The Storyteller

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John MacDonald, a brilliant landscape painter and thoughtful writer and teacher, has offered some very interesting observations about five roles you can play as a painter. Somewhat like an actor, the talented artist has the ability to switch roles as needed. Whether you create as a Poet, Reporter, Storyteller, Designer, or Virtuoso, is really up to you, but is determined by your conceptual intent.

This week we discuss the Storyteller’s role. (Click images to enlarge)


The Storyteller

When I was in college in the 1960’s, the fine art side of the art department despised us on the commercial art side, and the artist they despised the most, above all commercial artists, was Norman Rockwell.

Rockwell was a Storyteller. He told stories that the “educated” artist looked upon as sentimental, narrative, trite works that were not “real art.” I think many illustrators of Rockwell’s day experienced something similar. Rockwell, Winslow Homer, even N.C. Wyeth struggled with the relationship between fine art and illustration from time to time. They might have been feeling pressure from the “intellectual” art critics of the day. I don’t know for sure, but wouldn’t be surprised.

Norman Rockwell (1894-1978) – “Shuffleton’s Barbershop” – 38″ x 27″ – Oil (1950)

N.C. Wyeth (1882-1945) – “The Scythers” – 38″ x 27″ – Oil (1908)

Frederic Remington (1861-1912) – “Buying Ponies in the West” – 27″ x 40″ – Oil


That said, I’d say all the illustrators before and during the Rockwell era were storytellers, even when they were creating art in order to sell a product. Much of their work, however, was editorial in nature, and that by its very nature is storytelling. Western artists are primarily storytellers: Charles Russell, Frederic Remington, Howard Terpning, Bill Anton, etc.

As hated as storytelling art is among the so called “elite”, the average, non-educated, deplorables love it and relate to it because it is human, real, and understandable.

John MacDonald’s definition of the artist Storyteller is quite clear. “The Storyteller focuses on the literal content in a painting, on its narrative. The subjects and objects in the painting are primary. A painting of a barn isn’t just an abstract red shape in the landscape, it’s a structure that speaks of agriculture and local history and, depending on its condition, whether the farm (and society) is healthy or in decline. In most story paintings, the landscape is a mere backdrop. Since Ancient Egypt, this was the only respectable role of a painter and it lingers today.”

Rembrandt (1606-1669) – “Peter Denouncing Christ” – 60″ x 66″ – Oil (1660)

Jean-Francois Millet (1814-1875) – “Gust of Wind” – 36″ x 46″ – Oil (1871-73)

Ivan Nikolaevich Kramskoy (1837-1887) – “Moonlight Night” – 70″ 53″ – Oil (1880)


The power of a storytelling painting is often dependent on the presence of the human figure. Its depiction in art is relatable to all humanity, regardless of culture, race, age, gender, education, religion, or time in history. The human figure need not be the predominant element in a painting for the work to still have a storytelling focus. Additionally, the title of a narrative painting will often give a clue to the story.

Jean-Leon Gerome (1824-1904) – “The Gray Eminence” – 25″ x 39″ – Oil (1873)


Except for Reporter paintings, those that accurately recorded the visible, it seems most other paintings prior to 1900 are storytelling works…historical, religious, or mythological in nature. By the late 1800s, with the onset of Impressionism, that began to change. There always existed individual artist Storytellers, but Naturalism, running parallel with Impressionism, seems to me to be the last recognized art movement that was strongly narrative in focus.

John Pototschnik – “At Least the Reception is Good” – 12″ x 12″ – Oil


As we entered the 1900s, radical changes began to take place. What was probably a legitimate rejection of the “old guard” by the Impressionists. devolved into a totally new expression…not merely one of rejection but one of destruction…a distortion of reality that also had a spiritual dimension to it. The new art no longer spoke to the masses through storytelling images, but instead became a form of Gnosticism in which only an elite class of individuals had acquired the knowledge to understand the new art. For the masses, the art critic provided the interpretation.

Apart from the Dutch painters of the 17th Century, my favorite artistic movement is that of Naturalism; it only lasted 20 years but its impact on painting remains to this day. It was a powerful Storytelling art, full of deeply felt images that resonated with the human soul.

Gari Melchers (1860-1932) – “The Sermon” – 63″ x 87″ – Oil (1886)

Frank Bramley (1857-1915) – “The Hopeless Dawn” – 48″ x 66″ – Oil (1888)


In closing, John MacDonald, stresses the point that if you want to be a good Storyteller, you must be skilled at drawing and rendering. “Figures and objects carry the narrative in a story painting: consequently, having the ability to render form, especially the figure and human-made objects, is crucial. Good drawing skills are mandatory. A Poet can take liberties with the appearance of a tree or rock in a landscape and no one would know or care, but a figure must read instantly and accurately as a human being. There is little room for error when establishing forms and proportions. If you wish to be a storyteller, work on your drawing skills and your ability to render form in paint.”

Once again, thanks to John MacDonald for his shared insights. Next week, we’ll look at the Designer.


To view John MacDonald’s website, click HERE.


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