Unit 48 - Narrative Image Making

Narrative art aims to tell a story, be it part of a moment in an ongoing story or series of events over a period of time. As a story is told over a period of time rather than seen all at once, images were often done simultaneously with little organisation to achieve the required narrative, with the development of literacy, images became more defined with their purpose. Narrative art uses images to stimulate viewer’s imaginations and evoke emotional responses to the story that develops. In some ways it can be a very personal art with regards to each individual interpretation; however it can appeal across different cultures therefore preserving the image for future. There has never been a place or time that narrative art hasn’t been present.

Narrative art can be anything from a static image like a stained glass window or painting to a moving artwork for example a video or art instillation. Any illustration in a book or based on a piece of literature would be classed as narrative art; images created from the bible are prime examples of this particular art form. In order to create these pieces of art, artists pick out a particular story from the text and create their artwork to depict their chosen narrative. Some of the artworks are not always clear in their narrative; some may choose to be more symbolic or cryptic rather than obvious.

It has been established that most narrative art consists of four main characteristics, however all of these do not need to be present:

1. It has to be a story, with a point of view.

2. The images can be either still or moving but must be of a high quality.

3. The story should have a social, environmental or spiritual element.

4. It should be looking to make a change in the attitudes or behaviours of the viewers.

Throughout art history narrative has been prominent, there was a period in which narrative was deemed by art critics to be unimaginative. During this period, the public never lost their interest in this art form.

Examples of Narrative Art

The first examples of narrative art can be seen very early in history. The oldest evidence of narrative art is the Palaeolithic cave paintings in Chauvet and Lascaux caves. These images are in the simplest form and were used to educate their ancestors on how to hunt and tell stories of their conquests. The art is still preserved today and all though we do not fully understand the narrative behind the paintings, mainly due to the unorganised nature of them. It is clear there purpose is to either educate or entertain future generations.     

Greek pottery dating back to the 6th & 7th century was created to display narrative of both mythological and actual events in history. Exekias is most famous for his pottery featuring black figures. Greek gods and goddess feature a lot on his work as he re-tells the stories in his own way, creating one image to capture an entire story. The images are not easily interpreted if you are not aware of the stories surrounding Greek Mythology.

Stained glass windows have traditionally appeared as narrative images depicting stories from the bible. They have been used over centuries to show the life of Jesus and can be commonly seen in churches, chapels and cathedrals. The images can be very powerful when you are inside a holy building as they tower over you and only let in feint rays of light. My favourite is this one of Mary Magdalene who is knelt at Jesus's feet. This tells the story of Mary washing Jesus's feet with perfumed oils and wiping them clean with her hair. If you were not aware of the story, the narrative within the image would still allow you to identify what was happening within it.

As children we are taught to look at pictures and often they are the first encounters of storytelling we have. Picture books for children are both entertaining and educational. Beatrix Potter is a wonderful example of children's narrative art, she wrote and illustrated all of her books. Her first book, The Tale Of Peter Rabbit, was published in 1902 and is still often one of the first books children read to this day. The stories were often influenced by Beatrix's holidays in the countryside.

The art of comic books is often seen as unsophisticated, even though it's origins can be traced back to hieroglyphs. Although used in a more comedic sense nowadays the original idea of displaying a story through a series of images is still prevalent. Jim Davis is a cartoonist most famous for his popular strip, Garfield. Garfield was the most syndicated comic strip and appears in 2,580 newspapers worldwide, reaching an audience of 300 million readers. The strip narrated a lazy and food obsessed cats life with his owner.

Photographs have an ability to draw you into them, making you feel like you somehow know the person/people in the picture. They can often be the most powerful of storytellers. Whether they are photographs of celebrities, family or even disasters around the world we are drawn into them and often left wondering what is happening out side of the photograph. Quite often a photograph can display a moment in time that not even words could describe. Walkers Evans was a Depression-era photographer and he was asked to do an article for Fortune Magazine on three families living in poverty in south Alabama. The photographs that emerged from this assignment became icons of the misery and poverty that came with the Depression.

Advertising has now started to use narrative in their campaigns. This is an attempt to get into our hearts as well as our heads. Their aim is to make sure that we can relate to the story in which their product appears. It's not only brands that use this strategy, charities are also introducing narrative to their campaigns. A very obvious example of this is NSPCC's Christmas Appeal 2013. The use of name, association to Christmas eve and the indication of the abuse is there to make us relate to the children and make us want to rescue them in some way, specifically giving money to their charity.

Types of Narrative Art

Narrative art can be made up of various different styles and is not limited to using just one. The artist can choose how to best represent time and space within their piece. For example, you do not have to display an entire city to depict a scene or event within it. I will outline some of the more widely used ones below.  

Simultaneous Narrative

This type of narrative is often not organised and is based on repeatable patterns. It is  generally used for the less literate people as they can be easily remembered and interpreted by those in which the artwork is meant for.

Monoscenic Narrative

Monoscenic is often narrative that focuses on a single scene. They are generally very easily identifiable and the context in this particular type of narrative is often of significant importance. Exekias was renowned for using Monoscenic narrative in his pottery.

Continuous Narrative

A continuous narrative illustrates multiple scenes within a single frame. The narrative is portrayed in a series without any dividers. It uses characters to emphasis on the changing scenes within the narrative. The Column of Trajan depicts the Dacian Wars. The tower was originally planned to have a staircase around it in order for the narrative to be read completely. The story flows from one scene to another with no visible dividers.

Synoptic Narrative

A synoptic narrative shows a single scene in which characters are portrayed various times in one frame to show that actions are taking place. This would cause the narrative to be unclear in it's meaning and for those unfamiliar with the story it may be difficult to interpret.

Artists Who Use Narrative

There are many artists who use narrative in their artwork. The most famous example of narrative art, in my opinion, would be Picasso's Guernica. It is a beautiful oil painting which depicts the suffering and devastation left by the bombings carried out by the German and Italian warplanes at the request of the Spanish Nationalists. In it's time it was quite a harrowing piece and shocked most of it's viewers, the painting brought worldwide attention to the Spanish civil war. The use of women and children within the piece is a representation of the population of Guernica during the bombings, it represents the innocence of the casualties. Due to the fact that there is no specific reference within the painting towards the event in Spain, it has become a universal artwork to warn humanity of the devastation caused by acts of war.

The painting has had many interpretations and Picasso himself is reported to have said "...this bull is a bull and this horse is a horse... If you give a meaning to certain things in my paintings it may be very true, but it is not my idea to give this meaning. What ideas and conclusions you have got I obtained too, but instinctively, unconsciously. I make the painting for the painting. I paint the objects for what they are." I do believe that due to our societies desensitized views on horrific images we would not find Guernica as shocking as people in the late 30's and 40's. 

Cindy Sherman

Cindy is an American photographer who uses a series of self-portraits to address the stereotyping of women within films, television and magazines. She uses a range of costumes and make up to transform her image, she works alone therefore assuming all roles involved in creating her images i.e. make-up artist, hairstylist and model. She has released many different series using this same concept; Complete Untitled Film Stills & Society Pictures are amongst her most famous work. In her Film Stills which consists of 69 black and white photographs she poses as B-movie, foreign film and film noir actresses and her Society Pictures portrays the obsession with female youth and beauty in American society. Her images challenged the cliché of women in domestic roles and also on screen post-war, Sherman's images were known to touch a nerve within the culture.

I particularly enjoy the message conveyed in Sherman's work, the self portraits are very well made and tackle the stereo-typing in an artistic but direct manner. There is room within the photographs for individual interpretation and the lack of titles adds to the ambiguity of the women. I prefer the black and white images as opposed to the colour ones, the colour ones in my opinion appear vulgar and they do not appear as realistic as the film stills.

Sophie Calle

Sophie is a French artist and writer who's work generally shows the vulnerability of humans, especially the need to conceal their identities and the longing for intimacy and privacy. Her work is recognized for her detective like approach to strangers and her investigation into their private lives. The photographs she produces are often annotated by her own writing. In her piece entitled The Shadow, instead of following a stranger around herself, she had her mother employ a private detective to follow her around for a day, he noted her whereabouts and photographed her throughout the day. Although she did not know the exact day she would be followed, she lead the detective around parts of Paris that were important to her, the photographs were accompanied by journal entries throughout the day. The contrasting views of both Sophie's journal and the detectives report were exhibited side by side as the final piece. For anyone viewing this piece of work it could potentially leave you with a sense of unease as they are involuntarily partaking in a violation of privacy. The deliberately constructed images and writing used in her work question the nature of truths.

I was directed to look into this artist by my tutor and after researching her methods and looking at her work I conclude that she is one of the most unique artists I have looked at. I am interested in Sophie's work because it is out of the norm and breaches countless social conventions. The fact that she was willing to stalk people, and not just within her city or even country, in order to create her work is rather admirable.

Shirin Neshat

Shirin is an Iranian artist who now lives in New York. Her work is based on the social and cultural aspects of Muslim societies.  She was not brought up under the traditional values but rather a more Westernized upbringing, she was enrolled into a Catholic boarding school and learnt the traditional values through her mothers parents. Shirin became empowered by the idea of Western feminism and her work is a reflection of that. She was encouraged at a young age by her father to be individual and take risks. Her earliest works were black and white photographs, in particular her Women of Allah series, in which she creates portraits of veiled Iranian women  with their eyes inches from the barrel of a gun or with their hands stained with the blood of martyrdom. Theses portraits are then overlaid with Farsi feminist poetry. Shirin aimed to make people more aware of the intellectual and religious forces that shaped the identities of Muslim women. Her work is controversial and very bold, challenging the complexity of the male and female roles within the Muslim society.

I came across Shirin Neshat through another artist, Cindy Sherman, who was the first person to buy Shirin's work in 1995.  I love Shirin's work as it reflects something that is very personal to her, she has real experience with the focus of her work and it has served as a way for her to cope with the conflict between her culture and the pre-revolution movement. She narrates her opposition to the traditional values and the constant fight that these women have to protect their individuality very well in her work. The contrast of the black and white photographs is increased by the light and dark tones within the photograph, the addition of the calligraphy is potent.

Self Portrait/Portrait Artists

Charis Tsevis

Charis Tsevis is a Greek digital artist. His work is most known for the complex mosaic images he creates. These images are usually portraits that are made up of hundreds of smaller images that usually relate to the subject.  He uses geometric shapes, numbers, alphabets, and objects, which are identifiable with the characters he seeks to reproduce, to create the final picture. For example, his mosaic of Steve Jobs is made entirely out of a variety of old and new Apple products.

It was by pure chance that I came across Charis's work, after googling tutorials on how to make a photo mosaic. His work caught my eye and I was drawn to the complexity of his images. They are so well thought out and arranged that not only can you see the shape of the larger image but also the individual images that form it. He uses a specialist software to create his images and they can often take days to pull together.

Mel Marcelo

Mel has been an illustrator since 1991. He chooses to make vector images due to their more modern look. He gets his inspiration from many places including Japanese woodcut prints to Patrick Nagel. His most recent work is mainly photo driven with a focus on portraits and the human body. Mel uses Adobe Illustrator alone to create his images which is therefore why his images are of such high quality.

I have always been a great admirer of Mel's work, he makes such colourful art from the photographs. He combines the cartoon look with the photo realism. I would love to be as good at vector art as he is, the detail he is able to pick out from his source photographs is exceptional.

Julian Opie

Julian Opie is a visual artist, born in London in 1958. Julian is influenced by the art of Michael Caulfield and Michael Craig-Martin. His images are simplified from photographs and are often so simplistic that eyes in his images simply appear as black dots. His style became noticed when he was asked to design the front cover of Blur's greatest hits album.

I came across Julian Opie in my printmaking unit but was so taken by his style that I wanted to follow him up within this unit. I love the simplistic look to his portraits, he captures the basics of the subject without having to include too much detail. The uniformity of his images with the thick black lines, bright colours and black circle eyes all make up his style. I love the animated look to the images.  

My Portrait's

I have created a mind map of ideas relating to the various types of portraits I could produce that would reflect who I am, what I like and how I see myself.

There are many ways in which I could tell a story about myself be it an actual story or life event presented in a series of pop art/comic strips, a collage of photos from my childhood, teenage years and adult life or even a image created entire from text perhaps words I like to say or word that describe my personality. Any of these ideas would represent me as a person but perhaps not me as an artist? For me, my portraits should not only be about me but they should be derived from an idea or inspired by something that is meaningful to me. I have therefore decided to create three self-portraits, two are inspired by artists I have researched and one is inspired by a graphic visual that has grown in popularity over recent years, a type of image that I enjoy looking at. All of these images will be created digitally as this is my chosen medium. Digital art is very personal to me and is the best way for me to show my creativity. The use of colour in my images is also important, a lot can be said through an image with the right use of colour and shades.

Julian Opie Print

This will be a picture of me done in the style of Julian Opie. I have always been a fan of Julian Opie's work and vector art in general, it made sense that if I was to do a portrait it should be in the style one of my favourite portrait artists.  A simple vector portrait with bright colours. The outline will be a clear and thick line drawing which will be filled with blocks of bright colours.

I created my image using the pen tool on illustrator. This is the first image I have made on illustrator and I am very happy with how it has turned out. I particularly love the way I have shaped the hair with a very choppy style. This image is a direct representation of me in the style of an artist I thoroughly admire. My image much like Julian Opie's has various bright colours, it is simplistic in it's style and has the notable black outline. The choice of colours was reflective of me, I have red/brown hair, my favourite colour is green (the dress) and the blue background is very typical of Julian Opie's style. I do not think I would of chosen any other colours for this particular print.

Charis Tsevis Print

Although my image would not be as well put together as Charis Tsevis's, I like the ideal of been able to use photos within a photo to create a new image. The photomontage will consist of various photographs of me as a child, teen and adult. These will be all pulled together to make a larger picture of me. The idea behind this image is that every moment in my life and the people within it have made me who I am today. I have chosen to use photographs of me at various stages of my life for the exact reason above but this could easily of been a portrait made out of things that important to me or that I liked, for example, a photomosaic made up of images related to my hobbies.

The image was made solely in Photoshop. I simply made a layer of images in squares and defined it as a pattern. This pattern was then placed over the main image and the blending layers were set to create the overlay of the mosaic images.

I do love this image and it is very emotional for me to see the baby, toddler and teenager that I was and the young woman I have become merge.

Infographic Portrait

Infographics are a wonderful way to present data to an audience, they are simple, colourful and effective in delivering the required statistics or information. They are generally created using illustration software such as Adobe Illustrator.

I have always liked this style of information presentation, it is colourful, fun and easy to read. I have therefore decided to create one about myself. This will be the outline of my head. It will be brightly coloured with words relating to the senses or parts of the body.For instance, the mouth will have things I like to taste/eat, nose will be things I like to smell etc. This will essentially be an infographic of me. Below is a rough sketch of how I imagined my infographic would look.

Unfortunately I was unable to source many examples of this type of portrait. This one is made purely from my own idea of what it should look like. I created it using a mixture of Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop. The outline and coloured sections were created in Illustrator whilst the text was added in Photoshop. I have chosen these specific colours for this portrait as they are conforming with the traditional design of infographics by using sectional pale/pastel colours there was however a hidden agenda to the placing of the colours. The flesh tone is obviously to represent the skin, the light pink and dark pink are representative of blusher and lipstick, the grey in my head/brain is illustrative of grey matter, the other colours were placed more randomly.

The image, although not typically presented like an infographic, is my best representation of this. I tried to make the infographic as easy as possible to read and understand. I think this type of self portrait is very direct and factual. The narrative behind this image is not open to any other interpretation from the information it is showing.

This image is a representation of me using text. Everything within this image is a personal thought, feeling or preference. I created this image to inform people of who I am inside.


I presented my three portraits to a group of my peers. These were then evaluated and I received positive feedback from all. I was concerned because these images are so personal to me I was not sure if they would be understood or viewed in the same capacity that I see them.  I asked two questions during my presentation;

1) Do you have any suggestions on how I could improve or further my work?

2) Do you think my work is a reflection of me as an artist?

The responses to these questions were all very constructive and well received by myself. A particular comment made in response to question one was that I should try to re-do the Charis Tsevis portrait with a more plain photo of myself as the mosaic tiles gets lost in the pattern of my dress. This is a comment I agreed on and on reflection I should of tried to do it this way. If I had extra time on his project I would of taken this feedback into consideration and played around with this particular image a little more by taking a new photograph of myself and perhaps making the tiles of the mosaic a little smaller.

Overall, people agreed that my work was a reflection of me as an artist but only because they know me as a person and are therefore already aware of the type of art I am inspired by. I would hope that anyone looking at my images would see that my artistic inspiration comes from that of graphic design and digital art.

I think that all three of my images would fit into the monoscenic type of narrative, they are all single images portraying one scene, me. The photomosaic however perhaps would also fall into the continuous narrative type as inside the overall image is a story in pictures of my life.

This project has helped me to open up my mind to who I am become as an artist. To be able to present my image, my personality and my feelings in my art has been an excellent opportunity to really express myself. On commencing the project I had no idea how I would go about completing a self-portrait, but the work I have produced is better than I could of imagined. My favorite piece of the three is most definitely the Julian Opie print. It was the most fun to make and it looks like a much higher quality image.