To make art more powerful, an artist needs to tell a relatable and personable story that art lovers and collectors can relate to.
The more incredible and real the story, the more powerful the art that is produced to tell it, will be.
Start By Telling A Story – The Power of Stories
Stories are the most powerful tool we, as artists have. It’s not how well we draw or paint or how skilled we are.
It is our ability to touch a nerve and make our art resonate with every day people.
Tell a story, there are over 6 billion of us and over 6 billion stories told every single day.
Re-Telling Well Known Stories
Artists have been using art to tell stories since the first caveman drew a hunter killing a mammoth on a cave wall. When religion became a core experience in more modern humans, we used art to bring to life stories in religious scripts.
Who could forget the “Garden Of Earthly Delights”? As a child I remember wondering what it all meant. I was frightened yet mesmerized by all the goings on in the painting.
It was only as I got older I found out about the stories behind each scene. Stories that can now be retold over and over without having read a single page about each one.
Now that’s power!
For those who could not read, seeing a painting or statue depicting a religious story cemented that story in their mind.
Most biblical stories were depicted through art in thousands of churches across Europe for over a thousand years.
Keeping the stories alive as each generation would see a painting and remember the story behind it.
More modern artists would tell similar stories, stories of war, heroism, pain and suffering.
Art would be used to tell the stories of lost ships, of famine and murder long before any newspaper or magazine could.
Artists would add symbols into their art to tell an alternative narrative that would only be picked up years after.
These days, professional and non-professional artists are much more sophisticated and know the power of a good story. A picture does tell a thousand words.
So while we see many talented artists draw the same images of eyes or a hyper reality painting of a bowl of fruit just for the ‘likes’, they are missing a valuable opportunity to put that great technical skill to better use.
I feel I was going down the same path until I worked out what made the more popular artists collectable.
Tell Your Own Stories Through Art
The first time I ever told a story through art was on my 30th birthday.
Before that I pretty much would only copy art I liked, created copies other people liked or painted things that made others happy.
While I was a skilled artist, I was not thinking like an artist.
My mindset was more about making a quick buck rather than creating anything memorable.
So back to that 30th Birthday story I told through art.
To this day it is the one original piece of art that gets the most comments.
It is the one I still get asked if it’s for sale (it isn’t).
As I was quite dense, it took over 10 years to finally work out why that 30th Birthday portrait was so powerful.
Yet, I still didn’t pursue the idea of creating art that told stories.
Instead I complained and groaned that I had artists block and I had no new ideas for art while I wasted more valuable time NOT creating any work.
Telling Your Personal Stories Makes Your Art More Relatable
Most of our personal stories are not unique. Very rarely do we have experiences that are not shared in one way or another with another human being.
The reason we have empathy is that we can relate to someone else’s experiences.
When we create art that is telling a story, the chances are quite high that someone else will relate to your experience and see some of themselves in your art.
This relatability will make your art as well as you, the artist more popular as more and more people will see it and feel it.
Modern art fans are not like old art lovers. In the older art periods we had collectors who would buy art in the hope that the artist would become popular, their art would increase in value.
These days art collectors buy for pleasure as well as an investment but they also want to be reminded of certain experiences and hence they buy relatable art that tells a story similar to their own.
When you find a few fans and collectors such as these, then you will have found your true 1000 fans and your art will have some commercial longevity.
Using Stories to Overcome Artist Block
As I mentioned previously, I suffered from a severe case of Artists Block. Think of it as writer’s block.
I tried the same approaches to breaking it as one would writer’s block.
I read lots of books and articles on the subject and tried the most common piece of advice which was to write little and write often. Just write what comes into your head.
So I translated that for what an artist would do and I would draw little drawings and draw often.
I drew what came into my head.
I was not happy with the results.
In fact, it made my artist block even worse. I started to feel like I could no longer even draw properly. What I created looked like something I would have done as a 10 year old.
The art made no sense and it was garbage.
It wasn’t until this year that I started ‘studying’ what made the more popular artists on Instagram get a following as well as what artists throughout the years did.
Contemporary artists that are worth anything are telling small stories. Some their own some not.
The more powerful ones are telling local stories of the suffering of people around them.
Others are documenting injustices in the world, the sad stories of others.
This gives them a lot of material to draw upon (no pun intended).
I also revisited my favorite artists from when I was a kid, Salvador Dali, Caravaggio, Georges De La Tour, Vermeer and Van Gogh. I noticed they all told stories.
Some were drawing from religion, some from parables, old stories. While Vermeer and Van Gogh were telling local and personal stories.
Perhaps I should try telling local and personal stories as well.
Though my local subject matter is uninteresting to me I had lots of personal stories I could tell.
What Stories Could I Tell and Who To?
That is when I decided to go past my own problems and get out of my own pity party and start telling the stories of my loved ones through my eyes and experiences.
That would give me a lot to say and create.
And I was actually energized by this idea.
I opened up a Google doc and started writing down all my life experiences from the past 10 years that I would want to ‘talk’ about through my art.
That’s what Van Gogh did (without the google docs bit of course!)
I also decided to draw on Vermeer and use as much symbolism as I could think of and overlay that into my works to tell an alternative narrative to what was being said or drawn.
Suddenly my list went from 2 to 5 lines to 20 and I actually had to stop myself at around 45 ideas!
My artist’s block seemed to vanish within an hour.
Now I had to make some sense of it, because I did not want to start telling random stories.
I wanted my stories to have some meaning.
I would start at the middle of the 10 year period, when I received some very sad news and jump to when my children were born (very happy news) and then fill the in-between art works to tell the ups and downs of my life.
Organising Your Art into Stories Creates a Backlog of Work To Do
After looking at my Google doc of works to create, I decided to utilize my training in Kan-ban and Scrum (I work in software and website development for a living) and it is a very methodical way to organize the work to do next.
I took all my stories and put them into a Trello board and wrote for each story the detail of what the artwork would say, what it was about and what I should not say or paint.
Not all stories or all parts of a story are meant to be told.
I started first with my friend Ian’s suicide. I documented how it would look, what I should include.
I started to create not only a written description of the artwork but I also started to imagine what it looked like.
That was the sad story done. I wanted to start with that one as a form of closure.
I kept getting asked about his death and to this day I refuse to disclose what he did but I decided that in the work I would lay it all out there.
I then decided I needed to tell my loved ones what my first thoughts about them were through art.
I thought it would be beautiful for my children to see what daddy thought of them as they were born and to see something of themselves from my own eyes.
My wife came next. While she would kill me for painting her, I know to respect her wishes and stretch my ability as an artist to tell our story without painting her as I usually would.
My brother would be next. With him, we have lots of unique stories to tell.
I decided I wanted to show him what his mental illness looks like through my eyes so that he understands why I first approached his problems with anger and then through compassion.
Next are my parents, my siblings and then close friends.
My problem now is that I realize I have so many other stories to tell.
Like all the stupid things I got up to as a kid. I had more adventures than any kid in a Spielberg film, I went through some near escapes with death that nobody knows about.
I wrote it all down.
I now had countless stories to tell.
Now to execute on those and stop making excuses and start telling my stories.
I keep repeating to myself “Don’t become a wasted talent. Tell a story.”