How to Write an Artwork Essay

poster for How to Write an Artwork Essay

Mining Your Artwork for Meaning and Methods

I was recently in a funk with my artwork from so much sheltering in place and the repetition of my schedule, my meals, etc. I am not complaining; I have it pretty easy compared to many others. But the funk is still the funk! So I listened to the audio version of the New Yorker art critic, Jerry Saltz’s, How to Be an Artist. It worked. And led me to write an artwork essay about my current photo series.

One of his points that stuck with me was about placing one’s art in the current moment and not try to fit it into art standards or methods of the past. He inspired me to embrace my tools, my methods, and my results as being part of my creative commentary on today, for today.

This led me to decide to write an essay about my work. I’ve received a fair amount of praise for my self-portrait photo series, I AM: For the Love of Nature. Still, I felt there was more to it than either I or others had fully grokked.

I developed a process for how to write an artwork essay that uncovered all sorts of delightful gems and it helped me situate my work in the context of other artists who seem to have inspired me, unconsciously, while strengthening my unique statement. Since I’m the sharing type, I’m writing it up here for you to use as you wish for your own work.

Before We Begin the Artwork Essay

Last year I came across (sorry, I don’t know where or from whom!) two questions to ask while looking at your work:
1. What is it trying to say?
2. Who is it for?

This almost instantly unlocked a flood of words for me. Some took the form of titles for each image; others fed directly into the poems I’m writing for each image. If you believe that much art is channeled in a way, that inspirations come from the creative brain as much or more than the structural brain, then these two questions can be a gold mine. Even if we plan the shape and size and color and place of a piece of art, there is “always more to the story” in my opinion. Hence — we have many employed art critics!

I have actually asked a few people to write an essay about my series; this has come up when they are talking to me about it and they SO CLEARLY GET IT. Alas, people are busy and life happens, but my essay did not, so I decided to write this artwork essay — myself. One, I would have the end product and two, I expected I would learn even more about what I have made. Spoiler Alert: it worked so well that I am here encouraging you to try this process, too.

Step 1: Make an index card for each piece in your artwork essay.

photo of artwork title index cards by roxanne darling

I am usually a digital person, preferring to have text info on my computer where I can cut and paste, search and sort. But I’m a huge fan of Elizabeth Gilbert and she talks about her writing process using hundreds of index cards. I also know from a lot of writer training, that the mind sometimes works differently when writing by hand vs. typing. (Do read or listen to Big Magic, by Elizabeth Gilbert. Much longer than Jerry’s book, but also a strong call to believe in oneself and move forward.)

On each card, list the title at the top, then start adding bullet point descriptors. I found after doing a few that I noticed categories: colors, point of view of the camera, size of my body relevant to the landscape, and so on. Your descriptors will be unique for your art. Don’t worry about getting it all down on the first card; I revisited each artwork a few times as more patterns and ideas showed up during the process.

Step 2: Make an index card for each theme or concept.

photo of artwork themes index cards by roxanne darling

You can actually do this step while you’re doing Step 1. Several of these ideas were familiar to me before I started this. A few new ideas did appear as I was describing each artwork. In any case, I think you’ll want to list these elements on their own cards. I grouped mine on a few cards but next time I think I’ll make a card for each concept.

Step 3: Make an index card for each of your inspirations.

photo of artwork inspiration index cards by roxanne darling

For me, this was a lot of quotes, especially from other artists who I admire and who’ve made work similar to mine. This turned out to be really helpful! Before, this information would rattle around in my brain, not knowing where to land. On a good day, I loved that people compared me to Ana Mendieta or that I compared myself to Anne Brigman. But on a bad day, imposter syndrome sat beside me and sang the “Why bother?” blues over and over in my head.

Getting things out of my head and onto paper allowed my mind to move on to the bigger picture, without worrying I was going to lose or miss something. Also, a lot of the quotes were from articles reviewing the work of an artist I admire. That’s been a rich source of inspiration for me to learn more about the artists I like and to study how to write about art and artists.

Step 4: Get a very large sheet of paper to map out your ideas.

photo of artwork concept map for writing an artist essay by roxanne darling

If you’re doing this all in one session, you can get straight to this step. If you’ve had some time away and are coming back, take some time to read through all of your art and inspiration cards. This will move those details back to the front of your brain.

This part gets a little vague and non-specific, as it’s comparable to making a mind map. So start anywhere. I used a pencil so I could erase something if I wanted or move things around. I started by listing the main themes. As I did this, I could see that there were a few top-level ideas going on. Then I moved on to the ideas behind the themes. I ended up using both sides of an 11×14 piece of sketch paper.

Step 5: Start writing the essay.

The first four steps may be enough to help write a concise project statement or title your images or maybe a short blog post. I wanted a formal document I could send to gallerists and curators, though, so this is where the rubber met the road. I started to write the essay in a text doc on my computer. I had my notes in front of me and filed away each artwork and quote card as I used it, so I didn’t duplicate by accident.

I chose to write in the third person, for two reasons. First, I wanted to look at the work as an outsider could, but with the ability to provide my insider intelligence. Second, and this may be mostly bullshit, I felt the essay would have a more authoritative voice. I’m happy with my decision.

I didn’t exactly track my time on the writing. But I carved out some time to birth the first draft and that took a few hours. I’ve learned not to edit as I write the first draft — it lets the flow power through on its own. I let it sit for a day and then came back to do some editing. Surprisingly, it was in pretty good shape! I shared it with my partner, Shane, who is also an artist and a great proofreader. He thought it was really good. Still, I did two more rounds of edits over the course of a week. They were easy and enjoyable as I refined what I wanted to say and what images I wanted to include.

Voilá! The results.

You can visit the website I made just for this project at I AM: For the Love of Nature.

If you want to check out my essay, it’s here as a PDF. The Freedom to Be Found-in Nature by Roxanne Darling

P.S. For the math nerds: The essay took about 20 hours to make from start to finish. This post in and of itself took me about six hours to create. I hope you find something useful in it. Feel free to email me or chat on Twitter. Shane reminds me there are digital platforms that support this type of process of writing and linking things; if that’s your preference you can check out Obsidian app.

Sometimes people ask, so, yes, of course, you may share this! I’m starting to use Pinterest again. Here’s the pin if you want to save it to any of your boards. I also have tiny share buttons below, at the end of every post.