The art of communication

Art class

At the weekend I was lucky enough to go along to a painting class with the wonderful Jane from Be in Art. For some time now I’ve been looking for a class like this, so when I saw this one via a tweet from a friend, I jumped at the chance to go along. Jane’s home studio is a wonderful, light-filled room at her home in Oxford and is the perfect place to have a go with paints.

During the morning Jane, my classmate Olivia and I chatted, painted, ate hot cross buns – it was Easter after all – and chatted some more. Jane encouraged us to just have a go with the paints and see what happened, using brushes and fingers to work with the paint on the paper in any way we wanted. I found that I really enjoyed using my hands to spread the paint around, mixing colours and making shapes freely. It was hard at first to make art that was simply a freedom of movement and stop myself thinking ‘but what is it supposed to be’? Jane’s sessions are about encouraging you to have fun with the materials and create something without rules – there is no pressure for your art to ‘be’ anything other than an enjoyable experience for you at that time.

One of the topics we discussed was the difficulty of writing explanations of art for exhibition labels, catalogues and so on. When you have created something with art materials, that is an act of expression and communication in itself. It is communicating in a visual way and very different to the written word. It is as if the painting is in one language and the written word is in another. And yet, as Jane said, there are times, such as exhibitions, when the artist is expected to write something, when the audience has expectations of something to help them understand.

This discussion stayed with me after the session. I generally advise anyone wishing to communicate that they should start by thinking about ‘why’ they want to communicate. What do they want to achieve? What do they want their audience to do, think or feel? Then I tell them that they need to consider their audience and build a deeper understanding of their world and perspective, what are they motivated by and what’s their experience of your subject matter? You can then look at how to communicate in a way that will produce your desired outcome in a group with these interests and motivations.

Thinking about our conversation in Jane’s light and airy studio on Saturday, I started to wonder how my strategic approach to communication might work (or not) when communicating about art. How often have you heard or read something about a piece of art and thought it sounded pretentious, convoluted or downright nonsense? I suspect that this comes from the fact that what you read has been written solely from the artist’s own perspective and without thinking about the intended audience.

Perhaps if the exhibition labels were written from the perspective of the audience, they would be very different. If you start by thinking about what you want the audience to think, feel or do, this usually leads to a different way of expressing what you want to say. You are able to identify any gaps between what you want to say and what your audience wants to hear, then look at ways to bridge those gaps. A strategic approach to writing labels and catalogues could provide a framework for artists to do that.

On the other hand, maybe artists should simply let their artwork do the talking and not worry about the translation into the ‘language’ of the spoken word…..

Art work

I loved my class with Jane and having a go at creating something on paper in a way I had never tried before. I would highly recommend the experience to others. Luckily, I don’t think I’m likely to be holding an exhibition any time soon, so how I communicate about my art to others isn’t going to be a problem!

Until next time

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