Answering the question, "what is going on here" is vital to any good illustration (and I like to argue the same for concept work). And just having a good idea is not enough. There's more to story telling than simply presenting people with a scenario. And I'm going to take the next few blog posts to really get into depth about the art of story telling and techniques on how to incorporate this into your work.
The One Second Story:
Storytelling is one of the most fundamental ways of human communication and to ignore it is tantamount to ignoring perspective or color theory. Our brains are literally hardwired for stories. It's difficult for anyone to look at a bunch of fact and quickly figure out what's going on. And the people who can will automatically arrange them into a story for others to better understand.
As artists, we need to think this way. We are arranging shapes and colors to create and illusion that says something. If people do not grasp it upon first glance then by all means it was a failure. We have a very short amount of time to catch the attention of passers by, so as a part of your artistic craft I strongly recommend you think of this as a fundamental skill.
Being able to compel people to continue looking at your painting longer that the initial passing glance is what I like to call the "One Second Story." If you take a longer look at my work you will see there are more story elements that add to the greater depth of the world. But I do not rely on those things to grab someones attention and keep them there. I have to have very compelling thing that instantly resonates with the viewer in order to get them to take a better look.
Basically, I think about what kinda' story I can tell in one second, make that the focus of the piece, and then tell all the secondary and tertiary stories in the details. A great way to understand the hierarchy of what people find most compelling is by looking at Maslow's pyramid of needs. Hint: Start from the base as the most fundamental and work your way up.
So, just to introduce you to the craft of storytelling I put together a few questions to ask yourself when creating an illustration:
- What's the first thing people notice? This requires you to ask others, and is part of the "One Second Story." If you have a goblet of truth illuminated by some magical force and being held by a bare breasted woman who is shrouded in darkness, it doesn't matter how much you focus detail and light on the goblet. People will naturally try to look at the lady's breasts (Maslow's pyramid first level) because that's more compelling than your goblet of what-have-you (Maslow's pyramid 4th level).
- What is so Compelling Here? I would refer to Maslow's pyramid when deciding how to capture attention. It is true that people tend to gravitate toward sex, but there are other things that make a compelling story (often having to do with survival). And it is possible to mix different levels of the pyramid to multiply the effectiveness of your story.
- Why should people care? If your image tells a story at all, then why should people care about it? If it's a painting of some dude buying tools at a hardware store, the story is boring and nobody cares. But if his son is with him clearly struggling to help the guy buy different tools, then you have a more interesting image. (Maslow's pyramid third level)
- Is there room for interpretation? I'm one of those people who believes in letting the viewer make up their own story. If the image is a stand alone piece then why not design it so everyone can decide what is happening for themselves. And if done properly, people will tend to come up with a more compelling story than you originally thought.
This book is for screenwriting but it also taught me a lot about how to tell a story. I can't tell you how invaluable the principles of this book have been in my art career. It seems strange, but sometimes the best knowledge comes from the strangest places.
Seriously give it a look