As a writer, I’m well aware of the term narrative. As a photographer, I’ve heard many times that “a picture is worth a thousand words,” and as an art lover, I’ve often said that some pictures “speak” to me. Now, as an aspiring artist, I’m learning that a good picture tells a story.
My “works of art” — I term I use quite loosely — don’t say much, but this is another element of art that I want to be aware of. As I learn and grow, I want to draw and paint not merely because (a) I’m following an exercise in a tutorial, or (b) I think something is pretty and would make a lovely picture.
I’ve heard the “tell me the story” idea while watching Project Runway, and at first, that struck me as odd. These are fashion designers, not storytellers, so exactly what does Tim Gunn, their iconic mentor, mean when he asks about a garment’s story?
Is it really the designer’s story, the reason why that particular designer chose that particular fabric or style? I do think that’s part of it, but I know there’s a lot more to it.
With art, I think the narrative behind a work often involves the artist’s personal experience. We might paint places we’ve been or sketch scenes from our childhood. When we do this, our story becomes the picture’s story…or is it the other way around? I’m not sure. Either way, viewers can get a glimpse of the artist’s life and most likely recall similar times and places from their own life.
A trip to any museum will reveal many paintings and many stories. Frederic Remington’s paintings speak poignantly about the “old west”. Other artists have explored mythological subjects. Others still have told religious stories through their works.
While pondering the question of “narrative in art”, I stumbled across the National Gallery of Art website which includes teaching resources for a gallery tour titled, “Every Picture Tells a Story”. The program is intended for students in grades 3 through 12, but really, can’t we all continue learning at any age?
Here are the objectives for the National Gallery tour:
Paintings are more than just pictures in a frame—they are unfolding stories with multiple perspectives. During this tour, students will learn to “read” works of art by identifying characters, setting, and plot, and by imaginatively creating dialogues inspired by characters in the works of art.
What a wonderful way to approach a painting — as a viewer and as an artist. Obviously, if our art is going to speak to others, it had better speak first to us.
To this point, my drawings and paintings haven’t been telling any real stories — other than my personal story of wanting to be an artist. These are the stories of my determination and the long hours I’ve spent practicing, reading, learning, and studying. These are stories of my little successes — and cringe-worthy failures. They’re my stories and while they mean a lot to me, they probably won’t mean much to anyone else.
But I want to tell stories with my art. I want to create drawings and paintings that possess character, setting, and yes, even a plot. I want my work to speak, to spark imaginative dialogues with those who see them.
I took my first step toward “storytelling in art” when I drew this simple colored pencil sketch of an old truck out in a farm field. It spoke to me first in a personal way. I’ve seen rusted-out old trucks like this many times. We have a similar one — a rusty old 1960 Ford Falcon van — in front of our house. My husband dragged it out of an old field, brought it home, and is working to restore it.
As I worked to bring “Ol’ Rusty” to life, I thought of all the farm boys I’ve known over the years. I thought, too, of all the hard-working old trucks that hauled hay, pulled trailers, and bounced over rough country roads.
That said, I didn’t single out any one particular story to define this colored pencil drawing. I don’t know who owned Ol’ Rusty, or why he was left to gather rust in a grassy field. I enjoyed working on “Ol’ Rusty” and it is fun to imagine what his story could be.
I want to do more as an “artistic storyteller”. I want to search out scenes that give me a sense of story, ones that contain those essential elements of character, setting, and plot. Good stories involve conflict, too. Good stories provoke emotional responses in readers — or viewers, as the case may be.
Paintings and drawings can capture a precise moment — a time between the beginning of a story and its inevitable conclusion…or maybe the ending isn’t inevitable. Maybe when we look at a work of art, we can choose our own endings, or at least, have hope that things will turn out for the best.
Through narrative, art can truly come alive, leaving us to wonder what might happen when we walk away.