Photo by Lo Ken on Unsplash

As you’re heading towards a creative career or earning an arts degree, there’ll be countless times where you’ll be asked “So, what kind of work do you make?”

It can be overwhelming trying to summarize your entire art practice right on the spot, or find the right words to explain something you’ve just made. Whether it’s in the context of an artist talk, critique, studio visit or class assignment, it can be helpful to talk about your work with ease and confidence. We’ll go over some tips to get to the core of what your work means and how to put your ideas into words.

From Conceptual Ideas to Simple Details

Before you get into the nuts and bolts of your artwork, know that it’s okay to start with the big picture. Before you go into your description, you can start by asking yourself questions like:

  • What are some of the main themes in your work?
  • What does your work look like?

Think about some recurring themes or influences that inspire your practice. Does your work investigate a certain subject? Are you trying to influence your audience’s emotions? Is your piece satirical or sincere? What are you trying to say with your work?

Those kinds of questions may be self-explanatory, but it can be best to directly address whatever concept you’re dealing with. Take the time to find which ideas you like to work with so you can connect your pieces to a central theme within a defined practice. Whether those themes are personal or ideas you’re invested in, focus on subjects you care about. It’ll open up the audience’s perspective into your practice and invite different interpretations. Viewers may not immediately see the connection between your idea to a piece, but their engagement will lead to conversations that make your work feel more cohesive.

Photo by Martino Pietropoli on Unsplash.

Once you’ve pinpointed some key themes in your work, you can also take another step to consider where your work lies in the context of art history or today’s art world. Think of it this way: every single piece of art is connected to a previous part of art history. From the materials you used to which technical method you chose, those actions are in direct conversation with a pre-existing piece from the past. How is your work changing, reinterpreting, or adding to history? This doesn’t mean your work necessarily has to deal with historical topics, but you can learn more about yourself and your work by being aware of the history around you.

Aside from art history, you can also talk about which artists influence your work. These influences don’t have to be other artists, but can be any individual or collective that is connected to your practice in some way. Explain why you like certain influences over others. Identify artists that have similar practices to yours and compare how your work differentiates from them.

Photo by Robert Bye on Unsplash

Having these critical thoughts about your work already planned out, whether it’s in progress or finished, can create a deeper connection with the people experiencing your work. If you freeze up and find it difficult to talk about the conceptual ideas behind your work, you can also start off with some simple, concrete factors. From what materials you used, to the dimensions and methods related to your piece, these details can help shape a visual representation of your work when an image may not be available. Those simple details also play a big part in archiving your pieces for the future.

Here are some questions to help summarize your work:

  • What are the sizes, dimensions, length of the work?

  • What materials were used to make the work?
  • When was the work made?
  • What are some visual motifs in the work?

You can even ask your audience what their initial reactions are to a piece. Gut reactions can be a great introduction to viewers unfamiliar with your work, but try not to focus too much on surface observations. Leave some room for the audience to explore other aspects of your work too.

Breaking Down Your Own Methodology

Screenshot from “Joan Jonas: Drawings | ART21 Exclusive” on YouTube.

In a similar vein to the previous paragraph, explaining the decisions you made while creating something can make your work more accessible and well developed. What drew you to use that certain instrument? Why did you make that painting in that style?

Sometimes, decisions are made intuitively and you won’t have an explanation for everything. Keep your reasoning open and talk about what you do know and feel comfortable with. You can also discuss how you generally start a piece or about your philosophy on art. What does art-making mean to you? Is it a form of personal therapy? Is it a way to communicate political ideas?

Overall, talking about your practice doesn’t have to be complicated. It’s really just a matter of thinking introspectively about your work and being honest. Your work is important and you are the best person to own and define your practice. No one else can explain your work in the way that you can. Use whatever grammar you feel comfortable and confident in using. You can be as minimal, poetic, big and conceptual as you want. Take pride in the work you make and see how far your inspiration can take you.

Further develop your art practice by enrolling in the courses below:

Introduction to Being a Teaching Artist

Introduction to Being a Teaching Artist

Kadenze Academy


The Modern Genius: Art and Culture in the 19th Century

The Modern Genius: Art and Culture in the 19th Century

Otis College of Art and Design


Charting the Avant-Garde: from Romanticism to Utopic Abstraction

Charting the Avant-Garde: from Romanticism to Utopic Abstraction

School of the Art Institute of Chicago