The Art of Storytelling

Yellow Ribbon - Heather Theurer - 14x11 oil on board. As the years have passed and I’ve experienced more of life, I’ve discovered with somewhat of a sad realization that it is human nature to want to take the easy path, the one the requires the least of us and that makes no demands upon our attention or time. We put our blinders on, so to speak, and go about our daily tasks with very little thought of the extraordinary. The three paintings in the Ribbon Series, Yellow Ribbon, Blue Ribbon and Crimson Ribbon, are a fearless refusal of this frame of mind. While the titles point out only a minuscule portion of the painting, representing our absorption by the mundane, the remainder of the paintings insist that we enjoy a broader view. There is beauty all around us, in the tiniest of details, if we will but take the time to observe—and once we have had a true taste of the magnificent beauty of the earth we are changed forever.

 ….or is it the storytelling of art?

The definition of art spans multiple classifications, described visually by everything from the absence of, well, pretty much anything of substance to the vast detailed expanse of emotional, literal and fantastical landscapes, as well as everything in between. It can make a statement, or be bereft of it. It can be full of emotive power or leave the viewer empty and confused.

Carl Heinrich Bloch
I love the way Bloch captures life in the moment. Nothing grand is presented here, just a lowly fisherman's wife at work beheading and gutting the day's catch. And while this may be a seemingly insignificant task and far from being an "event" worthy of putting into paint, Bloch manages to draw us in, tempting us to ask what this woman's story is--why she leans back from her work to smile at someone off-page almost as if they've made a poking remark and she's preparing a snappy response. What I think it is, more than that, however, is that it is a slice of everyday life--something we all experience and can understand and sympathize with even if we've never touched a single slimy, scaly fish.

Just the mention of these things could spark a healthy discussion (or perhaps unhealthy, as the case may be) about what art truly is or what it’s purpose should be. There are several really great posts here on Muddy Colors that delve into the different aspects of this and they are definitely worth a read.

Russell Walks
With very little information in this image, Walks relates the light and life this little girl brings to the world in a single line of chalk. It takes very few words to describe yet speaks to the heart in a way that is profound.


In this post, I’d like to take the angle that all great art has a story to tell. Not that it has to speak volumes, as the saying goes, or retell a novel. Heck, there are literary challenges that are put out to see whether writers can tell a compelling story in less than 50 words, so I’m positive there’s a way for even the simplest of images crafted in a finite number of strokes to invoke a rambling story in the mind of the viewer…. I have to admit that this mode of creating isn’t necessarily my forté. If my art were stories, they’d be rather long-winded. But I digress…

Lynn Boggess
Simple blurred shapes are all that appear in this image, but Boggess translates the dripping, foggy weather of this cityscape so well that in just looking at it, I'm worried I'm going to get water in my shoes. Every person is going somewhere and has a story to tell of their own and if one applies just a little bit of creativity, entire narratives can be woven out of a single glance.

So how is storytelling accomplished? I think the key here is connection. One may easily make conclusions about what they want to say or an idea they want to get across to the viewer and stick with that alone. Having worked in the graphic design and illustration arena in the past, I found that this can sometimes be a constructive way to move forward to reach my intended target audience, and to do so quickly and effectively. But when creating fine art, which I’ve turned to almost exclusively in the last decade, I’ve discovered there’s a little bit more to creating a visual narrative than that.

Just like any good piece of literature, artwork must have a voice. And if my aim is to be impactful, that voice has to belong to me. Borrowed, false or contrived voices are a distraction and often lead the viewer to feel as if they’ve been manipulated into accepting a statement or feeling a particular emotion. What ends up happening is often a nice off-hand comment about the style or technique of the art and then they walk away—probably to forget the artwork 10 minutes later. So be yourself, and if you’re not sure what that is, take the time to find out. You’ll discover that your personal life story has a lot to say and can, if you let it, speak powerfully.

Ludwig Deutsch
There is something so powerful about this piece (sorry, I simply chose the closeup) that I was immediately captivated by it the first time I saw it. The life of this warrior practically jumps off the canvas. Subject matter, attention to detail and more importantly to the spirit of the figure can even be a little telling of the artist who painted it.

My personal view is that all mankind is innately linked together by a boundless network of tiny, invisible threads of experience, and if, as artists, we are observant enough, sure of our own voice and expressive enough in the execution of our artwork, what happens is magic. A connection is made. Two stories merge—that of the creator and that of the viewer. The communication of the artwork then is no longer one-way. Instead of throwing a visual chunk of meat out into the world to be devoured, digested and then expelled simply for the sake of feeding the masses, the art is then savored and assimilated. I’ve found that when I am true to my own voice, honest about my experiences, and then project the fundamental, core elements of that into my art, it tugs on one or more of those shared threads in others, leaving a mark on them, and they, in turn, through their own interpretation, leave a mark on me.

Johannes Vermeer
No question about it, Vermeer was a Master--of light, form, composition...the list goes on. But what I like particularly about this piece is how it encourages me to take part in the woman's story. All I can say is that I want desperately to know what is written in that letter.
Sure, they may not walk away having purchased the art or even a print of it, but they are, at least to some small degree, changed, and therefore remember what they saw. Not just because it was visually pleasing perhaps, but more that it welled up something inside of them that was meaningful. It is less about what they see and more about what they feel. This may be a singular emotion of which they are facing in an acute way in that moment. It may bring up past memories or instill dreams of the future. Especially in the realm of fantastical art, by building on the foundation of universal human understanding and then morphing and embellishing it, the art can mentally transport them in such a way that they exit reality for a while to live in the dream that the artist has created. If approached conscientiously and with the purest of intent, the viewer is not only not manipulated into experiencing these things, but they recognize and embrace those experiences with almost overwhelming enthusiasm. That connection and enthusiasm then drives me, the artist, to strive even more for further story making.

Carl Heinrich Bloch
Again, here is another Bloch painting. He is one of my favorite artists, after all. As an artist, I know that much of what I paint is a reflection of myself, my beliefs and my outlook on life. But I know that injecting the characters in my paintings with a life of their own is also exceptionally important. Particularly, I would point out the poor man at the edge of the pool with the red head wrap. When I viewed this enormous painting in person, I was captivated by him. He stared into my very soul as if begging me to assist him into the healing waters. Bloch imbues every figure in the painting with this kind of elemental, independent life and as the viewer, I found myself entranced by them, even absorbing their lives into my own. This kind of connection between the artist and the viewer through the medium of a piece of artwork is powerful. 
The artist then, in my opinion, carries a great weight of responsibility. A responsibility which includes taking care only to enhance and encourage positive movement in the stories of those who we reach and never to belittle or diminish the direction of the viewer’s story. Over the years, I’ve had countless experiences mingling my stories with those of my audience. It’s been a phenomenal journey of becoming, and sharing in the changing stories of those I’ve connected with. In storytelling, words can simply spark a smile or it can sway nations. What I’ve realized is how powerful art can be. If a picture is worth a thousand words, make that story count for something.

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