Ask a Gallery Owner | Should I include negative or depressing details of my life in my biography?

If you’ve been following me for long, you know that I am a huge advocate of the artists’ biography. I feel a well-written, nicely laid-out biography is a powerful tool that will help you build relationships with collectors and to 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.

ClarkBioOften, 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.

Suggestions:

  1. Don’t go into too much detail. Talking about the specifics of your challenge might be too much for a reader to handle.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

And finally,

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, distressful 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.

Sample Biography

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.

 

 

 

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About the Author: Jason Horejs

Jason Horejs is the Owner of Xanadu Gallery, author of best selling books "Starving" to Successful & How to Sell Art , publisher of reddotblog.com, and founder of ARTsala. Jason has helped thousands of artists prepare themselves to more effectively market their work, build relationships with galleries and collectors, and turn their artistic passion into a viable business. Connect with Jason on Facebook

27 Comments

  1. I am very open with my close friends, but would be more cautious about discussing challenges in public. My upbringing was geared toward “don’t whine” and “smile and go on.” I feel like I am being too self absorbed to share challenges. After all, the reader has their own and don’t need to be burdened much with reading about mine.

  2. In 1968 on my first day at the Art Institute of Boston, (now the College of Art & Design at Lesley University) my fine art painting instructor told us to “reach down deep inside, grab the demons in your gut, rip them out and thrown them on your canvas.” I didn’t … instead, I walked out, and changed my major to editorial illustration. Everyone has their own set of problems and difficulties so why would I want to contribute to the miseries of this world with my art when there was so much of a positive nature to share? There was enough darkness on the evening news back then with the body counts during the Vietnam War, the political assassinations of the 1960’s, the riots and burning cities of the civil rights movement and the looming nuclear threat of the “Cold War”. I think that things have deteriorated even more since I was young hence I feel stronger than ever about my commitment to preserve in paint the glories of the natural landscapes that inspire me and fill me with awe and wonder. Any difficulties that I may have had in my life are private and have no bearing on what I create.

    1. Frank, if there was a thumbs up here, I’d give you three or four of them for you and this post, and for your work. I feel the same, though I can’t say I’ve ever had much in the way of demons. The worst thing that came into my life was the loss of my parents; my mom to a long and difficult health issue and 10 years later –in the same month–my dad to a heart attack. They were my rocks. But the foundation they gave me has stood firm.

    2. Frank Wilson, I could not agree more! The current news gets more upsetting on a daily basis, so like you, I am focused on sharing the positive through my art. Nobody needs to hear about my personal trials and tribulations.

    3. Good for you! I keep seeing these dark ugly things called “art” and wonder why?! Why make any emphasis on the ugly of the world when there is so much beauty! Do people really buy that stuff and hang it in their environment?

  3. My life has had challenges, like just about every other person in our profession and on the planet. I understood early that customers do not want to hear bad news. After all you are trying to sell your art. If they ask about my previous profession, I simply keep it real general, like “It was time for a change” . If they ask “how’s business?” I dodge the question, saying “It is what it is” or “as good that can be expected”.

    Discuss your ups and downs with friends and loved ones, and if you need an outlet to discuss business. We all need to remember most of us will never make a great living doing our art, and if we make a living at all, and find some satisfaction doing it, it is the most rewarding of professions.

  4. My art is inspired by painful memories, so I had taken a direct approach in writing my bio. Then I realized it may have been to harsh. I decided to dramatize it a little bit using exaggeration and humor to lighten up the mood. Hopefully this can soften the impact and make my art more interesting.

    1. I’m new to the art world but I feel its a important part of how I got here to talk about the drastic changes in my life since 2012. I have found that if I’m honest about how I went from a Nurse, to the patient, to artist is important to what my art has brought to me and there for is brought out into my art. I’m not going to go into the gory details of my illness but I am going to talk about the art bringing me back from the dispare of losing my calling amd passion. To the Joy of finding a new calling to take me through the rest of my life. It’s not only my Bio but my TESTIMONY! It is done to uplift not to whine or bring darkness!

  5. I think this article is dead nuts on. I’ve witnessed a number of artist talks at galleries, etc., and given a couple myself. The ones that are all about the trials and tribulations, the pain and suffering, even if it all seems very relevant to the style or themes in the artwork, are still uncomfortable to listen to. They sound like they have less to do with the art and are more about a cry for help in front of a group of strangers. TMI… it’s not a support group. However, as much as those trials can be framed as being at the heart of what makes us human, that helps a lot—finding the common ground with your audience, rather than a woe-is-pitiable-ol’-me story, it can really enhance the communication. And, more central to this article, the story of how the art moved you through the pain or past the hurdle and into recovery, or expresses something that you have moved on from, beaten, or otherwise can put a positive growth spin on—that too is something people can relate to. Besides, if you define your work for your audience as being too specifically just about YOUR present pain, you are only distancing potential buyers from the work, because you aren’t allowing them to participate in the interpretation of it for themselves. Good article.

  6. Hi Jason. This is so timely for me! I have been working on a rewrite of my bio (I have decided to do a long and short version, since there seems to be such polar thoughts on what is wanted). I know “my story” is important to help people connect with me as a person and an artist. It helps them understand where I come from and so where my art comes from. However, I have lived through many extremely challenging things throughout my life. Yes, they would be “shocking” to people.
    As much as I am willing to be open about my experiences, I also feel that it has potential to paint a picture that is not really reflective of who I am and people who thought they could relate realize that they cannot… and they may want to run away from as fast as they can!
    I know how these bad experiences directly relate to pivots in my work though. And the “stories” can be explanations as to these shifts which may otherwise seem disconnected. In the end, I see it as a balancing act – explain enough to justify the change and help people feel connected but also not too much to alienate and scare away.

  7. I have had some horrendous challenges throughout my life, but no one needs to know the details and I believe they have no place in my artist biography. My art is about moving beyond life’s ugliness and celebrating its beauty.

  8. The example you have given stokes me as a magazine article and not a short biography. So are you saying we need another person to write about us? How many words should it be?

  9. I have had a number of ‘near death’ experiences which, at the time, I brushed over. It was only after a serious motor vehicle accident that I really took stock of my life and how fortunate I am to be not only alive but able to walk around. I have always loved animals and kept, reared or otherwise handled snakes, lizards, hedgehogs and many other animals. These now are my motivation in art. I like to paint the beauty of nature both animals and scenic and feel how blessed I am to have been spared to be able to do this. I feel I am surrounded by so much beauty and I want to share this with people as well as enjoy it for myself.

  10. The biography that appears in a portfolio or on a website is a bit like a first date . . .with a negative impression, there is little possiblity of connecting. We all experience challenges in life, but I can not imagine that a perspective customer/buyer/collector wants to hear about my trials and tribulations.
    Having recently “renovated” my own c.v. I was also interested to read Carolee Clark’s bio. The alternating third/first person works well (I battled with this), but I am surprised that it is so long. I would have thought that half the length is sufficient. Guess I am wrong on that?

  11. I agree with a lot of what’s being said here. I think it’s down to the individual and I am interested to read artists’ bios whether or not they choose to write about difficult experiences, but that’s me. I’m quite private and can’t help feeling that people don’t want to know about the negative stuff. If it comes up in conversation, then that’s OK. But I do feel there is a growing trend whilst putting yourself out there online as an artist that you have to “connect with people” by using social media to blather on about me-me-me and personal “stories”, in the guise that you are helping others. Do I really need to do that now in order for people to feel they can relate to me, in the hope they will buy my work? What is social about that? I honestly don’t think people are that interested and I wonder if in the long run it will just go against the work.

  12. Hi Jason,
    When customers see my art, I want them to smile, feel happy, rejoice, and enjoy. That said, I want my biography to carry the same vibe too. So definitely I would prefer to radiate optimism than any negative details in there.

  13. Is this for real? Everyone has/had issues in their life. Am I going to play the “woe is me” card in the hope of getting a sympathy sale? Maybe I should wear a bloody bandage on my ear or glue shoes to my knees or carry an empty Wild Turkey bottle about at my next show? Jason, honestly, I think this question is silly.

    1. Ian, I so wish my toaster was as shiny as yours. I love the ‘Toaster Selfies’ concept. Your comment here is a strong one, but you have a great wit- and not to trivialize your opinion, but you could be the stand-up comedian for artists. I mean that in the kindest sense. Your, “I should wear a bloody bandage on my ear” gave me my big laugh of the day. It’s a gift. I’ll bet you’re a good public speaker as well.

  14. I feel that being an artist requires me to be authentic and vulnerable. I had a traumatic childhood that was greatly healed in part by art. I don’t go into detail about my experiences, but I do talk about learning that in life as an adult, I choose my journey and how to view things–often in working through emotions in my work, I come to a point of exhilaration and joy. My sharing is not for sympathy but as an explanation of how art has empowered me and how that empowerment is expressed in my work. I feel naked often in sharing (I blog about my work & myself often) and I have many people who have appreciated the rawness of my openness and my work as a result.

  15. I think a bio should be an INTRODUCTION (not the entire story) of an artist and his/her work, touching on the five w’s and enticing viewers to explore their art, hopefully without maudlin tales or trite cliche’s. How long should a general bio be? The example was incredibly lengthy!

  16. I don’t think it’s necessary to disclose the challenges of your life in your biography. At one stage of my life my experiences were reflected in my art. I recently read an article that resonated with me. In essence it said that your art expresses what you need more of in your life and for me that is positive, soulful art that will hopefully also connect with the viewer.

  17. I absolutely see no reason in disclosing some hard and painful experience in an artist’s biography. It just has very little sense. Potential buyers are not going to comfort you, but are very likely to buy your art. Generally people nowdays like to hear more positive news and if they like a certain piece they really want to hear a story about it, not your life story. Basically they are strangers. Why should we share with them pain and stress we had in our lives? There should be no doubt about it. Another thing is a painting, which they happen to like and this painting is full of sadness and pain. They may ask an artist what drove him to create it. And an artist may shed some light and tell a small dramatic story, but it is important to finish it in a positive way.. yes, I had rough time, but now it’s over.. I am back on the track.. people love happy end!

  18. As an artist, I might want to know more about another artist’s journey in overcoming difficulties, but as an art buyer, I want to know where you believe your art started, where it’s been, and where you believe it’s going – As an artist, I want to know about you. As an art buyer, I want to know about your art.

  19. Personally, when I go to a gallery I just want to be left alone to look…and it doesn’t matter to me how nice a guy the artist is or what he used to do or that he travels to Europe often…the paintings have to stand on their own and my response to the works determines everything for me. Same at a fair…

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