What does it mean for a still image to tell a story? This has always seemed to me to be an intimidating element of visual art. After all, stories are complicated! Don’t they need plot, characters, worldbuilding, themes, etc.? How do you pack all of that into an image?
The good news is that the standards are different for a single image than for a novel or a film. You don’t need to completely develop and resolve a whole narrative. Instead, you can suggest one or more of these storytelling elements by implication. For example, suppose you painted a red shoe in the middle of a forest. This raises questions. How did it come to be there? What happened before the moment we see in the painting? Maybe other elements in your image explain it, and maybe they don’t; maybe you leave it up to the audience’s imagination, but either way, you’ve made them feel that there’s a story there.
In a single image, “story” is about suggesting what lies beyond the bounds of the frame. Make the viewer feel that the image is a snapshot of a larger world that extends, both in space and time: there’s a past that led up to the current moment and a future that will continue beyond it.
Elements that Suggest a Story
Here are some of the building blocks that you can use to build a story in a still image. This is not an exhaustive list.
These elements can create a sense of things happening.
- Movement: People, animals, or things that are mid-motion make the scene feel like a moment in time rather than a static, unchanging image.
- Transition: Even slower transitions (not “movement” exactly) can effectively suggest a dynamic world with a past and future. Examples: changing seasons, sunrise/sunset, city under construction.
- Discordance: Something out of place, wrong, unusual, etc. raises questions about what happened to cause the situation and what will happen next. (You may or may not provide any answers.) Examples: an item out of place, a subject with unexpected properties (size, color, state of decrepitude, etc.), a group with an “odd man out” (one of these things is not like the others)
These elements can help to ground your viewer in a particular place/time/situation.
- Specificity: Being extremely specific in your observations of place, time (time of day/season), atmosphere, etc. What time of day is it? What kind of light would you expect in this time and place?
- Exaggeration: Draw attention to the elements of your world that you find most interesting, unusual, novel, etc. by way of exaggerating them. This is a way of taking liberties with specificity in the service of telling the truth the way it feels. When in doubt, ask yourself “What made me want to paint this?” and exaggerate that element, toning down the rest.
- Contrast: A method of exaggeration, or a visual method in its own right; show what’s big by painting it next to something small, what’s bright by painting it next to something dull, etc.
- Continuity: Imply a world beyond the bounds of the frame. Allow elements to continue beyond the frame, or include elements that poke in from the side. Invite the viewer to “step into” the frame with elements that extend into the horizon.
These elements help the viewer build emotional attachment and sympathy with the “characters” of the painting (whether or not there are humans in your painting).
- Gesture: Depict characters showing emotion with face or body language (or appearing to). Even non-human subjects can seem to show emotion, e.g. a tree whose branches are pointed in a “cheering” gesture.
- Interaction: Show characters or elements interacting with each other or with the environment. Demonstrate or imply relationships. This can be as simple as grouping subjects close to each other, or having them turned toward/looking at each other.
- Point of View: Suggest the “camera” or viewer as a character in the situation. Think through who is “looking” at this scene and where they’d be in relation to the other subjects. Two characters speaking in a room at eye height suggests a different story than the same characters’ feet seen from under the bed.
These elements can help your image to feel more emotionally or intellectually meaningful.
- Mood: Even if your painting doesn’t have “characters,” you can still harness the power of emotion in your viewer. Think about the emotion you want to inspire and how to use the elements in your image to support that emotion (and/or intentionally subvert it).
- Message: Some images have an intentional message. For example, a peaceful wilderness scene marred with trash conveys a message about litter and human destruction of the natural world.
- Mystery: Leaving questions unanswered is a way of inviting the viewer to fill in the blanks themselves, which can be more powerful than straight-up telling them something.
Landscape Cheat Sheet
Most of these items have to be decided at the planning stages of an image, but I’ve assembled a cheat sheet of simple elements that can be added in late stages, or even right at the end, to quickly make a landscape feel more dynamic.
Birds (or other flying critters like butterflies and dragonflies) are a great way to break up a large expanse of sky. Pro tip: make the birds different sizes and/or different states of flappiness. A liner brush can be a good way to get thin, flexible shapes.
Liven up night skies. (One is probably ideal, or 2-3 to suggest a meteor shower, but careful – it’s easy to go wild.)
A great way to add dreamy movement and a sense of seasonality is to add falling petals (to spring scenes with flowering trees), pollen (to summer scenes), leaves (to autumn scenes), and snow (to winter scenes). It worked for Stardew Valley!
Gouache splatter can suggest several of the items above, and more (fireflies, stars, water droplets, bokeh, etc.) The more abstract your painting, the less you have to commit to which one you’re trying to represent. I’ve seen paintings with white splatter over them and I had no idea what it represented (if anything) and it still looked magical. Still, as with all elements, I think specificity will add verisimilitude even to a very loose landscape.
Principles: Movement, Transition
Tiny trees are a great way to show scale for a mountain or other grand scene.
Even if you don’t really like to draw people, adding one or more simple little silhouette person-figures to a landscape can be another relatively easy way to show scale and grandeur. It can also be a great way to add “characters” for your viewer to relate to; depict emotion via body language; and/or (with multiple figures) storytell about relationships.
Principles: Contrast, Gesture, Interaction.
You can still show interactions between people and the landscape (as well as human scale compared to the landscape) without actually painting people. Some suggestions:
- Add a sailboat, paddleboarder, or little swimmer to a lake.
- Nestle a little cabin or tent into the woods.
- Wind a road, track, wall, or electrical wire through your landscape.
- Show footprints in the sand.
- Stack cairns on a rock.
- Drop some belonging left behind by a human passing through.
Principles: Contrast, Interaction, Mystery.
For example, shrubs or tree branches poking into frame, or grass in front of everything else. (This can be especially easy to add in the final step if your lighting conditions allow you to place foreground objects in silhouette, e.g. a sunset scene.) Provides a natural frame for your landscape, creates depth, grounds your viewpoint “character” in a more specific location, and implies there’s more stuff in the environment beyond the edges of the frame.
Principles: Continuity, Point of View
Invites the viewer to “step in.” Suggests human activity/interaction in the landscape. Raises the question: where does this path go, and what’s right around the bend?
Principles: Continuity, Mystery
You can get as much into storytelling as you like with your artwork; it can be considered at every stage of the process, from concept and sketch to final detail. The same principles that apply to landscape photography can be used in watercolor or other forms of painting and drawing.
But don’t worry if you’ve just painted what you wanted to paint and realize just at the end that it still seems a bit flat on the page. Even simple changes and last-minute additions can make a big difference to the dynamism of your image!
What other (deceptively simple) strategies do you like to use to build or enhance story in landscapes? Let me know in the comments!