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Let’s face it, everybody loves a good story. No matter how it is told, it is one of the most engaging activities known to humankind. It could be the latest blockbuster to hit the screen, a new thriller in paperback, a comedian on stage talking about a funny encounter, or the sharing of gossip between neighbours. It is the same with art. Everybody loves a good painting. The colour, the subject, the scene, all play their part in capturing the attention of the viewer, the art lover, and potential purchaser.

Storytelling intrigues us and brings us together to share experiences, understandings and entertain one another. When we hear the story of something or someone, it enriches our knowledge of that person, event, or topic. We become more engaged and informed.

But how does storytelling fit in with artwork? And what is it that turns a good painting into a great piece of artwork? Well, it may very well be a familiarity with the artwork itself. Hearing about its background, its history or something else about it that has made it stand out from others. The story that has developed around the artwork can enhance its appeal.

Numerous times, I have heard the phrase “a picture paints a thousand words.” It is true in many circumstances, but a picture really tells a story if you have more knowledge about its context, when you are a little more informed about the artwork in front of you and you know something of the story associated with it.

So, how do you tell a story around an artwork that will capture the interest and expand the knowledge of the viewer, build your reputation, and hopefully sell your artwork? Well, a story does not have to be anything spectacular. It doesn’t need to be ‘War and Peace.’ Just finding the right title for a painting can be enough to spark a story in the viewer’s mind, capturing their imagination in a way that goes beyond the artwork that hangs alongside it.

There are many ways to create a story behind your artwork and make a particular piece more appealing to people. What you are doing is creating a depth of knowledge for the viewer to become more engaged with the artwork, and more importantly with you as the creator.

All you need to do is spend some time asking yourself some simple questions. For instance, why did you decide to paint that picture in the first place? Ask yourself what was going through your mind when you came up with that idea. And of course, as you are doing this, write down your answers and comments. They don’t need to be in any particular order, just get them down on paper or on the computer. You now have the basis of your first story. From this will come other questions that you can think of answers for, such as what you are going to include, how and what materials are you going to use. Also, think of the message you want the viewer to pick up on.

For instance, in my book “The Storytelling Artist: The Road to Controversial Art,” I tell stories of paintings I created using questions such as these, which developed into whole chapters. An example is a painting I created called “Nation of Hope.” It is the story of my trip to the Halcyon Gallery in London and my experience of seeing artwork by Mitch Griffiths for the very first time. His paintings truly inspired me.

So, I looked to grasp that inspiration and find a person to pose for an idea I had in mind. I recount my search for the right model, someone who would represent the title of the painting. I also tell of the working environment that she came from, which was relevant to the story I was creating. The objects in the painting are also important. In this case it was the Welsh flag. Therefore, I explain its meaning and its strength for the wearer, subtlety linking this back to the whole image and the title.

In the case of another painting I created called “Pussycat,” the story was how to create a photorealistic painting of a dancer and what I wanted to achieve when a person looked at the artwork. I wanted them to question whether it was a photograph or a painting. I describe my attempt to aim high and really challenge myself to achieve something which at the time was beyond my skill level. I talk of the materials I use, again mentioning who the model was, and I allude to photorealism art itself. Here, I also talk throughout of the emotion I felt in attempting this.

With “Think Like, Be Like,” the story is about creating an image that makes people think and look a second time (or more!). The painting is of an armed Police Officer wearing the anarchists’ Vendetta mask, often used in riots to disguise rioter’s identities. Here I talk about the image and what is going through the officer’s mind. The story is about the subject and their appearance. The key notion is to try to understand what he must be thinking; that in order to capture the villain he must, to a certain extent, think like the villain. But how far does this go before the officer himself becomes the villain? That is the story behind this painting and one which can provoke some very challenging thoughts.

However, the story behind an artwork does not need to be complicated. If you paint people’s pets, the story can simply be the love that family has for their pet, the pet’s character and familiar quirks, and the lasting memories that the artwork can hold for that household. If it is of a landscape, the story is easily told of the location, the history of how that view has changed, or a prominent memory of where it is, or even of the weather on the day it was created and issues that ensued.

With a portrait, it could very well be the look on a face or the position of the person that suggests something that will make the viewer want to know more. Again, those questions that the viewer may ask you, the very same questions that may come into your mind when you look at other artwork, will help to tell the story of why you chose that model, that stance, and why there is that look on their face.

You are only passing on the information to others of what originally made you put pencil or paintbrush to paper or canvas and create that image. However, that information now gives depth and passion in the form of a story and sits alongside your artwork, enticing the viewer to understand and engage more with you.

It is only right that the artwork you have spent so much time and effort to create by trial and error, and by picking yourself up again and again, should carry more depth to it. It is more than just the image on the wall. The trouble and strife that you have experienced to get to where you are now with this piece of art is a story itself, and that is well worth talking about and will certainly raise the curiosity and value of your artwork for those who are interested.

So, in a nutshell, create your art and tell its story. There is a whole world out there waiting for it.

Ian Mackenzie

Author of “The Storytelling Artist: The Road to Controversial Art”

This article was published for Ken Bromley Art Supplies on 4th August 2021

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Tomorrow, I meet up with a person who, when I was ten years old, had a huge impact on me and my life. Whilst at Victoria Junior School, Penarth, some forty-six years ago, a teacher took me under her wing and taught me for a full ten months in her class. Since that time, we have only briefly met once.

I would often ask myself; I wonder what became of Miss Glaves? Had she continued teaching, where had she ended up? Did she live locally, and I just did not recognise her, or was she now on the other side of the world in a totally different lifestyle to that which I remember her for?

I had previously tried to see if I could find what had happened to her through a website called Friends Reunited, and I posted a question asking where she was. But nothing came of it and once more, I considered this plight to be no more than a fond memory of a moment of my life, and we had now all moved on.

However, my memories are vivid of that exciting time when all we wanted to do was to absorb the information, the experiences, the creativity, and run as fast as we could until it was time to sleep.

One rainy winter afternoon in class, when the temperature fluctuated between boiling hot from the overheated classroom to the bitter chill of the cold air outside, and Miss Glaves announced, “everybody out, I’ve had enough of you in here, you need your fresh air”, we charged forth into the vast expanse of the playground. On our way through the door, I recall my mate and I noticing her quietly reached behind her desk and producing a beautiful Spanish guitar for the next lesson when we returned from the battlefield outside.

We had not seen anything like it in the flesh before. Yes, the black and white tv showed groups of musicians strumming, blowing, and hitting their instruments, and some class members did a pretty good impression of these talented people. It was just a shame that the sound left a lot to be desired. But the enthusiasm counted for everything at that age.

Wide eyed and with disbelief, we watched in awe and listened with the intent of a person hearing for the very first time. The melodic sound, the harmonious combination of chords being formed and linked together, taking us on a journey of sound and emotion. We sat, captivated.

The impact was so much that this instrument was the number one priority in my mate’s and my life. Xmas lists were rewritten, and we hoped and prayed that our begging to our parents would pay off. Fortunately, it did. There, at the beginning of the January school term, John Rook and I stood outside the school gate admiring each other’s guitar cases, refusing to admit that these oversized items were too heavy for our spindly arms, our parents smiling at each other whilst we clumsily made our way in through the main door and along to our daily sanctuary that others called the classroom.

Rock’n’Roll was about to get serious, not that we had any idea whatsoever about it, the fashion, or the culture. But it was the initial step. And it started with the song “Take Me Home, Country Roads” with Miss Glaves.

This was not the only first experience of a new world that this teacher introduced me to. Being quite a shy youngster who wanted to be part of everything that was happening around me, but just could not make that step, I never really went anywhere further than I could without the comfort of knowing where one of my parents were. This was commonplace and daily life for us all. That was until I came home telling my mother that I was going to Belgium for a full week with the school.

Shocked was not the word to describe her look. I had never been further than her apron strings had stretched to, and for a working class terraced housed family, Belgium was a place that existed solely in school geography books.

The key to this trip? The reason why I felt reassured and confident to venture further than the front door? Miss Glaves. And off I went as an excited ten-year-old for an absolutely magical week to Belgium on the other side of the world!

And tomorrow, I finally catch up with the teacher who helped to give me the confidence to do something different to which I was used to. It will be an opportunity to relive those special moments, to fill in those missing years and again be grateful for what I now have in my life.

So, looking back on the characters that have influenced me, I count my blessings that I have had some wonderful people behind the scenes, supporting and encouraging me in many different ways, even if I did not recognise these at the time, which is often the case for many of us.

In reflection, revisiting past memories and catching up with Miss Glaves is in some way a part of the theory of the full circle. Back in that haven of a fantastic period of schooling, she displayed a piece of my artwork which I was so proud of at that time, I had to write about it in my book, as you may very well know.

Now, some forty-six years later, my son, being a successful musician who travels the world playing guitar with his band to large crowds, also plays his very own rendition of “Take Me Home, Country Roads”. Of course, it is much better than anything that I could have played, but I am not admitting that to him.

And as I look forward to tomorrow’s meeting, a thought just crossed my mind. I hope I don’t have any outstanding homework!

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Every now and then, an artist hits on something that is like gold to them. It may not have a high monetary value; it may not mean anything at all to another. But to the artist, at that moment, it is the centre of their world. How long it lasts depends on several factors, but if it is truly that moment that we all crave, it lasts an exceptionally long time indeed, if not stays with a person for life.

Sometimes it is an experience of seeing something for the very first time or being in the presence of an influential person who captures their attention and inspires greater belief in themselves.

On other times, it is something that you do which makes you think about that action or occurrence, and hopefully, on these occasions, it is something that is memorable for the right reason.

In my case, this moment recently happened when I was asked to consider painting a portrait of a child. This was not going to be the normal pose that we often see. It was a close up of a young boy wearing the helmet of a medieval knight.

He was peering through the gap, proudly playing his part in a medieval world full of youngsters, dressed in their own costumes, their individual adventures intertwining with his. The birthday celebrations were in full swing. However, he had just experienced one of those emotional party moments, and eyes welling with tears, he faced the camera.

The shot was taken, and the image was caught.

And I was asked to capture this look in traditional oil paint, to preserve that moment for it to be hung in the family home, creating an everlasting memory of that young character, emotionally caught up in the excitement and bewilderment of a child’s party, as he bravely went forth once more into battle against, fairies, unicorns and other fictitiously dressed youngsters. A memory we all know too well, and no doubt, wish we could venture back to just for one more time.

What developed on canvas over the next weeks, layer upon layer and cautiously manipulated brush strokes, was that very flashback to those times of carefree abandonment of my own exciting childhood, and the want to create a photorealistic image that would stand above and beyond the last painting I achieved.

Finally, as the knight in shining armour peered through his upturned helmet visor, a character started to look back at me. And when that happens, you as an artist know that you have captured what you intended, and at times, even more than you expected.

That moment had just occurred. Spencer, the medieval adventurer of fantasy party worlds, stood tall and proud, defiantly replacing the tears of disappointment with joyful playfulness. His childhood quest of dragons, baddies, and chocolate cake, all captured in oil on canvas in a memory forever.

The priceless moment of a family’s recollection of their little hero there for the whole world to witness.

Excitement and sentiment, the value of art and the knowledge that no matter who the character captured is, in real story terms, heroes carry their emotions for all to see with the audience willing them to overcome and succeed.

And then the request came in. A portrait of his arch enemy, his adversary, his nemesis. Yes, his cousin!

To be continued…….

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