The Importance of Visual Storytelling
It was probably 2008 when I first saw an illustration that was going to change my life – “Rain”, by the amazing Marek Okon (seriously, check him out). I found it as a wallpaper on some obscure website – a girl in a yellow raincoat, holding on to a grenade. At first glance it was only a beautifully rendered illustration… at second glance, I was literally blown away.
An Image with a Story
I remember admiring the beautifully painted face, the teary eyes, the slick, plastic-y texture of the raincoat, the accurate rendition of the hand holding the grenade… and then, as my eyes followed a circular motion on the illustration, it struck me- in her other hand she was holding the ring of the grenade. I suddenly realized the imminence of the explosion, the drama of the situation, what a precious, vibrant moment the artist captured. And then I felt like taking a step back, to take it all in.
And it hit me again- her body was covered in sniper lasers. It brought shivers to my spine. This is what narrative does to a piece of art. Not only it made me explore the illustration thoroughly, looking for more clues about the story behind the image, it actually awakened powerful emotions in me.
Narrative in an artwork is not just about depicting an intense action scene. In this example nothing is moving, but it is only the calm before the storm. As viewers, we can guess what happened right before, and what will happen right after- only one image triggers a series of images in our heads, almost like a movie. Also, it sets the cogwheels of our mind in motion: what made her pull the ring on the grenade? Why is she a sniper target? Will she throw the grenade at her attackers or blow herself up with it?
How to Add Narrative to a Character Portrait
When starting on an illustration for a character, for instance, and assuming you want your character to be memorable, don’t stick to the first thought that comes to your head. Try to think deeper about who your character is, his purpose, his feelings at the moment you want to depict in your illustration – you might be surprised what you can come up with, to improve your artwork.
For example- let’s take a little boy in his room, playing with a ping pong ball against the wall. Pretty simple, right? Who is this boy though? What kind of family is he from? Does he enjoy his activity?
A good question to ask is “what if”. Ask it as many times as you like, until you reach a satisfying (and hopefully unpredictable) conclusion.
What if he is in a brightly lit room, and through the door we can see the dark hallway of the house, and the silhouettes of two adults ( a man and a woman) fighting in the background? All of a sudden, we know a bit more about the kid, and the image might resonate strongly with a part of your target audience.
What if he’s not playing with a ping pong ball, but actually a glossy, highly reflective plastic ball? You can see his hand in the middle of the throw – and it is all wrinkled, and the nape of his neck – and his hair is white -he is not a little boy, but an old man – only the reflection in the ball shows a youthful kid in his place.
How to Tell Interesting Stories Through Environments
The same principles applies to environments as well. Without a human element, even the best thought-out and interesting environment becomes nothing but landscapes. That is why most concept artists add human presence to their environments- it enhances the sense of scale, and the viewer can actually follow a visual “journey”.
Check out these examples by Feng Zhu (another incredible artist):
The little silhouettes guide your eyes through the piece, you see where they come from and where they are headed and you can follow their journey mentally – so always make sure the characters in your environment are heading towards the area you want your viewers to focus on.
The “what ifs” can be applied when it comes to environments as well – why just paint a generic swamp? What if, at the end of the swamp there’s a clearing leading into a village? Or why just paint a generic forest? What if our travelers are unknowingly heading towards a cave with ominous red eyes waiting in the darkness?
Using narrative can enhance an illustration, by hinting at the underlying story behind the image. Question yourself first, when starting on your sketch – what is the point of your illustration? What do you want it to convey? What do you want your viewer to be left with when looking at your finished artwork? Once you answer these questions, start playing around with the what ifs – your storytelling capabilities might even surprise yourself.
So what about you? Do you use narrative in your artworks?