What attracts you to a work of art? As I write, looking around my living room, I see two patterns. First, I see paintings that act as windows into places I want to be, and the state-of-mind that appeals to me, like peace/tranquility, love or a place that sparks a memory. Second, I see paintings (typically those with figures) as the starting point for a story. One particular favorite by Francesco De Benedetto is of a beautiful young woman, head turned looking over her shoulder. Her expression loving. What is she thinking? What does her glance say about what she’s seeing?
The art I’m drawn to either provides an escape or sets up a story.
Of course, non-figurative art can tell a story, but having the human element in a picture places us in the world the artist created in a more compelling way. As a tribal species, we’re naturally inclined to connect with and understand others.
There are cases when a story is clear cut, such as Picasso’s Guernica, meant to get the viewer to see (and then feel) the atrocity of war. And there are open-ended stories the viewer invents through their own interpretation. Think Leanardo’s Mona Lisa and her mysterious smile.
I’m thinking more about storytelling as I paint more figurative work. I’ve painted plenty of beauty (and will continue!), but as I seek to broaden my art’s impact, I think of storytelling as “the next level.” But how?
How to Improve Storytelling
I’ve gathered a list of tips to help better tell stories in a painting and use one of my paintings as an example.
- Setting. The place you illustrate is the start of the story. This is perhaps the most important context we can give the viewer. This setting is Chinatown in San Francisco. Other than the storefront sign (“Asian Ambia”), this doesn’t scream Chinatown, it only suggests it. What was important to me wasn’t the neighborhood, but the fact that these are two living creatures in a man-made, urban world where nature is precious.
- Framing the Subject. How much space does your subject or center of interest get? Does it fill the picture frame or is it a small part with other design elements emphasizing it? Here, I surrounded the subject with lots of architectural space that support the relationship between the two figures. These living beings stand out because they are surrounded by man-made, flat, fixed linear objects in space.
- Senses. Of course, the physical nature of painting limits how many of our senses are activated, but there are subtle ways to represent senses beyond sight. Depicting a burning building could evoke the smell of fire or warmth in the viewer. In this painting, I used the sense of sunlight to convey a clear, warm day. A perfect time to appreciate nature in a city.
- Posture. The posture of figures depicted in a painting say a lot! Think of the figures in motion by masters like Titian and Caravaggio. Where the figure looks, movement or stillness, articulation of musculature that can depict tension or relaxation–all play an essential role. For this painting, I sought to show a man, relaxed standing in the sun, taking a break. With his arms crossed, I’m trying to convey the fact he’s thinking, regarding the bird in front of him with curiosity, but remaining still leaning on the fire hydrant so the bird doesn’t fly away. And of course, the posture of the bird facing the man suggests mutual curiosity, or perhaps, a potential source of breadcrumbs!
- Emotion. A vital purpose of storytelling is for the viewer to experience an emotional response. The best books take us through a series of well-planned emotions. In a painting, there are practically infinite methods for doing this, so I’ll stick to this painting as an example: With this sparse setting, and through specific shapes and colors that surround these figures, I sought to draw the viewer to the connection between man and nature. The scarcity of nature in a city setting like this makes the bird special. Other than the man regarding it, the bird is the only depiction of nature. This makes the man curious about the bird, but with a calm appreciation (shown through his posture).
Want to learn more? Some of the best artists today are working in film and TV. Among them, Pixar is a leader, and lucky for you, through the free Khan Academy they’ve shared a beautifully produced and easy to understand online learning module on storytelling. Although meant for moving images, I found plenty in it to support painting.
How do you tell stories in your paintings? As always, reader comments and ideas are welcome!