Does Your Art Tell a Story?

I have heard over and over from judges and workshop teachers that a painting or work of art needs to “tell a story”.  I keep asking myself, “exactly what kind of story?”  Now if I paint people walking on the beach or children building a sand castle—I have a story.  But what about a beautiful floral or a wildlife portrait or an abstract —how do I tell a story here?

Recently in “American Watercolor”, author Kelly Kane quoted master painter Alvaro Castagnet—“Art is not prettiness; it’s mood, feeling.  If you think art has to be pretty, you’re missing the point—when I look at a painting, I ask, are you giving me a story---a painting I can love for all time---or are you giving me a strawberry cake---something pretty.”  He goes on to say, “We need to interpret (not simply record) what we see, that’s how we can call ourselves artists.”

So, how does all this come together?  Is excellence in technical skills important?  Do I have a “story” to tell, an emotion, a point of view?  Can you interpret a lovely flower?

Breaking this down—yes, technical skills are quite important, but is it enough? Is there “more” that takes a work of art from technically excellent to award winning, unforgettable.  What is that ingredient?

Part of the equation is something we discussed in the ArtSpeak blog series “Creative Connections”—YOU! It’s taking YOUR feelings, point of view, life experiences and expressing them in a way that the viewer can share.

Artist, Mark Mehaffey states, “Practicing, acquiring skills, and studying design will all lead to better paintings.  But what we really want to do are great paintings.  We want to say “wow” and hear others say “wow.”  To achieve that, there has to be more. “As a juror he looks for:

  • Connection: I need a connection, which can be emotional, intellectual or visceral.
  • Design: I appreciate a solid design with creative risk-taking, even to the extent of making something a bit off or awkward.
  • Technical excellence: I look for techniques that help the artist say what he or she intended to say, instead of the techniques being what he or she wanted to say.

If we accept that our art needs a story we must decide what emotion/idea/experience we want to share with the viewer and then the rest needs to support that point.  It could be using composition, color, line, symbolism, light, shape, repetition, etc.

Environmental artist, Mary Lou Dauray living in Sausalito, CA is dedicated to raising awareness about climate destruction and global warming.  One of her series is about the mining, burning and transportation of coal.  You can visit her at:  Below is one of her paintings in progress--a perfect example of a painting that tells a story and expresses the emotions of the artist.

Artist Joy Argent relates to the “telling of a story” in a different manner as stated in her bio.  “I don’t try to tell a story with my paintings.  I want my paintings to remind you of your own stories.  That is how you and I connect.”   You can visit Joy at:  or

So are we telling a “story” or creating a work of art that draws the viewer in and reminds them, touches them, makes them smile--maybe not YOUR story but something that sparks a story from the VIEWER’S point of reference or experiences--perhaps a combination of both?

Artist Keiko Tanabe often uses composition to tell a story.  She says, “Before opening my sketchbook, I have to remind myself that the composition is my intended narrative.  Some of the preliminary questions I ask myself are:  what in the subject grabs me the most?  How do I paint that? How do I want to communicate my impression of the scene?”

This is a lot to digest but it seems that Tanabe’s word “communicate” brings it all together.  Just creating a work of art without emotion; locked into a photographic reference or plein air image, does not give you the “WOW” that Mehaffey talked about earlier.  Whether you want the viewer to share your story or you want the viewer to be touched and remember a story of their own, it is about a story.  Through the design elements we choose and how we use them, a floral can tell a story, a portrait can tell a story, a “pretty” landscape can tell a story.

Victor Lundy, a 21-year old soldier in World War II sketched to find a creative outlet for his experiences.  He left an intimate record of one soldier’s experience on the front lines.  Lundy, now 92, was always sketching and studied architecture in NY before enrolling in the Army.  He has donated eight of his sketchbooks to the Library of Congress and can be viewed on line.  There is no better way to end this discussion of “telling a story” than with a couple of his sketches.

Does your art tell a story?  Do you think art works need to tell a story?  How do you define the word “story”?  Tell us what you think!

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Here is the KINGART™ Ultimate Series Mixed Media Collection that has everything you need to tell a story.  There are watercolor cakes and pencils, oil pastels, acrylic paint, brush tip markers, metallic, pastel and graphite pencils, drawing pad, sketchbooks, a fabulous tote to make carrying your tools easy, and much more!  Wonderful assortment to experiment with and decide how your story will unfold.


Leonardo Da Vinci by Walter Isaacson—filled with insights into the mind and life of da Vinci as an artist who loved art and science and as a man with dreams and faults.

The Artist’s Guide to Grant Writing by Gigi Rosenberg—solid advice on grant writing and tapping into resources.  Check your state art commission—each is different.  Most have a representative for each county or section.  You would be surprised to find grants that are available to a single artist or small art business!!

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Blog editor: Mary McCullah

Mary works from her own photo references painting primarily in acrylic and watercolor. She has been painting for over 40 years dedicating over 25 years to teaching and designing educational material. Having lived across the country, Mary and her husband now reside in North Augusta, SC where she divides her art time with her horse time! Want to know more about Mary:

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