Telling a Story on Canvas

Works by J.P. Peer.
Works by J.P. Peer.
Works by J.P. Peer.

Storytelling often comes naturally to artists. Sometimes the story starts on a single canvas or sheet of paper and doesn’t end until there is a gallery full of paintings, a suite of drawings, a set of illustrations, a series of fantasy art comic strips, or an entire graphic novel. Certain subject matters compel an artist to revisit them again and again, building on a concept or pushing it in different directions. The narrative can be a visible part of the artwork, in the form of a written story, but oftentimes it acts as an invisible framework that guides an artist through the creative process.

“Narrative is like an infrastructure that you can come back to and get more and more out of it each time. Each work turns out rich by itself, but there’s also something to reach for,” says artist David Sandlin, who is also an adviser for second-year graduate students in the Illustration as Visual Essay program at the School of Visual Arts, in New York City.  Students in the program work toward discovering what is integral for all artists to discover—the kind of artists they want to be and what form their work will take, whether fantasy pictures of other worlds or realistic views of the places and people around them. Along their journey they also develop an understanding of the possible uses of narrative in their work.

“Telling a story visually seems poignant and resonates strongly with me,” says Laura Peyton, an artist, bookmaker, and illustrator who is graduating from the program this year. “There is something about communicating visually that is incredibly powerful, but sometimes the words seem overwhelming. I often start with images, building the story from the images I create. That way, the viewer can have their own personal interpretation.” 

Works by Laura Peyton.
Works by Laura Peyton.
Works by Laura Peyton.

Even if they are not aware of it, visual artists often develop some sort of narrative in their work. Storytelling takes many forms and at its root is about communicating and connecting with the viewer, which many artists aspire to do. “Michelangelo is one of the greatest artists in history, and every work he produced was informed by a story. Working in an unclear manner with no effort to reach your audience can be problematic,” says J.P. Peer, an oil and acrylic painting artist and draftsman who is also a recent graduate of the Illustration as Visual Narrative program and the creator of many fantasy images that speak to the worlds available to an artist with an open mind.  “I used to think of each piece I did as a standalone work, but stepping up to a blank canvas can be intimidating. But if you have a story—or a world of stories—in mind, it’s like painting an entire world, one that’s created in your own style and by your own hand. It’s liberating, and if you do it correctly, people respond and they escape thoroughly into your work.”

There seems to be an undeniable affinity between figurative and representational artwork and the presence of a narrative, whether it be one where fantasy images come to the forefront or steeped in representational realism. How do you find yourself using narrative and storytelling in your work? Is it in the forefront of your process or a more like a well of inspiration? Let us know by leaving a comment.

If you'd like to explore the process of painting and the accompanying techniques of a visual artist that can communicate your story, consider Linda Kemp's Negative Painting Techniques – Acrylic, a unique and highly useful resource-and possible source of inspiration as well. Enjoy!

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Courtney Jordan

About Courtney Jordan

  Courtney is the editor of Artist Daily. For her, art is one of life’s essentials and a career mainstay. She’s pursued academic studies of the Old Masters of Spain and Italy as well as museum curatorial experience, writing and reporting on arts and culture as a magazine staffer, and acquiring and editing architecture and cultural history books. She hopes to recommit herself to more studio time, too, working in mixed media.   

2 thoughts on “Telling a Story on Canvas

  1. Whether painting a mural, a portrait, or working on children’s book illustrations, the story behind the image is always my starting point. It’s what sparks my imagination in the first place! I was just telling my painting students the other day that even the greats (such as Michelangelo) focused on historical or political narrative in their work.