Hello I've been thinking lately, my art seems to lack any sort of narrative, which in turn makes it "flat" and not very interesting.
So.. potentially silly question; how do I work on improving this? It would be great if anyone had some advice on how to tell a story, & how to create engaging images.
I main problem is that I just have no idea where to start... I've been focused on improving my drawing skills, and being able to draw something "realistically", and perhaps in doing so I've neglected all the other aspects that make a good illustration :/
Finally a good question for discussion in this part.
This is something that i can relate to and i want to improve it as well but i think i will throw my thoughts about this into the pot.
I personally think that the best way to do this is to actually make sure you have a story in mind before drawing the picture, it seems that trying to wing a picture completly without figuring out the story will always mean that it is less strong in the finished peice. This is because we dont think about all the little details that need to go in to help tell the story. I guess its ok to start sketching around without this developed, but before you get further than a quick sketch you really should think about it properly. Keep in mind i dont mean to make the story super solid the whole way through, as you will think of different elements of the story to throw in as you go.
Another really really important thing is choosing the time in the events of the story. It is always natural to go straight to drawing the actual event but in fact alot of the most powerful images ever made are images of the anticipation or the aftermath. Cliche example, but what has more tension, 2 armies facing each other, both with scared people in thier ranks, or them actually battling. The same goes for what you show and what you dont show, sometimes it makes a stronger image if you leave a certain amount of ambiguity in the image, as opposed to telling the story outright. (eg, if you have a diver about to be attacked by a giant squid, perhaps just show the diver in whole, and have tentacles reaching out from the dark behind him).
If you want to improve this if you have time try writing out a short story, develop the characters, and draw them seperatley, and do alot of research about all the elements you want in the final illustration. Its great practice, a ton of fun and you usually end up with something pretty kickass because of the amount of prepoduction you put in.
Solid advice from Muz. Good stuff in there. Here's my 5/8ths worth.
You may choose to think of a narrative image like a detective story. It's all about the clues you leave. To decide on these you have ask yourself some key questions, like -
1) What's the main story I want to tell?
2) What's the best way (angle/lighting/location/props) to relate this?
3) Who is/are necessary to make the scene work
4) How do I relate their character visually (clothes,/body type/pose/expression)? What's their history, and what can I convey that with?
5) What other elements are key to explaining the story?
6) What other clues/pointers can I include to add richness to the scene?
7) Is there a sub-plot/extra-characters - go through the above for that too.
I'd take a look at some the painters from the victorian era. They were often preoccupied with telling moral tales. They seem very staid now, but their attention to the details was all about placing clues. As in images from a much earlier age, they still used such visual references as dogs to symbolise fidelity, for example. That's pretty much out of date now, but you can bring in modern references and use them in just the same way - a bit like the early scenes in Alien, with all the crew's crap littering the controls of their ship before they are awoken and the nightmare begins. It told you a lot about the crew before you even saw them.
The thing is, you don't have it all thought out ahead of even beginning your piece. Start off with the main story, whatever that may be and set up a composition after scrawling down some thumbnail ideas, to get your thinking going. Once the big shapes are in and you've considererd mood and lighting, that's when you can start to think about the supporting visual props, characters and features.
If it is about characters interracting - work hard to get the poses saying just what you want and the dynamics between the characters right. Ultimately, every mark you make affects what the viewer reads into the scene. If you can get the first bit set up right, the rest slots into place more easliy.
Don't be surprised if it doesn't immediately click. Writers edit their tales again and again to get across exactly what they want to say. It's often the same for visual artists too. Just keep at it. You can do it.
As has been said, study the masters. As with everything in art, study the masters. Look at paintings that you feel tell a story, and try to figure out how the artist did it. One good place to start is the 20th century American illustrators. A good example of how simple things can tell you a lot of story is the painting Freedom of Speech by Norman Rockwell.
I love this painting. Now, let's try to see what Mr. Rockwell tells us with this painting.
This is some kind of town/council meeting
Probably in some rural town
The man standing up is speaking his mind on some issue
He's still a man in his best years, probably not much older than 40
He is a worker
He isn't very rich
The people around him are listening to him
The man in front of him is married
Wow, that was a lot of story for a picture that was just supposed to depict freedom of speech! Now, let's try to figure out how Rockwell did all this.
We can understand that this is some kind of public meeting, many different kinds of people seem to be present, they are seated on rows of benches close to each other. They have a pamphlet or agenda, and even though it's not necessary for the story, we can even see the word 'report' on one of them.
The look of the people, especially the talking man, makes me think this is in some small town somewhere. Definitely not downtown New York!
As we now know that this is some kind of meeting and as the people are all grown ups, we can assume he's not giving the answer to some question in Sunday school. Also, of course, the title of the painting gives away that this man is giving his view on some political issue.
His face tells me he's not very old, and the men to his sides are older than him, making him look younger. This is important, because:
The wrinkles in his face and his rugged hands tell me he's been doing heavy work for a long time, and aged prematurely. Now, the people on his sides make him look younger, and thus I understand that the look of his hands are caused from years of hard work, not old age. Also, his clothes tell something about his background, that's a heavy duty coat, not very fancy, damaged here and there.
The state of his jacket tells me he's not very rich, and he wouldn't be, the work he's doing probably isn't paying all that well. He probably has a family to feed too, poor man.
Well obviously the looks of the people around him tell us that they are listening to him.
And finally the small detail of the ring on the man in front tells us he is married.
And still, this is a pretty simple painting, one guy standing and a bunch of guys sitting around him. But yet, Rockwell manages to get so much story into it!
Some more subtle things I notice: The way the man has folded and put the report in his pocket tells us a bit about his character. Also, the way his hands are planted on the bench makes me think he has just stood up and started talking. As he doesn't have a fancy coat on, maybe he wasn't really interested in this meeting, and just attended because he should. But then, something he really cares about gets talked about.
You can find a million of these subtle things in a masterful painting like this. It's both a joy to explore, and a valuable lesson in storytelling.
I hope this wasn't too long to read, and here's to hoping Kev will contribute to this thread!
I don't completely agree, or at least I don't think you need to have a very detailed story. I mean, knowing your story front to back surely won't hurt (and on a commissioned job is often provided, though not always), but it's perhaps overkill. It's not the same as doing something sequential with a beginning, middle, and end. If all you have to work with is one single image, you're more implying a story than telling one. The important elements in a single narrative image are mood, setting, character development, and action. If you have one or more characters in a location doing something, you have a narrative image.I personally think that the best way to do this is to actually make sure you have a story in mind before drawing the picture, it seems that trying to wing a picture completly without figuring out the story will always mean that it is less strong in the finished peice
Assuming that you just want to make a narrative image but don't have a specific story to tell, or things to consider while working form an established concept...
A good first step is to decide on a general mood or tone for your image: something dark and spooky, something active and exciting, something mysterious, etc. Once you have this in mind, think about your setting. Time as well as place. What setting feels appropriate to your mood concept, or what setting seems interesting to you? Now to tell the story, you usually need one or more characters. You can have a narrative image without them (an environment which shows evidence of an event which has already happened, like a beached wrecked pirate ship, still tells alot without any characters) but it's easiest to tell a story with 2 or more characters to interact with eachother and that we can relate to. Give some thought to who they are and what they're doing. What are they wearing/carrying? Add as much detail to them as you can, especially some details which don't relate directly to the current action/moment/setting (to add history or mystery to them). Once you have all these elements drifting around, string together a scenario. Make revisions as you get new ideas. Sometimes the best story telling elements are when there is something in the setting or character design which seems out-of-place. You don't need to know why, just so long as people will look at it and ask themselves why.
I personally feel alot of story telling in painting comes from the viewer asking questions and imagining possible answers. I think that montage images (say, the Indiana Jones movie posters for example) are the purest example of implied story. You're provided with all kinds of images (people, objects, and settings) which taken individually may be exciting or may be common and boring, but all combined they suggest a far larger and more interesting story. They force the viewer to imagine how they tie together.
A narrative scene does the same thing. It hopefully engages the viewer enough to imagine what has happened before and what will happen next, in addition to understanding what is happening now. I think it's fun to do this without actually having answers to these questions, because it leaves you free to toss in randoms which are almost like a plot twist. These questions could be the focal point of your illustration or they could be background details. Why is that robot holding an antique lantern? What is that woman doing out in the wilderness in such fancy clothes? Why is that man laying in the middle of the street while everyone ignores him? Damned if I know, but being confronted with that question implies an answer, and that answer is a story.
Dave, that's a really great answer. This is one of those areas that have always confused me and I think most beginners in general. I noticed in Keith Parkinson's artbook, "Kightbridge" that he states to set the "tone" first and that it can often be the most difficult part of the process. Loomis also states several ways to start developing ideas. This always confused me because Loomis states that he often starts doing abstract thumbnail drawings or some sort of asymmetrical drawings that help imply an idea to plug characters and settings into (Parkinson states this as well). But in another example Loomis draws out pretty elaborate rough drawings first. So having various ways to start a picture seems like a good way to help get started if you having trouble, but I like your approach much better. Would you suggest that you would still want to try and write out what kind of tone, mood (and so on) that you want first if something isn't provided (book, etc.)? Are you casual about what you want, make thumbnails, if you can't get what you want, rethink it then make more thumbnails of the new idea? Or do you try to decide on that first step pretty sure, then work on thumbnails and gather reference before and/or after a rough sketch?
100 years ago Howard Pyle said that the dramatic arts are nearest akin to his own art of Illustration. At that time, by "dramatic art" he meant theater. He would mean movies now. For this reason, I believe every illustrator should read Robert McKee's book on screenwriting and narrative "Story".
Without getting into too much theory, the basic "active-character" story is someone wants something and is having trouble getting it. That goes equally for the main character of your picture, and the person viewing the picture who would, as Dave discussed, wants to find out what's going on. If you know your main character, and you know what he wants in the moment, and you understand what impedes his goal, you can, throwing all theory aside, begin to imagine the moment.
The basic method of narrative art is to imagine the scene with such profound force that, to you, it is real in your head... you can watch it like a movie. The key to this realization is feeling the emotion of your lead character. You must make yourself believe the moment, feeling the light on your own skin, smelling the smells in the scene, feeling the same muscular tension as your characters, the texture of the floor beneath your feet... If you can capture this image in your mind, you are halfway home. The talent to imagine can be cultivated, but its seed must be present. All the rest, one can argue, is craft and science.
At least Icarus tried!
My Process: Dead Rider Graphic Novel (Dark Horse Comics) plus oil paintings, pencils and other goodies:
My "Smilechild" Music. Plus a medley of Commercial Music Cues and a Folksy Jingle!:
I've always thought that Wyeth/Pyle were masterful storytellers. I found it interesting reading how little Pyle was concerned with technical achievements (not to say they weren't important, just not the foremost component), but more so with capturing life.Originally Posted by N.C. Wyeth, quoting Howard Pyle
Coincidentally - Talking of the great N.C Wyeth, his illustrations for Mysterious Island have just been posted here -
Golden Age Comic Book Stories
Definitely worth a look at, in the context of this thread.
Another thing to remember; characters aren't necessarily human, or even living. Still life or landscape elements can be "characters" in a picture just as much as people.
**Finished Work Thread **Process Thread **Edges Tutorial
Crash Course for Artists, Illustrators, and Cartoonists, NYC, the 2013 Edition!
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yeah dave, i would have to agree with you there.
I never really meant write out every detail in the image before hand, but i guess thats how i wrote it. I think that the main thing is to go in with the message and mood you want to convey.
One of the reasons why i do think writing out the story can be good in some circumstances is that in one image i was doing once i had a rough story in mind, but it wasnt enough for me to lay out the composition and actions in a way that made sense to a viewer. In the end it caused me to scrap the image because i would have to change too much of the image to try and make coherent sense of it. Next time i try something that big im definatley going to do some basic preproduction work beforehand to try and make it work.
Perhaps its a case of write it out first while you are first trying to make narrative images until you get used to it?
A visual alternative to writing it out, might be to storyboard what happens just before and through to just after the event you plan to visualise. You'd sort out a lot of the answers to those who, where and how questions that need addressing.
There are formulas for themes that you can use to endlessley make b-grade paintings, like pictures from a factory produce line. But I think more often than not, you can never sit down and simply 'think' up a good narrative, you need to understand what mood you want for the theme and surround yourself with those types of images and eventually you'll see something original. Then you can use any old formula to tease out the idea or narrative into a succesful multi layered work, but never the other way around.
Larger than life
another book to look at:
Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art
by Scott McCloud
he talks in good detail about the basics of visual narrative
"It's better to have Heart than technique, you can be taught technique." (Frank Trigg -- MMA Fighter on the subject of fundamentals)
Narrative is such a confusing thing to get your head around, because it takes a fundamentally diachronic concept and applies it to a fundamentally synchronic art form. When you tell a story with words, you get this natural structure that develops over time, with a clear beginning, middle and end. Even when you begin a story in medias res, like with Virgil or Pulp Fiction, all the action still takes place over a set duration of time. For us things are less cut and dry. With a series of images you can do something similar to narrative in literature or drama, but telling a complete story with a single image is a different kind of challenge. All the information hits you at once, so even something highly detailed, that might allow the eye to wander around it for an hour, will always still be dominated by that immediate impact of the initial viewing. Somehow we have to get everything working together just so in that first moment, to create the allure of a temporal aspect for something that might otherwise only command the viewer’s attention for half a second. It’s really hard to pull off, and the reason why great illustrators are so revered.
For our purposes as visual artists, the two kinds of narrative which seem most accessible are Monoscenic narrative, where only a single narrative event is used to identify the entire story, and Synoptic “looking together, at a glance” narrative, where several events are taken together to identify a single story (e.g. the first three gospels.) The Rockwell above is a good example of the monoscenic type, since we can imagine from the one instance a suggestion of the complete story (or part thereof.) Synoptic narrative is closer to the Indiana Jones poster idea, or something like this, where several events are visible at once:
Looking it up now, I see that narratio and gnarus are related terms. The basic idea is that you are somehow relating what you 'know' about the story to the audience directly, as opposed to indirectly (via dialogue say.) With drama it’s easy to see how that works, but with the visual arts things get a little murky. When I hear someone say ‘that picture has a good narrative quality” I usually take that to mean that it incorporates universally recognizable elements, and they combine in such a way that the picture suggests a specific/complex story (rather than a general/simple story.) So "nude model reclining - with flowers and fruit on a table", might not do it, but "Dido Contemplates Suicide" with dead flowers and rotting fruit on the table, might get you somewhere. Maybe there's a window looking out on the sea, or a cave, or a she wolf in the background. Its hard to say where you draw the line though, because it depends on what the story calls for, and that could be just about anything. Perhaps its a detective novel - "there was fruit on the table!" and then you can't get around it.
I’d think it would be hard to start without a story in mind though. Dave’s suggestion to begin with a general mood seems like good advice, because then at least you have something to build from. For example, if you want something to have a dark, macabre feel to it, there are ways you can suggest that before you even get to the main figures. To give your drawing an unnerving tone, you might try shading with vertical lines, rather than horizontal or diagonal ones. That’s classic horror out of Dore - similar to using dissonant chords to set the mood in a film. Depending on how you use them, vertical lines can create a sense of falling, dripping, or being below ground, that’s just way creepy when it’s done right. There are a lot of subtle tricks and techniques to learn. Looking at Wyeth’s clouds just now, you get the impression that half of his set up is already in place, before your eyes even hit the horizon.
Last edited by Jasonwclark; May 11th, 2009 at 08:05 AM.
i can actually relate to this question quite a bit.
something i do a lot is try to paint the story behind a song that has a strong narrative style (look up the lyrics to bruce springsteen's 'wild billy's circus story' or bob dylan's 'desolation row'; these are two that i've been working on as of late. perhaps this method would help?