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Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Understanding Storytelling in Art

Every piece of art tells a story. Some stories are very simple, others are so complicated that they become abstract. It is one thing to have the techniques of an artist and another to have the technique of storytelling. It's even harder to meld the two together seamlessly. But if you can compose the story in your mind, your art has the potential to become much more vibrant and interesting.

Take the Mona Lisa, for example. I recently read an article debating whether the Mona Lisa had syphilis. There are a thousand more tales about this mysterious lady. Every one of them is a story and every one of them stems from Da Vinci's ability to tell a story with every composition. He was the consummate storyteller and something that I think gets overshadowed by his also amazing techniques.
Look at any great piece of art and you will find that it is a story you are making up in your mind about the piece, or you have heard from another person's story of the piece.

The best artists are the ones who can create the elements of a story and couple them with technique to create just enough to let the viewer get carried away with the narrative in their own head.

Let's look at a famous Rodin sculpture. For those not familiar with it, it is called "She who used to be the beautiful heaulmière".

You need to know nothing about the piece to begin weaving a story about who the beautiful heaulmière really was. Rodin has presented us with all of the clues to make our own story. This is a master at work and he's given you a mystery to be solved.

This is not as simple as it may sound. The artist can't just say "okay, I'll tell a story". It is a lot more subtle than that. In fact, the artist may not even know the complete story themselves. The story may emerge beneath their hands as they create the piece.

I like to think of it as laying out the clues of a mystery. You only want to direct the viewer, not lead them towards solving the mystery before their eyes.

So how do we learn this skill? For some it comes easily. For others it's a skill that they must acquire over time. I find it valuable when I am working with a student to instruct them not to try and create their own stories until they take time to view the stories of others. Every story has a level of complexity and identifying those levels is crucial to creating your own.

Take a look at the beautiful heaulmière one more time. In that single withered woman is a vast story. She is the climax of an amazing tale so complex that you can get lost trying to figure out the story. So if she is the most complex of stories, what lies at the opposite end?

This water color of a *tree is a perfect example. It's a pretty tree. It's a well done tree. It exhibits good skills of technique in watercolor. But in the's just a tree. Sure if you're creative, you might just be able to imagine a story where you're lying beneath it on a summer day, but in the end, it's a pretty simple story.

The tree is where most artists start out. Now let's take the tree one step further. What if you titled the tree "Morning in the Forest". Now you've given the viewer a small clue as to the direction of the story. Titles, when used effectively, are often the best way the artist has for guiding the viewer.

Look again at "She who used to be the beautiful heaulmière". The title alone is so intriguing that you instantly begin the journey when you see the title. Rodin has given you the clues in the very title to guide you just enough to make your own story.

Now let's go back to our tree. What can we do with skills to tell a great tale? What if we simply inverted the colors of the piece?

Color is the next step in telling a great tale. Suddenly our tree takes on a slightly more complex story. In merely shifting our colors, we've added a new dimension to the tale.

Now with each new component, titles, color, variations, shades, etc we add to the complexity of the story until we end up with a whole forest and a whole bunch of directions we as the viewer might take the tale.

Now you might say that "abstract art" is story-less. But its not. In it's very abstraction it is allowing you, the viewer, to tell the tale any way you wish. Let's look at an abstract painting by Jackson Pollock.

"Autumn Rhythm" may seem at first glance to be nothing but a bunch of spilled paint. Pollock has already given you a clue in the title as to where he might have been aiming the piece, or what he saw in it when he finished it. From there it's totally up to you to decide the story. Some see dancing figures in the paint. Others see chaos. In every case the viewer is creating a tale in their mind. This is not a simple tree and it is not a simple tale. Abstraction can take us places that no other art form could ever go.

Writers have a tough job. They spend their whole career weaving stories and trying to come up with new ideas. Artists on the other hand also spend their whole career trying to come up with new ideas, but they often miss the mark that they must also weave a story. Writers have a million words to help them do so. Artists have technique. In the end, both share more in common than we may sometimes realize.

In the end, if we make the story as important as the technique, we can achieve greater and greater depth to our work and we fill a glaring hole that art education often doesn't teach us. Whether you are an abstract artist, a sculptor, a water-colorist or any of a thousand other areas of art, this one basic skill can be the best thing you ever learn.


* My thanks to the anonymous artist who painted the tree. Unfortunately there was no tag attached to the tree so I am unable to cite the artists name. 

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