edited December 2021 in General Discussion
I've often read on this forum that a good painting needs to tell a story. I’m not sure that that’s true. At least, I’m not sure it has to be a story of the traditional narrative/illustrative kind. I guess such stories are ok if you're painting illustrations for kid's story books, or a scene from history, or a religious story but can’t a painting be good without this sort of story. Are stories necessary? If so, what other sorts of stories might a good painting tell? Are there great paintings that don't tell a story?


  • I'm one of the story guys.  :p I need drama, I need stories, I need to move people etc. etc. 

    I'm gonna move to ideas that are pending for 6-7 years. Taken from life (my life as well as universal realistic themes).  I try to put stories/activties now even into my landscapes. I think this is now working. I need to be more observant/receptive/open/alert to ideas. I know that Macartney/Lennon used to write art songs from the themes taken from the newspapers. Some of those are my most favorite. 

    In absense of a story, there's the need for a mood. A lot of my paintings are based on mood. Russian, Barbizon artists were mostly 'mood painters', whereas old Italians were story oriented. Impressionists merged both.

    Story is somewhat worldly, mood is purely spiritual. I feel you belong to the second category. No need for you to change direction. 
  • @tassieguy
    The 20th century modernist painter did't intentionally tell stories. That doesn't mean that the viewers didn't create their own stories. A story isn't necessarily a narrative. A story is the emotion and interpretation that a painting projects. Whether it is the artists projection or the viewers interpretation.

    Illustration is the foundation of realism. From the beginning of painting realism. Painting the creation of man or some mythic characters in visual narrative. Venus on the half shell is a common allegorical motif. Guys getting their heads cut off another. Powerful stories that instructed and controlled.

    When there is no story - lets say a still life of a couple of onions that is very correct in technicals but not really uplifting or emoting some form of feeling. Those onions are illustration. Products.  A well executed scenic capturing every detail of some 'destination' is an illustration. Brochure material.

    Even children's story illustrations can be high art. Children stories and their images can live with us all of our lives. Influencing may aspects of our lives. I am prejudiced my wife is an executive in children's magazine and book publishing.

    What stories can a good painting tell? All stories. Every story. Feeling. Loss. Light. Dark. Pain. Exhalation. Love. You name it.

    A repeating story in my work over is the things that man has made to hard use and used well. I see those people who built and used those things. Another is visual irony. Also common is the glorifying the nature around me. The Delaware River primarily.
  • edited November 2021
    No, emphatically no, stories are not necessary.
    Clarification: as in every piece of art doesn't require a conscious narrative story - but to be art it must communicate even if we can't put words to it.
    Should music tell a story? Many songs do - other music has no words, no meaningful titles (Etude #35) and yet the music touches something deep.
    I think art is that the artist felt something inside and captured it - in form, paint, music, graffiti, images, movement, words... The artist may not even be able to articulate all that was going on inside them. For whatever reason, it touches the people who experience it at that deeper level. It may not be the same reference points as the artist - look on sites where people interpret song lyrics sometimes way off the meaning of the words, but you can't deny the song has really touched their life because of the artistry of the piece.
    (I think a lot of 20th century visual art did very deliberately create narrative using a title because otherwise it would be just a nice piece of graphic design and they needed the title to evoke associations. Sometimes I wonder how often the paint came first and the title came later as an interpretation of what they had done.)
  • @tassieguy

    I think art should either convey meaning to a viewer or have/elicit meaning for/in a viewer.

    A meaningless work is not art, but story is only one kind of meaning, it is not the only kind of meaning.

  • I think I agree wit Rod Stewart “every picture tells a story. Don’t it?”  

    Some stories are obvious, some subtly stated. Some are quietly whispered, some loudly yelled. Some cannot be stated with words, but can only be shown and felt in a painting.   

    And even the painting itself existing as an object in its own right shares our space and time and has an historical context.  

    Whether it is painted real, hyper-real, expressionistic, impressionistic, doesn’t matter.   
    I think some of the more successful paintings have a narrative that is only felt emotionally.  Like the loneliness of the light falling against the wall of a Hopper painting.  

    I think every artist struggles with “narrative” because it is there no matter what you paint or how you paint it. 

  • When I look at what I have painted over the years, I have done both.    Sometimes I have a narrative in my head as I paint a work, sometimes it is a thought or emotion I am trying to convey, sometimes I just want to capture an atmosphere (and I generally fail miserably at this!).

    Personally, I feel it is a bit elitist to dismiss the art of illustration, especially children's books.   I agree with @KingstonFineArt on that one.    The illustrations of Anette Macarthur-Onslow in Elene Mitchell's silver brumby books were the most influential on me of any artist I have ever seen, read of or met. 
    The movement she displayed in her simple line drawings are my base for all my paintings.
    The Ladybird book "Ned the Lonely Donkey" illustrated by P Hickling features large in my memories of art and childhood.   A commission I did earlier this year was heavily influenced by the style of art in that wee book.   (I just made sure the pony I painted was more anatomically correct than many of his animals!).  Another book illustrations which had a lifelong influence on me was the original Lucy Kemp-Welsh illustrations of Black Beauty.   Other children's illustrated books by Lionel Edwards and Kathleen Frances Barker are books I still return to to study the plates to this day.

    Paintings done by people with no input often have a "potboiler" feel to them.  I can admire them for the quality of their work, but I could never live with one.   There is often no animation or life to them.    A sterile view of what the artist was viewing. 
     A different or even 'lesser' artist may paint the same scene and weave a feeling into it that makes the viewer feel immersed in the work.  It takes you to another place than the physical place you are standing/sitting etc...    That is a painting telling a story to me.
  • edited November 2021
    Thanks for the responses, @KaustavM, @KingstonFineArt, @Abstraction, @CBG, @GTO and @toujours. Very interesting.

    I didn't offer an opinion myself because I hadn't yet formed one. I was asking the question because I wasn't sure about whether a painting needs to tell a story or not.  I wanted to get a feel for what others thought about the question to help me clarify my own thoughts and come to a conclusion myself. 

     I should point out that I was not dismissing illustration as an art form. I'm not sure where that idea came from. However, I'm mainly interested in fine art painting and whether fine paintings need to tell a story. 

    I'll see if anyone else responds and then, if I've come to a conclusion, I'll offer my own thoughts.  :)

  • edited November 2021

    “A man's work is nothing but this slow trek to rediscover, through the detours of art, those two or three great and simple images in whose presence his heart first opened.”

    ― Albert Camus
    I'm mostly seeing different interpretations of the word 'story' in our answers with some really nice nuances from different perspectives and I've enjoyed everything each person has said.
    I really hesitate to share a video, but this is stunningly good. Just so powerful. I started watching Ian Roberts because he talks about design and I struggle with design, but with the way he articulates - now I'm sitting at his feet trying to absorb almost like a spiritual essence. In this one he says, 'But to the point of our 'muse' - where did that idea (for our work) come from?... And the point is, artists don't usually know. The art critic takes biographical details and creates the structure of the reason why the artist creates this or that, and you listen to those headsets in museums... all they're really doing is distracting you from the ability to be quiet and in tune and connecting with the art itself' He goes on to explore what the muse really means.
    Rob - I highly commend this for your pondering:
  • edited November 2021

    Thanks, @Abstraction, for your thoughtful comments and for the video. I enjoyed that video a great deal. I agree with you about how art critics concoct stories about paintings that the artist never had in mind when the muse struck. And your comments made me think about how people attach stories to music and other art forms even though they don’t necessarily tell stories and the composer never intended them to. Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata might be a good example that everyone knows. Beethoven didn’t name it. It’s not a story about moonlight and we can be sure he wasn’t thinking about moonlight when he wrote it. It’s not a story about anything. It’s just a work of pure art. And what about his 5th Symphony? Is it anything other than an epic tone poem in which harmony, counterpoint, meter and contrasting dynamics form the structure and the subject matter? It doesn’t narrate a story. And even theatre doesn’t have to tell a story. What story does Becket’s Waiting for Godot tell?

    And, so, I was wondering why a painting cannot be the same? Why does a good painting have to tell a story? Having read the comments and thought about it some more, it is not clear to me that a great painting does have to tell a story.

    What story can one read into a painting by, say, Rothko? (An abstract artist that Mark admires.) Does VVG’s A Starry Night tell a story? It’s difficult to see any narrative in this painting. One can feel the sense of wonder that a child feels when looking up at the Milky Way on a dark night and marveling at the awe inspiring vastness and beauty. But that’s not a story. Is this painting really about anything other than its wonderful colour, movement and texture? 

    I think I've reached a conclusion. Great paintings don’t have to tell stories any more than great music has to tell a story. Stories in painting are fine but not essential. 

  • edited November 2021
    Its an interesting question and one, I think that is not necessarily always in the hands of the artist.

    I suppose by that I mean if I see a painting that appears to have a story conveyed, for example a ship tethered in the harbour being unloaded, then that may be fairly obvious to me about the story of what is going on.

    Whereas I have done a fair few still life paintings of things, objects that could maybe only be described, in terms of a story, as one word in comparison with the above. That can still trigger a story for someone who views it, either from something they remember or imagine.

    So I think in both examples above though one may be more elaborate they are still both telling a story.

    I guess I think that whether we intend it or not a story will be there for for some who view it.

  • Yes every picture does tell a story

    Eric Kandel and Charlie Rose

  • The idea of thinking of painting in terms of a narrative comes from considering visual art in the same way as written literature. Thinking in terms of a story line, even the term composition comes from literature references.  

    I guess I think of narrative more broadly.  

    “Are there great paintings that don’t tell a story?”
    In the literal sense, yes.  Examples are, Rothko, Pollock, any landscape painting, most Warhol pieces. many still life works (non-vanitas), etc.  

    And then if you are a post modernist deconstruction theory kind of thinker, even the narrative works don’t tell a story, or rather they don’t tell a specific single story.
  • edited November 2021
    That's interesting. @GTO. So, it depends on whether one's idea of narrative is broadly construed. In painting,  the type of story is different from traditional narrative.  Is that what you're saying. If so, then I agree. 
  • edited November 2021
    Fascinating video, @KingstonFineArt. It's about reductionism in science and art, which is right up my philosophical alley, but it doesn't address the question posed in this thread which is whether a painting has to tell a story to be a good painting.  And nothing in the video suggested that "every picture does tell a story".  It makes the point that, with abstract art, any stories are told by the viewer and not by the artist. So I see no reason to question my conclusion that good paintings, even good realist paintings, don't need to tell stories.
  • @tassieguy That is exactly what I am saying.  And didn’t the twentieth century of art making demonstrate that? And philosophically from Foucault on through Lacan the whole idea of narrative is questionable.
    I recall my ceramic professor saying that patterns do not exist in nature but that we make patterns of what we observe.  The “composition” of the pile of boulders that we see only exists in our mind. 
  • If a a painting has no intended message or story. Is realism. The the viewer creates the story from their experiences. Seldom do the painters and viewers stories mesh. And there are a lot more viewers that the person that painted it. 
    When I was illustrating I had todo a lot of rendering of objects. No story. Just an render. Utilitarian. 
    It seems that fine art is by definition a storied environment. And that soulless rendering. Is the realm of utility. Not to say h to hat rendering can’t have feeling. But then feeling is story. 
  • CBGCBG -
    edited November 2021

    IF we turn back to dealing with your original thought, without dissecting or dissembling too much over terms, you DID have a conception, an idea, that there was something (the "referent" to which you were referring) which is "sufficient" for (can be included in) visual art but not necessary for a visual piece to  constitute art.

    You happened to term that referent "story"... now without shifting your referent, nor trying to tie a specific label to it, I believe, in accordance with your original statement, that a good painting does not need that something, if that something to which you refer has as an essential characteristic:  some suggestion of any event or action involving any kind of agency or subject.  e.g. anything remotely referring to something which happened or is happening in the world.  (I would submit that that the term "story" cannot refer to something which is wholly bereft of such a "suggestion").

    For example, a painting of a roast beef on a blank background has no suggestion of any real event or agency (arguably it has little meaning.. other than perhaps a conversation with the viewer's appetite), even though implicitly there must have been a cook.    

    A beautiful roast beef on a table lit by candles with a fireplace and Christmas decorations in the background; or
    a particularly bloody roast beef, shown being sliced in a guillotine; or
    a roast beef with a pearl necklace wrapped in a fur stole, or
    a half eaten roast, next to a spilled glass of wine, on a table ,, and a creased unfolded letter lying on the floor just beside the table...

    these are suggestive of situations, actions, and actors... which are not simply about what is there...and they begin to tell a story, they refer to something which "happened" or is "happening", whether literal or metaphorical or allegorical, whether historical, political, or literary.

    If you see a particularly beautiful Amethyst Geode, or a cliff, or a tree branch, or a stream, or rocks and if you capture it for nothing more than what you see and what seeing it means to you, and if at least on some level your work conveys that beauty or meaning (and not some obscure other thing in the world) then I think you still have art, but no story, no events, no players, no suggestion or statement about "what happened in the world" or "what is happening in the world", only what this IS and what seeing it means.

    Now, I think your landscapes are full of beauty and meaning.  Theses are eternal and ubiquitous and not situational or event driven.  They speak to universals: Man and Nature and Beauty, and their relationships, but they are not about nor suggestive of any particular person, people, actions or events.

    So without quibbling over the word you used 


    but it must attempt to communicate MEANING
  • edited November 2021
    Thanks for that lengthy and insightful comment, @CBG.

    Yes, I agree. Some "meaning" might need to be discernible in a painting even if that meaning will necessarily vary from viewer to viewer. But I guess we could even find meaning in a blank canvas. And, very broadly construed, that meaning, however ephemeral and individual, could constitute a story. But not necessarily a story (if any} or a meaning (if any), that the artist intended his/her painting to convey. Maybe the only way a painting could not convey meaning is if it could not be seen. But I guess some would find meaning even in that. 

    What prompted my question is that so often I read here the dictum that a good painting must tell a story and I have always been perplexed by it. What do people man by 'story"? And why must there be a story?  As you say, it's easy to get "meaning" and "story" mixed up. But I guess this is not the forum to get into conceptual analysis, even though I quite enjoy that sort of thing.  :)
  • @CBG I like your contribution to this interesting topic.  I agree with everything you said.  There is no need for any temporal reference.  Visual art strictly enjoyed for the visual beauty is sufficient.  
    I think this is why I enjoy looking at your landscapes Rob, @tassieguy.   At the same time (for me at least) I see a body of work that says a lot more.  I see a unique view of the Australian landscape and everything that goes with that.  
  • Thanks, @GTO. Much appreciated.  :)

    I guess I worry sometimes that people might find my landscape lacking because they don't tell stories in the conventional sense. I guess I could fill them out with rustic paths and little log cabins with puffs of pretty blue smoke coming from the chimney and a horse and cart parked outside and a lady hanging washing on the line to dry ...  Sure, there's a story there, but, to me, that sort of thing is just Kitsch.  But, then, there's this dictum about a painting having to tell a story. So I worry. But, in the end, we can only follow our own tastes.  :)
  • edited November 2021
    Thanks for your comment, @MichaelD:)

    I agree that viewers will find their own stories in paintings.
  • Stories? You want stories? Ladies and Gentlemen allow me to present a painting that has the most 'story' I've ever seen!!

    (60 of them I believe)
  • I don't disagree with what anybody saying. The literal take on the word story seems the problem. A story is not a beginning, middle, and end. Not 'rustic paths and little log cabins with puffs of pretty blue smoke coming from the chimney and a horse and cart parked outside and a lady hanging washing on the line'. A painting with meaning, a sense of place, of interaction are the definitions of story. Meaning is an interpretation of place, light, time, memory. A story of the moment.  Any image has a story.

    Name a great painting, a landscape, that doesn't tell the story of the scene somehow.

    I don't understand how stories in a conventional sense is as issue. You have made a choice of place, time, light, historic value. Those choices make up a story. 

    Stories aren't restricted to prose or cliche.  

    A visual story is a big pile of the artist's decisions and choices from the choice of scene, depth of field, shape of the canvas, materials, colors, placement horizon to the gloss of the varnish and a million other things. If we get most of that right it's a good painting from our point of view. If the viewer gets somewhat of we put into a painting - all the better. They'll make up their own stories anyway.

    Some people see painting a a technical. That realism is first a craft to be mastered. Hum.

  • CBGCBG -
    edited November 2021

    From my previous posts you know I am a big fan of story in a painting... I just wanted to reassure tassieguy that IMHO, it is not necessary component of every work of art, and that I do get what he was getting at!
  • I am once again comfortable with what @KingstonFineArt is saying above.

    I cannot for the life of me understand how some people seem to think a story can only exist if humans are a part of it or responsible for it.  To me, that is a very limited and egotistical view of the world.   The stories of the planet earth unfold themselves daily, with or without human intervention, on land, in oceans and rivers and streams; and in the air.    Why do they need to be seen by a human to become a story?

    "...I recall my ceramic professor saying that patterns do not exist in nature but that we make patterns of what we observe.  The “composition” of the pile of boulders that we see only exists in our mind."

    I would beg to differ with your ceramic professor', @GTO. Clearly they never looked at the petals on a flower, a butterfly, a snail or the foam on a wave brushing the sand, just to name some obvious ones.   The world's top minds and talents in mathematics, science and art have studied these patterns for millennia.  
  • @toujours I should have mentioned that my ceramic professor was a Zen Buddhist.  

    Whether Calculus was discovered (existed) or humans invented it, who knows. In other words does the beauty exist outside of us or does it require our observation for it to be created, I don’t know the answer to that.  That is one of those unanswerable questions.

    @tassieguy I understand why you brought up the question.  I too have wondered about the paintings I’ve done. How are they related as a “body of work”.  I see some artists (like yourself) that seem to have found their groove, niche, even their “brand”, perhaps.  I think my wondering about it comes from a need to feel a sense of “definition”.  But then I look at artists like Gerhardt Richter and I see how his early works in the 60’s and 70’s covered a broad spectrum of subjects.  That’s when I just tell myself to ignore the “noise” and just keep doing what I am doing.  😀
  • edited November 2021
    Yes, we are interpreting the word 'story' in different ways. I am sometimes so deeply affected by some music, visual art or even literature that if you ask me what it meant to me... none of my words would add up to what I experienced. I could tell you what a powerful novel is "about", but the plot doesn't equal the impact it had which can go way beyond the characters and time and place and events.
    Is that indescribable thing 'story'? Not the word for me, it evokes something more mundane.
    How do we express something inside us that is so deep that human language seems inadequate? That we may not even be able to describe to ourselves. Maybe it's not even big and grand, it's just a quiet sense of something and we don't know what it really is, we just feel something and want to capture it. And we just start painting and maybe we're in part exploring that feeling without knowing why. And if we communicate that it is art.
    Ballet - I believe it was Anna Pavlova. After a brief performance someone asked her what the dance meant. Pavlova looked at her bewildered, and said, 'Ok, well, let me do it again.'
  • Thanks everyone for your thoughtful comments. :)

    I was actually a bit surprised that so many responded and did so at some length. The comments were all insightful and made interesting reading.

    @RichardP has started posting a daily picture for inspiration. which is great. And, given that it's been a bit quiet of late, I thought that maybe we should start posting a daily or weekly deep question about painting for discussion. I don't mean technical stuff like What's the best medium? or Is this a good composition? I have in mind more philosophical questions about the meaning of a painting, or about the meaning of painting itself as an act of expression, or whether artists must always strive to say something new or say something in a new way. That sort of thing. 

    If no one posts a question before, I'll come up with the first question for discussion in a few days when I get this current painting finished.   :)
  • thats a great idea @tassieguy , i might not have things to say or opinions on all of the matters but it was such an interesting read...
  • You might rephrase your question . . . not does it NEED to tell a story, but WHAT story does a good painting tell.  It is my belief that most good paintings tell a story in one way or another.  Even a straightforward portrait will tell a story if values and edges and properly attended.  It is my contention that any painting that evokes in you an emotional memory tells a story and fits the classification of "good painting."
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