December 31, 2014

The Secret to Great Illustration: Storytelling

Once Upon A Time…I recently did a weekend of portfolio reviews of science fiction and fantasy art. The artists showing their work were from all levels—some beginning their careers and others more accomplished. There was a range of skills, both from a technical standpoint as well as various disciplines represented. Some aspired to work on game art, others book covers and some concept art for film. I suppose the one piece of advice that was common for all was: Improve the storytelling.

On the surface, good storytelling must engage the viewer. Strive to create a level of visual deciphering that is necessary on the part of the viewer. It is the artist’s responsibility to carefully relate the story and control how this is done. When we tell a joke or a funny story, we save the punchline as pay-off until the end for maximum effect. Similarly, in illustration, we need to be careful how much of the story we are willing to provide at first glance. The payoffs are present but are cleverly and carefully placed using value and color and scale to act as secondary discoveries in the art. This is pure gold! Some examples:

  • We connect emotionally with the hero who runs toward us with an anxious expression and read his cringing body-language and then discover the threat he runs from.
  • We witness a peasant being robbed and then discover Robin Hood hidden in the shadows watching.

It becomes the viewer’s task to connect the two and tell the story. It’s an interactive immersion which solidifies the art as storytelling and instantly elevates the viewer’s desire to find out what is happening.

Great storytelling in any medium (art, film, theater, etc.) contains believability in the setting. Worldbuilding. Even if it will be mostly obliterated by figures or atmosphere in the final result, you should still have a three-dimensional understanding of the scene. It will show. Your viewer should wish he could stick his head within the edges of your work and see what is hidden beyond those boundaries. I’ve always been one enamored with the make-believe and looking into my past, I remembered what it was that inspires me when I art direct:

  • It was that movie I wish hadn’t ended and continued to ‘play’ The Goonies or Star Wars with friends.
  • It was the drive home with my uncle and sister after seeing my first theater movie, Star Wars. We drove up and down the terminal ramps at LaGuardia Airport as I stood on the seat so I can pop out of the moon roof to pretend I was manning the turret of the Millennium Falcon fighting the evil Empire.
  • It was the dioramas that I made during Elementary School which was more to me than just cut paper and modeling clay and an old shoebox.
  • It was the department store windows in NYC that we would visit at Christmas time.
  • It was the animal displays at The Museum of Natural History and the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s American Wing, the Spanish Courtyard, Temple of Dendur and Japanese Garden.
  • It was any well-done theme park which created the illusion of a make-believe place from Walt Disney World to de Efteling in The Netherlands.

These are all things which if you had your way, you would spend countless hours of your childhood playing in. Are you ready to play? Build your scenes carefully while always considering the story and the pacing needed to tell it—all within a setting which is believable.

Artwork: “Once Upon a Time” ©James C. Christensen


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