I’ve spent a good bit of time breaking down the components of painting in order to become more thoughtful about my work and to help others do the same. To my way of thinking, the intent of the work is the number one consideration in any creative endeavor with the narrative/story next in importance. Yes, drawing, color, shape and all of the aspects of craft are critical for the realist painter but once that skill set is acquired, what do you do with it?
Every song has a narrative, every movie a storyline, every poem a scenario, each novel a plot, every song an emotion, and every picture tells a story. Why should a painting be any different? The intangible thing that separates the greats from the pretty-goods is rooted in a deep pool of ethos that is mixed into every puddle of color and imbued in every movement of the brush. It’s the foundational idea of a piece that sets the tone for a poignant outcome.
You may be thinking that I’m referring to the Golden era illustrators or the cowboy and Indian paintings that fill every gallery in the west. I’m not, but that’s as good a place to start as any. A quick Google search of “golden era illustration” will give you a balcony seat view of some of the greatest storytellers of the last century; Mead Schaeffer, Howard Pyle, N.C. Wyeth, Dean Cornwell, Jessie Willcox Smith, the list is incredibly long. This, one of the most prolific movements in the narrative arts, housed the masters of story, design, style, and ability.
One of the tricks (beyond a brilliant design) to creating a powerful narrative in a painting is to think like a movie director. After all, a painting is a single-frame movie that speaks to a moment in time, but the outstanding ones hint at the preceding events and those that are yet to come. If you incorporate a figure or figures in your work, you should know them as a writer knows his/her characters. What are they thinking? What is their backstory? Why are they there? What do their expressions, posture, and the placement of the hands, say about them?
Go through a top 100 movie frame by frame, Citizen Kane or The Grand Budapest Hotel come to mind, and look at the construction of each scene. What symbolism does it hold? How is it designed? What are they up to and what’s coming next? That’ll fill your noggin with some new ideas.
I appreciate the skill in a great portrait or a well-executed nude but I, as a viewer, want more. If you’re going to paint a beautiful female nude languishing on a sun-drenched bed, put an easter egg in there to give the discerning eye something to think about, something that hints of events beyond the boundaries of the frame. The viewer wants to be included, let them fill in some of the script. Think like a writer, give them enough but leave room for the imagination. Tap into your inner recesses and tell your story.
A painting doesn’t have to contain pirates or a well-heeled couple in high society to communicate a message. Even a simple still life should hint at a plot line. Who put the stuff on the table? What are the flowers feeling? What’s the relationship between the asparagus and the knife and who drank half the beer placed at a calculated distance from that nibbled on bread? The space between objects is like a pregnant pause in a conversation. It helps to create a compelling plot even if the characters in the play are just vegetables and dinnerware. Assign human characteristics to every piece in your static production. Use your friends and family as a reference for a more compelling dysfunctional still life.
If it’s a landscape, there’s always a story to tell. What is it about this place that you are painting that is important? Who lived there? Or died there? What would a pioneer have felt having seen this place for the first time? What would Thoreau say about this land? How does it feel on your skin? What memory does it spark? What is the message you want to convey about that bustling street scene? Even if it just stays in your head while you are painting, it may not be readily evident, but the lookers-on will feel it.
So, how does it make you feel? If you took 15 minutes before you ever lay brush to the surface to write about your sense of place you’d have a deeper understanding of what you are saying to the viewer because you have defined it for yourself. Your palette, your brushwork, drawing, design, and style all go to the story. Every mark and movement should be in support of the plot line.
Included are a few of my own pieces to show how I weave the narrative into a body of work. It took me a while to find it. The broad theme is that of environmental concern, but each piece has its own sub-plot. Sometimes the story is written before I begin and other times it unfolds as I go. I’ve come to view this series as stories that I tell myself. If other people get them, all the better. More often than not they make up their own. But, at least, I am telling my story.