The Art of Writing

Last night I attended a talk by Tj Mcnamara at Sanderson Gallery as part of Art Week. McNamara talked about writing for art, what he saw as being his role as an art writer and how he goes about doing what he does. These are my notes from that talk.

There are two kinds of critics, the kind that is involved in the artists world, they visit the studios of artists and enter into discussion with them. They write for the artist and for the viewer who is often well acquainted with the language of art.
The other kind of critic is someone who cold reads the artwork and writes for people who are not involved in the art world,and this category is where he places himself.

  • Writers (like artists) are writers even when they are not writing. In the shower or mowing the lawn, they are still thinking about writing and often the best opening sentences come when they are not sitting at their keyboards or with pen in hand.
  • Art writing can be like an entrance to the picture
  • It is not the critics job to write constructive criticism, but they can still be encouraging.
  • It’s about looking and looking hard, sometimes the big things can be overlooked, or you forget to mention the simple things or most obvious things.
  • Look,  then make notes, then maybe you read the blurb that accompanies the show. If you do read it, it will probably be full of praise for the artist and full of big ideas and references to other things that can sometimes overpower your own readings and impressions of the work.
  • Identify your audience,whoo are you writing for? Think about the audience and their knowledge base and adjust your language to fit them, but don’t be condescending.
  • If submitting writing to an editor, use 12 point font, 1.5 spacing, don’t put extra spacing between paragraphs and write to your word limit.
  • Don’t write in the first person, it can deaden the impact of your writing. Don’t use I or I think, not only does it lessen the impact ( “I think it is a good painting” vs “it is a good painting”) but it also thins out the writing with too many ‘I’s.
  • Other useless words, or “weasel words” as he put it it, are: really, quite, somewhat, don’t use a negative in front of a negative (not bad), nice, fantastic. These words eat up your word count.
  • The opening sentence or two sentences are crucial, they need to set up the scene as well as be attention grabbing.
  • When looking at the artwork things to think about and note down are: what is the artist’s basic idea? What are they trying to do? What is their basic concept? What is their ‘concetto’? (Concert/song).
  • Identify the style, what does it reference? Modernist, Dada, post impressionist cubism etc. This is where your knowledge of art context comes into play, your vocabulary really comes into play here when you are talking about the style and the making, you can use quite emotive words to describe the work. Eg. Vigouous or impassioned brush strokes
  • Detail, the viewer may or may not have a photo of the work but even if they do they need detail in the writing to make them look or to make them look further into the work. Details not only of content, what is happening in the picture but things like scale, linear, colour, atmosphere. Abstract painting can be really hard to talk about, if you describe an abstract painting you have to be careful with adjectives, you can make a really bad abstract painting sound really good.
  • First sentence, set the scene. Second sentence grip the attention, keep your judgement to the end.

We then wrote first sentences for the Linda Holloway works currently in the gallery. Here is Mine:

Linda Holloway’s Law of Unintended Consequences paintings at Sanderson’s Newmarket gallery display a cautious use of colour and a joy and experience in media. The viewer is presented with a variety of narratives to explore and figures to follow as animal totems watch over minuscule figures distracted by carefully placed obstacles in Holloway’s infinite constructed landscapes.


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