The Art of Conversation

Years ago, a small gallery was hosting a show of my work. Before the opening reception, the owner took me aside and said: “I’ve listened to you talk with people in the gallery about your paintings. What you choose to say is interesting, but you’re missing a great opportunity. The public is much more interested in the things that you fail to mention, such as why you’re an artist or how you choose your painting subjects. If you talk about those two things, you’ll find they’ll be far more invested in your work.”

Trying not to take offense, I had to admit that I did talk about painting methods and materials more than anything else. Other artists liked to share anecdotes about successes and failures in the creative process, and nonartists I met through the gallery had always asked specific questions about how, when and where I paint. Still, I decided to follow the owner’s advice and lead, rather than follow, what the clients and I talked about. Not only did I start enjoying the conversations more than before, but the subject matter was, in fact, more stimulating for all involved. Others began to tell me about their reactions to my paintings as well as the various ways they related to my subjects. Not coincidentally, I began selling more paintings.

Refining small talk One thing I’ve learned over the years is that when people approach me, they aren’t sure how to talk to me about my art, so they often lead with anything just to break the ice. The most common questions are “How long did it take you to paint that?” and “Do you just do watercolors?” Understanding the reasons behind these questions has helped me refine my conversational skills to better engage my customers. Try these three tips and see the difference they make.

1. Be prepared to redirect opening questions. When approached with the “How long?” question, instead of my pat answer regarding time (“It takes hours of practice to learn shortcuts”), I now say, “What’s really interesting is why I picked that subject.” I then launch into why I chose to paint what I did and how exciting it was to execute the idea on paper.

Customers seem to like the shift, and I think the reason is that they learn about inspiration rather than process. They’re curious about how I decide upon a project. They become invested in what I’m trying to convey, and I can tell sometimes that my remarks have an influence on the way they view the work.

2. Know why you paint. Art is one of those pursuits that many of us would do regardless of fame and fortune, and folks are naturally interested in why we would do that. I don’t believe that what drives us must be something terribly profound. Some of us paint for the joy of manipulating the materials or for the pleasure of creating something out of nothing. Some seek to portray the beauty in their lives. Others paint to draw attention to something, whether it’s positive or negative, social or physical, real or imagined. Some want to express a feeling or mood. Whatever the motivation, we provide a stimulus, and the public responds.

I believe that most of us create, at least in part, to communicate, so talking about art is just shifting to a different form of communication. While there are no right or wrong ways to do that, my former habit of talking about the technique or problems I faced while making art clearly wasn’t the best topic. I think the reason I was inclined to talk about technique was that I believed the reasons I chose a subject would be as evident to others as they were to me. So I started consciously thinking about what made each subject compelling to me and what I wanted others to notice. As a result the customer would often look at the painting with renewed care, ask more questions and sometimes actually decide to buy it.

3. Practice. It isn’t easy to express some things without rephrasing or searching for the right word. It just wasn’t the sort of thing that I usually thought about. At first I bungled things a bit, so I began to rehearse what I might say about my paintings. I’d practice by myself or with a friend, or while doing such activities as standing in line or taking a walk. I highly recommend this process. Start by asking yourself: What defines my taste? Why do I like what I do?

A couple of years ago, while a painting titled Mother’s Clothesline was on display at a museum, I overheard several people viewing it wonder aloud, “Who would hang that painting in their house?” They were puzzled by the fact that I’d paint laundry hanging on the line, a sight that’s now considered an eyesore. The first time I spoke of this painting, I stumbled over my words. It was hard to explain—why would I paint this picture? The more I thought about it, however, the better I was able to articulate it. So now I talk about the connection to our mothers, the wonderful smell of sheets drying in the sun, conserving energy, and happy memories of old times.

Say (almost) anything
I can tell by the looks on people’s faces that they like what I say now far better than what I used to talk about. I also enjoy these topics myself. It’s not that my struggles with technique or my discoveries about composition no longer matter&#!51;I’ve just realized that talking about more central ideas reminds me of why I’m an artist. Discussing these perceptions has helped me connect with others, and that’s what it’s all about. And, of course, it doesn’t hurt that I also sell more paintings.

Beverly Leesman is a watercoloristy currently living in Albequerque, New Mexico. See more of her work at www.beverlyleesman.com.

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