Narrative painting is the most challenging genre in realistic art. It’s labor intensive and time consuming. It requires a solid foundation of drawing and sketching and adept portrait painting skills. It’s challenging and painstaking to create a narrative painting but perhaps the most fulfilling once you have the figures and story you have in mind rendered on canvas. I sometimes get questions about how to render ideas on canvas and how to select a subject. In this blog post and the next two, I’m going to share my experience in creating narrative paintings.
Selecting a subject
There are different genres of narrative paintings such as contemporary, historical, military (battle scenes), religious, fantasy, etc. Inspiration of a narrative painting topic can be from life experience, life observation or simply reading. I have created narrative paintings with contemporary and historical themes, but also stories based on Chinese mythology or literature.
創作畫題材有很多種 – 風俗畫，歷史畫，軍事畫，宗教畫，想像/玄幻。一個畫家選擇繪畫題材有各種因素，教育文化背景當然是重要原因，即文化教育人的傳承，而寫實畫家與周遭生活感受有關。我畫過風俗畫，歷史畫，也有根據中國傳說和文學作品畫過創作畫。
My narrative paintings mostly fall into two categories – contemporary and historical. I like contemporary narrative paintings. They can train my observation and sense of society and it’s easier to find suitable models and backdrop. I created a series of narrative paintings focusing on love stories of young people in Taipei. I use models for reference for characters in contemporary paintings but they don’t necessarily look identical to the model. What I strive to create and render on canvas is an artistic image that embodies what I feel and observe from life, an image not from snapping a photo, but an image that has gone through my imagination, distillation and refinement and is representative of a typical moment under a typical circumstance. More on this later.
I also like historical paintings which present a challenge to the artist’s understanding of historical characters and they psychology. My historical paintings present the mood and feelings of historical characters of a specific moment in history, leading the audience to explore and understand further these characters and their history. For example, the death of Consort Yang Gui Fei of the Tang dynasty is a well-known story among all Chinese. But the moment of her death at Mawei Courier Station is of particular interest to me. It’s a turning point in Chinese history. What the main characters, Consort Yang, her maid, Gao Lishi, General Chen Xuanli, experience at that moment gave me a lot of room for imagination to recreate the moment. I chose to employ chiaroscuro to reenact the historical moment to reenforce the dramatic effect. The entire process including research, going back and forth between different composition and color studies took me ten years.
For someone first trying out narrative painting, I would suggest starting with a contemporary theme. You can find inspiration based on observation of your life and people around you. It’s easier to conduct research on the selected topic and also find someone to model for your painting for composition and studies.
When you are brainstorming on the composition of the painting, ask yourself the following questions:
- Who including how many, gender, age, characteristics?
- Where and when?
- What are they doing?
- How do they do it?
By answering these questions, what I’m trying to create is a character/image under typical typical circumstances specific to the theme.
German philosopher Friedrich Engels said, “realism, to my mind, asides truth of detail, the truthful reproduction of typical characters under typical circumstances.” The keywords in this definition are: Truth, Typical Circumstances and Typical Image.
Truth – This is the primary difference between Realism and other schools of art. If we look at the paintings espousing Christian dogma by Rubens, Poussin and David during the Classical period, none of them fits the description. Neither does Delacroix and the Romanticism movement. These early great masters all had an amazing eye for detail, but their characters were not real, and the settings were imaginary too. The painting The Spinners by the 17th century Spanish master Diego Velazquez is surprisingly a classic example of Realist art. Here we can see how almost all portraits from the Renaissance through to the 19th century were Realist paintings, perhaps because this genre was not constrained by the environment and had to depict the subject in a truthful manner.
真實 – 這是現實主義與其他藝術流派不同的首要之點，我們回頭看古典主義時期的宣揚基督教教義的繪畫，魯本斯的作品，以及普珊、大衛，當然都不是，浪漫主義，德拉克洛瓦也不是，這些早期大師都有真實描繪細節的本領，但人物是不真實的，環境亦是虛構的。西班牙十七世紀的大師委拉斯蓋茲的《紡紗女》卻出奇地成為經典的現實主義作品。可是，我們發現在肖像畫的領域來看，從文藝復興直到十九世紀幾乎都是現實主義的，因為這個畫種可以擺脫環境的束縛，又都必需追求被描繪對象的真實所至吧。
Typical Image – The creation of the artistic image is the mission of art. The creation of a typical artistic image is the holy grail in Realism. An artist imbues the artistic image he creates with his thoughts and feelings. The artistic image is both the carrier of thoughts and feelings as well as the purpose of artistic behavior. The artistic image must be generalized and representative. It must also make a deep and unique impression to be considered typical. Be it literature, theater, painting or mystics, artists are always striving to create a moving and unforgettable artistic image.
典型形象 – 要塑造藝術形象是所有藝術的命題，要塑造典型的藝術形象更是現實主義標舉的目的。藝術家的思想、情感都寄託在他所創作的藝術形象之中，藝術形象是思想、感情的載體，也是藝術行為的目的本身。藝術形象要有概括性，又要有代表性，還要有令人印象深刻的特殊性，這樣才具備典型意義。不管是文學、戲劇、繪畫和音樂，藝術家無不以創造令人難忘又感動的藝術形象為己任。
Typical Circumstances – The subject of Realism is people engaged in activity. If the character must be a typical image, then the character’s surroundings must be reasonable and well-suited to that typical character, and chosen because it represented the circumstances of that character.
典型環境 – 現實主義的表現主體是人，是行為中的人物。要求人物是典型形象時當然地就要求這人物所處的環境是合理的、適合的、絕配於人物的，是經過選擇的也就是典型的環境。
For example, in my painting Spring Drizzle in Taipei, I first got the inspiration of the painting in 1987 when I first went to Taipei. I did a sketch of a young girl making a phone call using a public paid phone in the streets. Then I noticed that public paid phone on the wall was in the streets everywhere in Taipei and often used by young people. If you pay attention, you will catch a glimpse of a poetic scene. I had the idea of doing a painting of a young woman making a phone call in mind for a few years. Then one night in 1992, when I was walking alone on a sheltered sidewalk (which is quite common in Southern China because it rains often) on Zhongshan Road in Taipei, it dawned on me that this should be backdrop of the painting – a sheltered side walk commonly seen in Taipei, public paid phone, spring drizzle, street lights, car lights and a motorcycle (motorcycles are commonly seen in Taipei as a popular transportation mode, particularly for young people). I hired two models for sketching for the young woman in the painting and did sketching and took photos of the backdrop and also motorcycles for the composition.
A few things to keep in mind
Theme of the painting
The theme or story of the painting should be easy to understand. There should be no guessing for the viewer.
Sketch your composition ideas on drawing paper. It may take a few attempts before you find a satisfactory composition that conveys your idea.
Divide the sketch into squares. Divide a canvas of the same proportion into squares. Transfer the sketch on the drawing paper to the canvas. You may want to do a color study/color studies on smaller canvas to study relationship of color blocks before transferring the sketch to full size canvas.
Key to rendering a typical image under typical circumstances are details. Just like in a movie or TV drama, costume, props and setting help transport the audience to a different world, these details are equally important in a narrative painting to help convince the audience and convey the theme or subject matter of the painting. Details should be suitable for the subject, setting and the period and should be carefully studied. Field trips, reference photos and models are all helpful in creating convincing details.
In the next blog post, I’m going to share with you the painting process of one of my narrative paintings Taiwan Forefathers Series – Arrival Shore in details.
接下來的兩篇文章我會分享畫【先民渡海 – 抵岸】的過程，供大家做參考。