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An Invisible Framework to Guide You
Storytelling often comes naturally to artists. Sometimes the story starts on a single canvas or sheet of paper and doesn’t end until there is a gallery full of paintings, a suite of drawings, a set of illustrations, a series of comic strips or an entire graphic novel.
Certain subject matters compel an artist to revisit them again and again, building on a concept or pushing it in different directions. The narrative can be a visible part of the artwork, in the form of a written story. But oftentimes it acts as an invisible framework that guides an artist through the creative process.
Reaching for the Story
“Narrative is like an infrastructure that you can come back to and get more and more out of it each time. Each work turns out rich by itself, but there’s also something to reach for,” says artist David Sandlin. He is also an adviser for second-year graduate students in the Illustration as Visual Essay program at the School of Visual Arts, in New York City.
Storytelling for Every Artist is Unique
Students in the program work toward discovering what is integral for all artists to discover — the kind of artists they want to be and what form their work will take, whether fantasy artworks of other worlds or realistic views of the places and people around them. Along their journey, they also develop an understanding of the possible uses of narrative in their work.
When Words Are Too Much
“Telling a story visually seems poignant and resonates strongly with me,” says Laura Peyton, an artist, bookmaker and illustrator. “There is something about communicating visually that is incredibly powerful, but sometimes the words seem overwhelming. I often start with images, building the story from the images I create. That way, the viewer can have their own personal interpretation.”
We All Build Narratives
Even if they are not aware of it, visual artists often develop some sort of narrative in their work. Storytelling takes many forms. At its root, it is about communicating and connecting with the viewer, which many artists aspire to do.
“Michelangelo is one of the greatest artists in history. [Every] work he produced was informed by a story. Working in an unclear manner with no effort to reach your audience can be problematic,” says J.P. Peer, an oil and acrylic painting artist, draftsman and the creator of many fantasy images that speak to the worlds available to an artist with an open mind.
“I used to think of each piece I did as a standalone work. But stepping up to a blank canvas can be intimidating. But if you have a story — or a world of stories — in mind, it’s like painting an entire world, one that’s created in your own style and by your own hand. It’s liberating. And, if you do it correctly, people respond and they escape thoroughly into your work.”
Your World of Stories
There seems to be an undeniable affinity between figurative and representational artwork and the presence of a narrative. What can differ is if it is one where fantasies come to the forefront, or it is steeped in representational realism. How do you find yourself using narrative and storytelling in your work? Is it in the forefront of your process or a more like a well of inspiration? Let us know by leaving a comment.
Tell Your Story
If you’d like to explore the process of painting and storytelling, consider Mastering Composition from Photos: Narrative Art. Ian Roberts demonstrates how to transform photos into through-provoking works of art. You learn how to let your inspirations tell your stories — merging your inner world with the hand that holds the brush.
Watch the preview trailer of Roberts’ video workshop below for a sneak peek into how to set the stage for figures in a narrative painting. Enjoy!