Painting the Implied Story

Christopher Best

It is said that the author C.S.Lewis began the writing of his famous Narnia Chronicles with the mental image of a faun standing in the snow near a lamppost. He then began to think of other images that he felt were compelling and created a story around them.  Setting the scene is an intuitive way to create a story. For the artist making a narrative painting, the scene is all we have to work with. Without the option of spelling it out we are left to imply the story. So what do I mean by "implying a story." Let's see if I can get at the difference between story in writing and painting, as I see it. I'm no literary scholar.


In painting the viewer begins where the artist left off, being drawn into a visual experience to have a conversation. If it is a stand-alone painting, and not a series, it really leaves a lot open for interpretation. It's far more open-ended than a continuous narrative. It asks questions, and then gives the viewer the opportunity to answer them according to their own sensibilities. In a written narrative there is usually a specific direction and intent that draws you through the story, that is part of what makes a story compelling. With a painting, the viewer has the opportunity to get lost for a little while. This is not to say that there is no intent. The intention for me is that the viewer complete the story given with the information present. In a sense they are making it their own. Perhaps the "choose your own adventure" books are close to what I'm getting at. Even then there are only a few different paths the reader can take to specific destinations. In contrast, in an implied narrative painting the only thing that cannot change are the visible things, everything else is open to interpretation. It becomes very important for the artist to be selective in what is included in the painting. There may be varying degrees of story in any painting. Just to be clear, I don't have all of these ideas fully worked out or the exact intentions of them fully mapped as I am painting. Maybe that is why this concept appeals to me, the exploratory nature of it. In each story painting I have created so far, I have found it particularly fascinating to hear how every viewer has a different interpretation of the story seen in the painting.  Some people really connect with a piece and purchase it based on a narrative interpretation that I would never have considered. I suppose that every image can have some degree of story associated with it. Even a totally abstract painting may remind you of a time in your past, or a personal experience.


"A Day For The Books"  24" x 37"  $2750 


For me the evolution of story in my painting has been a gradual one. From time to time I would include a figure in a landscape. My wife posed for a few pieces I did while in Berlin, Maryland during an outdoor painting competition. I began to see that there was something compelling about placing the figure in a landscape. One reason for the gradual move in this direction is a practical one. Learning to paint the landscape well is a demanding task, painting the figure is equally so. There are some areas of overlap but in my experience figure and landscape are just as different as they are related.


 "Leap of Faith" 10"x20" SOLD


One painting I made that really turned the tables for the way I look at the landscape is “Leap of Faith” (posted above). The idea for this painting came from my personal life. I used to take my dog down to the water on the Chesapeake Bay. As a puppy he was so full of energy and wanted so badly to be in the water. But he couldn’t bring himself to jump in. I would be swimming in the water and he would pace the dock, whining and barking, wanting to be swimming with me but not willing to make the jump. One day I swam far out to a floating dock leaving him on the mainland dock. When I was about half way there he finally threw himself onto the water, off of the end of the pier. I can speculate as to why he was finally willing to do this.  It may be best left to individual interpretation, but I thought that the image was a compelling one.  From that point on he carelessly threw himself off of the end of the pier and loved every minute of it. I carried that idea into the painting and eventually, a few years later (now) I created a story around it. I took the approach of Lewis and thinking primarily visually in order to craft a story. I wasn’t really interested in directly translating the story as it happened in my life but using that as a springboard for a new way of expressing the idea. Something in my dog had changed and allowed him to make a leap and his life was better for it.


"Kingdom of Sand" 16" x 20"   $1125


So as you might have guessed by now I am in the process of illustrating that story. I hope to have it finished relatively soon. It will rely mostly on pictures to tell the story. Leaving as much room for interpretation as possible while still carrying out a narrative. The first image I made of the dog making the leap was done in oil. Although I feel that medium worked for the original image I decided that graphite pencil would be better for the other images. So I embarked on illustrating roughly 20 scenes, drawing and re-drawing. I’m pleased to say that I am most of the way there! So stay tuned for updates on the book.


The paintings I've included in this blog are some of the steps I have taken along the way in the  journey of the implied narrative painting. Many of them are or have been started on location and completed in the studio. Just to be clear, I plan to continue to paint the landscape on location. I plan to let working directly from the source (landscape) influence the addition of characters and the story approach I have been talking about. I am still very interested in the landscape as the subject. I'm just asking the question, what is the setting for? Beauty for it's own sake is a worthwhile motif. But life is a story perhaps more than anything else.  As I said before, I think that any painting can and does cary some level of story. My goal as I see it, is to give as much information as is necessary to send the viewer off in a direction and then see what they bring back from it. 


"Johnnies vs Middies, and the rest of us"  24" x 36"   $2700

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