Wednesday, May 13, 2009

How to Answer the Inevitable Question, Part One

(Image: Sidewalk Poppies, oil, 30" x 30")

We're still getting great comments on "13 Things NOT to Say to an Artist". A few painful, but many outrageously funny.
You've also given me an idea for a topic today. Several of you mentioned the discomfort that can ensue when someone asks what you do, and you reply (if you're brave enough!) "I'm an artist", which is usually followed by "Oh, what kind of art?"

As visually oriented people, we often find talking about our work difficult. For obvious reasons, though, we need to find words for these moments. Most non-artists are genuinely fascinated by artistic types; they assume we possess some mystique and super powers (don't you wish??).

Here's some ideas to get you past that tough question:
  • The "Elevator Speech"
  • The art business card
  • The event or informative art card

Above: a simple business card based on 'Sidewalk Poppies' painting

First, the "Elevator Speech".

I first heard this term at an art marketing workshop. The idea was to think of yourself with a stranger in an elevator, and you have the time it takes to go between floors to explain your work. This means sifting through the self doubt, leaving out the extraneous words. (And by extraneous consider this: Did you ever have a kid in your junior high class, who when asked a question (say, "What is the symbolism of the whale in Moby Dick"), would mutter and stall for minutes at a time: "Um, well, I don't like really know, but I think maybe, y'know, it kinda, um, could mean, like, symbolistically, y'know, like DUUUDE!!! WHOAAA! Like an awesome wave or something maybe?" -- or maybe you WERE that kid...?)

What we're shooting for is a short, succinct statement that distills the essence of what you do. Personally I think 5-7 words should do it. At that point, you'll have either caught their interest enough that you can go further, or you'll see that they've heard enough, and were only asking to be polite. Think 5-7 words is too short? Try these:

  • Large-scale contemporary botanicals in oils

  • Hand loomed natural fiber tapestries

  • Portraiture in the tradition of the Old Masters

  • Miniature woodcut prints of exotic animals

  • Plein air seascapes of Coastal Maine
    (or better yet just: "Seascapes of Coastal Maine"
    Thanks to Nancy ,who pointed out that a lot of non-artists draw a blank at 'plein air')

Another way to think of it might be to imagine you're being written up by an art critic (who likes your work)-- what's your best case scenario for a winning headline? (and you can't use this one, it's taken: "Local Artist to be Hung in Famous Gallery and Widely Exhibited!")

Preparation is the key. You're going to get asked, you know it, so you may as well be ready. It can be very helpful to practice this with a friend or friends. They can be artists or not; you may find it helpful to practice with both. Imagine what some followup questions might be, and practice answers to those as well.

In a later post, I'll talk more about business cards, if you like, and also event and promotional postcards: where to get them, how to set them up, etc.

In the meantime, I'm curious, what's YOUR answer when asked what kind of art you do? And do you carry an art business card to hand out? I'd like to post some examples of art business cards, so if you'd like to, send me a .jpg of yours to the email shown on the business card above. Thanks!


  1. "Local Artist to be Hung in Famous Gallery and Widely Exhibited" is as funny as some of the questions! An artist friend of mine has a t-shirt she wears when painting outdoors that reads on the back, "Do you mind if I paint while you look over my shoulder?" We might as well go through life with a sense of humour. Maybe when we are asked a funny question we should just laugh.

  2. Your painting of the poppies is beautiful. I love how the shadow color compliments the flower. Your post made me laugh out loud, thank you!
    In response to your question..."I am an oil painter, my subject is mostly figurative". It makes me laugh when I say I am an artist or an oil painter and people respond "really?". It must be because I am not wearing my beret. HA!

  3. I actually guffawed when I read your post today. Thanks for the laugh and the seed you planted in getting my 5-7 answer ready for the next time I'm asked.

    In my past career, I used to answer, "Sanitation Worker".

  4. Hi R.,
    My what a beautiful card, and super question.
    The elevator -- look down at my feet and pretend
    I'm not there. (Kidding). Flash a huge smile
    and say I'm a portrait artist -- not traditional -- somewhere around the 1920s Group of Sevenish -- very au courant. In short, I'd better work on the quick response. How about this? Portrait artist, large scale, vibrant colours. I make business cards on the spot for most occasions. So if I've just done your portrait, you're the face on my card. You've got me thinking R.

    Great painting and super blog!!!!

    Take care,


  5. Great topic and advice, R!
    I will practice for sure. I wasn't that kid in your story but I haven't yet narrowed it to seven words.
    When I respond to the question, "I am a artist,who paints full time", many first reactions are(hand gestures follow with vertical movements such as wall painting or tiny wrist motions to indicate 'artiste')"this kind or this"? Funny.

  6. I carry two types of cards. The first is my business card. lets you order a different pic for as many cards as you want so I have six paintings that I rotate. I also have their mini card which are half the size. People love this one. You can a mini masterpiece each time you get a!
    Thanks for sharing your info!

  7. Hi Joyful! If I ever take up Plein Air I'm going to need one of those shirts!

    Thanks, Dana, that was one of those paintings I could've sold six of... I may paint another version on of these days. And thanks for sending your business card! It's excellent!

    Hi Sheila, Reminds me of a very pretty friend I had in college. When she'd meet a guy and he would ask her where she worked, she always said "At a mortuary." Invariably the would-be suitor would walk away, thinking he'd been dissed. But that really is where she worked.

    Thanks Barbara, and I think you're more than half way there! how about..."Non traditional portrait artist, large scale, vibrant colours"...!

    Thanks Cathy; I think when most people ask what we do, there are more interested in the final prodcut; the full time or part time only matters to us.

    Thanks Manon! Would love to see your cards.

  8. Thank you so much for bringing up this topic; you're the best. Ok, Sidewalk Poppies has to be my favorite painting of, love, love the composition, and the colors, and the dancing shadows, and just everything!

    I'm so glad Manon mentioned; they've been on my list to order new business cards and the little mini cards are pretty cute. A while back I switched to post cards because I can show a variety of work. They've been quite popular as I've reordered several times...will send one your way.

  9. Love this thread - People always assume art is just a "hobby." For someone like me (who doesn't like to be too outspoken, but yet likes to be taken seriously) telling people what I do is always a hard question to answer. What about when after you tell somebody you are a portrait artist and then they want "a little $50 painting of their niece?" I guess like I must not look like a "real" artist. :) That is the hardest part - telling them that you would be happy to provide them with a portfolio and price list while fully knowing that is not what they expect! :)
    Like the rotating paintings card idea!
    LOVE the poppies!!

  10. First, that poppy painting is exceptional in a field of your exceptional work. I really like it.
    Second... Another interesting and useful post... THANK YOU for both! I'm sure I SHOULD stop humming and hawing when people ask me questions like that!!
    I also think I'll look up Manon's website... sounds interesting!!!
    I usually make my own business cards that way I can vary the images.

  11. Hi R., you pointed your finger to a big problem to me, I feel very difficult to call myself "an artist", I'm still in that fase where I don't really know what I am... is an artist anyone who produce an artcraft? Or is an artist anyone whose sign is on catalogs?
    Ok, go figure if I'm at this point how I can define what I do! LOL :)
    Your idea to train is quite good, and I'll try to do it!

    I'm veeeryy muccchh interested in hearing you on business and promotional cards, I produced some by myself and am still not much happy about it, so, please go ahead.

    Loredana (from Italy)

  12. A very inspiring post for the likes of me..made me really think abt it..
    I am an amateur artist. I ne'er used to say I am artist earlier, now-a-days I do. I like that. And I want to be one. So I keep repeating it to reinforce:)

    I've taken it up very seriously. It was my hobby. I am self-taught and now I wanna be a really good artist. I am concentrating on it. I even made a business card a few weeks back when I was to display my work. Thanks for making me think and pour my thoughts here. felt nice:)

    Have a nice day!

  13. Whimsical Collage and acrylic paintings involving birds??

    Love your topics. You always get right to the heart of issues we face every day. It's always nice to laugh first, and then think seriously about the questions raised. Thanks for that.

    Your poppies are luminous!

  14. I just love the flowers here, the clear realism is sooooo attractive. What an amazing result.

  15. I do have a standard answer, which does change over time, I suppose a lot like our own growth in any medium.

    “I just like to create. It can be any medium”

    I started doing watercolours and then got into photography for now almost 10 years.

    In the past few months I have been learning and exploring oils as a medium.

    You can see an small oil painting in the latest blog entry and if you click on the painting and drawing label you will see other items.

    I always carry a business card, self printed on photo stock paper, see link below.

    When I strike up a conversion in this case about photography I try and hand one out if they indicate they read photography blogs and also say

    “this would also make a good bookmark”

    Line to image of business card.

    I am working on a new blog that will incorporate all mediums I use and then I will make a new card.

    Niels Henriksen

  16. Hi Angela, You're so kind! thanks for the nice compliments!

    Hi Anne, you have an interesting point. How many other professions have to tag the word 'Professional' in front of their title to be taken seriously? Can you imagine someone saying, 'I'm a Professional Middle Manager"?

    Thank you, Marian!

    Hi Loredana, thank you for your comments. I think one is an artist when they believe enough in themselves to say it out loud: "I am an artist"!

    deepazartz. I'm glad you are inspired! Belief in ourselves is essential to anyone else believing in us.

    Thanks, Elizabeth! Your art statement is so close to ready... How about, "Whimsical paintings of birds in acrylics and collage"...?

    Thanks Sandra! This is one of my favorites.

    Thanks for your comments, Niels!
    Very nice card!

  17. Oh what a great post - and a great question! For years when folks asked me what I did, I would say I was the director of a medical research journal for emergency physicians. Now I smile and say "I am an artist. I paint flowers, Big paintings, three foot by four foot. Pots and pots of flowers." I don't use big words. I don't use french words and say things like plein air. If they don't paint, you lose them if you talk like that. Then I hand them my card (always in my pocket) and ask if I can send them my newsletter and get their email.

  18. Love the business card and the post definitely provokes my thought process. I generally tell people I'm a glass artist and software developer (I do both). That allows them to ask more questions if they want.

    I always carry business cards and I am in the process of designing post cards, so I will be anxious to read your thoughts about post card designs.


  19. This is a wonderful post, and yes, please do continue with your thoughts on bus. cards & post cards.

    Elevator speech:" Oil painting, usually still lifes, odd subjects". LOL, if I add that the subject might be stacked eggshells, or buttons they move ever so slightly away...

    I do use business cards, rotating through several images (yes, including those eggshells!) None of mine have the striking punch of your poppies though - what a gorgeous painting!

  20. OMG R, I have struggled with this! I thought I was just being brave by saying I'm and artist! (Isn't that ALL I have to say!) Wasn't expecting the follow-up questions. Then I'm basically the junior high student, looking down at my feet,um... I paint a variety of subjects (in no particular style). Wow, I need to work on that!

    Great everyone's comments too!

  21. Great painting, i love the card and your blog. Always fun always so smart.
    I am asking myself daily: R u an artist?
    I would love to be one day.

  22. Thanks, Nancy, I edited the post with your comment in mind. You're right, the average non-artist is unlikely to be familiar with the phrase 'plein air'.

    Thank Kathleen, and for sending your card, too!

    Thanks Terry! I LOVE your stacked egg shells. but then I've seen the pictures! Your comment is a good example of why I like to carry business cards or postcards with artwork on them; so much easier than trying to explain it.

    Michelle, you ARE brave to say you're an artist; we ALL are! Because it can open us up to both admiration and dismissal, acceptance and dissection.

    Irit: Yes, U R the artiste. Anyone who paints as often and consistently as you is indeed an artist. Just keep repeating to yourself that U R.

  23. R, I don't have an elevator answer for you (expressive oil paintings is all I can come up with so far) but I just want to say, you rock. Thanks for all this food for thought and for providing this cool forum for us to all brainstorm together. I too await these other discussions about cards and postcards. Thanks for the great tips so far! (no need to thank me back :)

  24. I just say "I paint critters" That seems to take my inquirer to the stage of Uh. Um. Oh. we.e..ll. Of course that really confuses them when you are working on a landscape and thus more explanation must then be rendered. After having fun with an answer to such questions though I think on has to be careful with ones remarks as these are after all potential clients or a link to a client.
    Of course the one I like is "Oh you paint pitchers" Gosh I never have.
    That is a great Poppy painting you have done. Love that contrast.

  25. Geez, I'm late to the party... Great post R. and wonderful painting!

    The business cards are great marketing tools and great conversation starters. Where ever I go, my cards are with me.

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  27. Okay, now I'M late to the party... trying to catch up on my thanks yous.

    Camille, I appreciate you stopping by and joining the conversation. My 'elevator' needs work too. I usually cop out with a card.

    Gary, thanks for bringing your engaging wit to the table. I like both phrases. How 'bout Critters in Pitchers.

    Thanks Doug, for the reinforcement, and any corrections to my wandering posts are always welcome. It's been long enough away from the old style that I've lost some of the technical terms.

  28. Hello R,

    Thank you for visiting my blog and for the kind comments you left. Was very glad to find your blog... so much valuable information with the added bonus of being written with humor and style! Thanks for sharing your knowledge. Your art is eye-popping... LOVE those poppies.. wow!


Thank you for your kind comments! They always make my day.