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How to Create Raving Fans by Telling the Story of Your Art

by

Heroes Journey
image credit Wikimedia

Standing in front of the class, I concentrated on breathing deeply through my belly like I had been taught. I thought about things like releasing my jaw and keeping my knees relaxed. I had been standing in front of the class for about three minutes. I was wearing my regular street clothes, and they were just…watching me.

A litany of thoughts flew through my head. "Am I doing this right? My neck hurts. Why is Sally looking at me like I have something hanging from my nose? Oh, I hope I don't have something hanging from my nose." And on this went for what seemed like an eternity. Finally, about two minutes later, the teacher called out, "time." I took my place with the rest of the class and sat down.

When I was in acting school, we did an exercise where we had to simply stand in front of the class for five minutes. No talking. No acting - with gestures, facial expressions, or anything. Just stand in neutral position for five minutes. The idea was to teach us how interesting human beings are by themselves without any added effort.

I found that exercise one of the most profound things that I learned. Humans are inherently interesting. Watching classmate after classmate go through this, you could see the litany of thoughts happening on their faces and in their bodies, even when they were trying to remain calm.

I often think about this exercise when artists tell me they don't have anything to blog about, talk about in their email newsletters, or share on social media. Artists often tell me that they don't think they are that interesting. If a person just standing there can be interesting, I think an artist can certainly be interesting.

In the Content Marketing for Artists blog post, I mentioned that I would talk about how to use stories to sell your art. This is that blog post.

Introducing the Heroes Journey - The Monomyth

Joseph Campbell, the guy that came up with "follow your bliss," came up with a concept that I find very compelling - the Monomyth. Campbell said that most myths contain some common elements - heroes start out as lowly mortals, they receive some sort of call to adventure and divine assistance to get started, encounter obstacles along the way, go through a transformation, and return to where they started as a hero, changed for the better.

We all recognize this basic structure in many popular stories. Stories as old as Beowulf follow this structure, while new myths like Star Wars follow it as well. Luke Skywalker, a nobody on a remote planet, meets his call to adventure when a messenger from heaven (R2D2 & Princess Leia) summon him to help in the battle. Luke meets with adversity, must learn to use the Force, suffers defeat and nearly death at the hands of Darth Vader, but comes out the other side stronger, wiser, and eventually victorious.

Many books and essays have been devoted to examining the Monomyth. We're only going to brush the surface here, but if you want more resources for reading, I can recommend Dramatica: A New Theory of Story and Tracy Hickman's wonderful essay The Mythic Journey.

In the context of telling the story of your art, it's easiest to think of the Monomyth as a way to structure the story of you as an artist, and your art, to your collectors. If you can do this well, you will get and keep their attention.

Let's take a look at the story elements and see how they fit with your art.

The Artist's Call to Adventure

At some point in your life, you were called to be an artist. Perhaps you woke up one day and realized that your interest in drawing was more than a passing interest and you wanted to devote your life to it. Perhaps there are subjects that you want to talk about in your art that are important. These are the things that you want to use to introduce yourself to collectors.

Some art buyers want to know what inspires you to make art - what the meaning is behind what you do, and where it comes from. The origin story is exciting to them. While it might be rather mundane to you, I can assure you that it's not to them. Many people feel the calling to become artists, but only a few actually follow through on that calling - so why did you do it?

Who, or what, was your Princess Leia distress call? When did you realize that you needed to take action and become an artist?

Gwenn Seemel's Bio page on her website is a good example of how to do this well.

Obstacles to Making Your Art Happen

People love a good underdog story. They love to hear about what happens when their heroes meet opposition - so play that role! I firmly believe that a big part of the reason people love open studio events so much is that they get to see works in progress. They get to talk to the artists and hear about their artistic process.

All good stories have an obstacle to overcome. You might not have some great tragedy in your life, but every artist meets adversity and Resistance when it comes to creating their work. Generally, the deeper you delve as an artist, the harder it is to bring your work to life. Those difficulties are the very things that you should talk about in your Content Marketing efforts.

A few good examples of obstacles I've seen artists talk about overcoming are:

These are, of course, just a few ideas.

Going Dark

Every artist sinks into the creative abyss to do battle with what Steven Pressfield calls Resistance. Some times you have to hide away in your studio to make something truly great. You'd rather be in the studio anyway, right? I go through periods where my artistic muse grabs ahold of me and drags me into the deep. 2011 was a big year for this. I spent the last half of the year stuck in a morass of writing my first one-man show. I virtually stopped blogging. I didn't do any other shows or write anything else. It was all consuming.

After you come out of that dark fertile period, though, you'll have plenty to talk about. The really brave artists will be rewarded by sharing the things that truly matter. You will have a new piece of art to share or perhaps a new outlook on life. By reaching out to your collectors during and after these dark times, you will find that many of your collectors are not just collectors, but true fans and people who are willing to support you. A burden shared is a burden halved.

Abandoning the Self

At some point, when you emerge from the abyss of creativity, you will have this bright shiny idea at some stage of completion (I know, an artist's work is never actually ‘done'). That's when you turn around and make the offering to - whoever it is that has the power. Campbell calls this stage the Atonement. You recognize the being with the power - in the artist's case it could be the collector, the gallery owner, or the Internet at large, and make them an offering.

Whether you directly ask for the sale, you ask people to share a new piece you've created, or you ask for gallery representation, you have to make the offer or request. One of the primary mistakes that artists make in their online marketing efforts are failing to make the ask - and then not letting themselves get down if the results aren't what they want.

Don't get in your own way by not making the offer.

Return and Share Your Success

At the end of the story, the hero always returns home a changed person. He celebrates with his family and friends. You should do the same. Share your victories with your friends - whether its a big sale, a new solo show, or just finished a great piece of art.

The principle of returning to report is necessary. I know that frequently after I go through an extraordinary journey I often don't realize how much I've grown until I try to communicate it with other people. Writing about it, thinking deeply about your experiences, is a way to learn at a deeper level.

Be the Hero of Your Story

Keep in mind that the Monomyth is just one way of telling a story. There are some legitimate criticisms of Campbell's idea, but it works well as a way to structure a story. What I'm really trying to communicate is that putting yourself at the center of the story of your art is a powerful way to communicate the ideas of your art and connect with your readers.

People like the structure of hero stories. It holds their attention. You need a way of getting and keeping collectors' attention. There's a marketing axiom that says it takes seven encounters with a brand before someone is willing to make a purchase. Storytelling is a great way to develop your personal brand as an artist.

There are many ways to tell a story. It doesn't just have to be written - you could use video, audio recordings, or your art to tell your story.

Have you learned to tell the story of your art?

Check Out Our Webinar on Content Marketing

Want to get a broad overview of how artists can practically apply Content Marketing to their own art business? Check out the recording that we did of our free webinar on Content Marketing.

Cory HuffThis article is courtesy of
Cory Huff is a digital strategist specializing in helping artists learn to sell their art online. His Big Hairy Audacious Goal: help 1000 artists create a full-time living from their art. You can view more blog posts like these and get a free gift for ArtPal artists here: http://theabundantartist.com/start-here/New window