raised in the shadow of The Holocaust by two survivors parents. It took decades to permit myself to paint images of beauty as it didn’t seem respectful after all the darkness of my family. I now explain that bringing beauty to the thoughtful looking women is my way of combining two opposing elements and bring meaning and optimism into my own life. I think most people have gone through some level of suffering and can relate to that.
Agree with earlier comments from Trish. That particular biography was very long. I would not expect most websites or other correspondence to go into such detail. I do think a little background is helpful, where you grew up, how you were exposed to Art, and where you found your love of art, etc. Excellent article, as usual, from Jason.
I don’t have traumatic background to be cautious about. But I do have what I think of as shortcomings, and people usually find them fascinating when they know about them. They serve as “conversation pieces” to carry us deeper into the art in conversation than we might otherwise manage. A good example is that most of the time, I don’t know what I’m doing, or know what I’m going to do, when I start. I just start, and what I’m going to do emerges out of that. While I sometimes think of that as a disadvantage, no one has ever responded negatively to it. Instead, they accept it as part of my process. and want to know mopre. That helps us dig deeper into the process of discovery, and people seem to appreciate the depth of insight it brings them..
I am deaf with a cochlear implant. I do not talk about the gradual and then sudden loss of my hearing. It comes up sometimes when I am at an art show/art festival selling and people notice the device on my head. I briefly explain what it is and how it allows me to be part of the hearing world, how without it I would not be able to hear them. The response is always a Wow! as most people have never heard of the technology. But sometimes I meet someone who has a friend or relative with a CI or has one themselves. It is definitely a vehicle of conversation and it is easy to segway the conversation towards my paintings and my how important art is on my life.
I think this could be approached in the same way as any relationship, in that you will start out showing a general idea of who you are through your work and how you talk about it. This will naturally draw others of a similar mind towards you (and/or your artwork) and gradually over time you will develop deeper and more meaningful connections with these people.
Thereafter it will be more appropriate to open up or share as much as you wish, just like with any friend or relationship, too much to soon could be off putting and difficult to un-know.
I think you can mention briefly a “sad” situation that have impacted your work because it is part of your story and your art making. For instance I mentioned at an artist panel that , health reasons and doctors orders, forced me to stop doing etchings and other techniques that used chemicals and had fumes. I moved on to linoleum cuts and water base inks which changed my works a bit etc etc. I didn’t have to say I had had 5 miscarriages and was under infertility treatment . My work evolved because of this particular situation. Actually I am very happy where it got in 40 years.