18 tips for telling a story through an artwork

Much of the best illustration work tells stories to engage viewers and convey their meaning. Here leading illustrators reveal their favourite narrative techniques.

1: Look beyond the climax

[For illustrations based directly on another narrative, such as a newspaper article or book cover,] sometimes one is inclined to illustrate the defining moment of the story or of the main character – depicting the climax for more drama and effectiveness.

Recently I have tried to pick out the underlying subtleties throughout the narrative, and explore them in the final illustration. I typically decide on a quiet scene, including symbols and details that are important to the narrative as a whole. 

2: See from another perspective

It is important to challenge yourself with different perspective, scale and how your subjects interact with one another. When sketching I produce at least three different roughs that I make into more developed sketches. I then decide on a final composition.

Andrea Rossi  (USA)

3: Put emotions in motion

I use minimal detail, and so I have to employ other techniques to create atmosphere and emotion within my illustrations.

My characters are always small and I don't add facial features, which means that I have to show their emotion through exaggerated gestures and movement. They are almost always active and busy running and jumping across the page, which adds humour and rhythm to the illustration.

Charlotte Trounce (UK)

4: Create an unreal reality

I am interested in changing up the slides in our mind's library, presenting contradictions that appear possible, things in the wrong but right place, situations that make impossible real.

The moment a viewer is surprised because something isn't the way they expected is the moment you have captured their interest and opened their imagination.

Craig Frazier (USA)

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5: Tell a story within an action

I tend to like to use a single figure and occasionally two. The second and most critical element is really an activity. The figure is usually doing something and caught before it happens or just after.  The other elements are supporting artifacts like buckets or saws.

Finally we have the environment. I draw environments using water and trees on occasion, but also like to use flat fields of color for their graphic simplicity.

Whatever I draw, I think of it as a clue or a breadcrumb that helps understand the complete story and message. It's up to the reader to put it all together and solve the riddle.

Craig Frazier (USA)

6: Illustrate your messaging

I use storytelling as a vehicle to illustrate a message. I am trying to portray a moment in time, and invite the viewer to imagine themselves in the situation.

The stories I want to tell are about little moments in all our lives, little things that did or might happen. I want for a moment for you to become that character. It's the difference between creating a picture and a strong piece of narrative illustration.

Craig Frazier (USA)

7: Create a story to explore

The main challenge comes in ensuring that you create an image worth exploring and looking at rather than a just nice collection of shapes and faces. There needs to be enough ingredients – such as a sense of emotion, background detail, smaller events unfolding and symbolism.

I really like to fill a space, so I combat this by walking right up to the line of overdoing it and just peeking my head over the edge.

Ed J Brown (UK)

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8: Build a central character

Put your main protagonist and or antagonist at the centre and think about all the different areas and ways you can insert emotions, events and themes. It can be as obvious or as cryptic as you like.

You can fill backgrounds with relevant text, give them tattoos or just create some symbolic still life in the corner. Just make sure its your character that is at the heart of it all and all these extra details almost blend into the background. 

9: Make them wonder

Taking elements from the lyrics and music, I constructed a vague narrative for the Alone in the Ark album cover. It’s a juxtaposition of melancholy and playful perception, creating a sense of ambiguity.

Is the man hoping to be rescued by the plane? Is the man hiding from the plane and civilisation in general? Is that his car there? Where did he drive from? Why is he in the water? Is he happy and enjoying being in nature? Is he about to drown himself?

10: Find the right balance

Balance is a very important compositional tool to get to grips with. For example, if you have an image with focus points all around the piece, and mark-making that returns back to itself, it draws the eye around the image, and can make it feel more complete and resolved.

However, if you put all the focal points in one area, or have elements leading of the page, it can encourage page turn, or a sense of anticipation, or a number of other things.

Owen Davey (UK)

11: Map the distance

Composition is really important to me with any project. I regularly use it to mimic the rest of the content.

For example, in my new book Laika, there is a page referring to how lonely the dog feels, and compositionally, all the imagery is bunched up in the corner, as far away from Laika as possible.

She is literally alone in the space around her. It can be quite a dramatic tool.

Owen Davey (UK)

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12: Use shadows to draw the eye

Concept is the most vital; without a good concept, the narrative just doesn't read properly.

For my illustration Tree-Hugging, I used compositional tricks and light and shade to emphasise certain elements of the image. The long shadows created by the trees draw your eye to the central figure, who forms the focal point of the narrative.

Patrick O’Leary (UK)

13: Let your characters belong

Every aspect of your narrative has to make sense; the characters have to feel like they 'belong' to their setting, and vice versa. For Where Snow Comes From, the story is told through the facial expressions and body language of the two yetis, directing the eye from left to right, following the trail of salt and across to the other yeti.

Making use of even the most basic semiotics of structure can add an extra layer of depth to how your work is ‘read’.

14: Sketch in shorthand

My sketches are very primitive and almost nonsensical, but they provide a handy shorthand for me to be able read when I move onto a most polished rough and ultimately, the final piece of work. Keeping a record of how characters move and interact with their environment can be very helpful when you run up against a problem in the future.

Patrick O’Leary (UK)

15: Colour your story

When selecting colours, it’s worth considering what part of the story you are trying to convey. One thing that I often consider at the moment is what time of day is it? And what kind of weather is it?

I base the colour selection on the temperature to create an immediate sense of time and place.

Robert Frank Hunter (UK)

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16: Get the right perspective

Taking the perspective of the central character can be a powerful way to convey a strong emotion within your work.

For this piece, the illustration had to reflect the sadness of a woman who can’t have children – in a direct but also sensitive way. I chose to show a woman looking into a park – but she is clearly separated from it, both physically and metaphorically. I used a fence to reflect this. 

Within the park are various forms of mothers - a pregnant lady, a lady with a toddler, a dog with a puppy, a duck being followed by a procession of ducklings and a pigeon with a squab.

Every element within the overall picture is important and serves to strengthen the narrative.

Rose Blake (UK)

17: Build a hierarchy

Composition for storytellers is about visual hierarchy: the order in which the visual unfolds. What is seen and when and how to manipulate the eye to move a certain way across the two-dimensional plain; achieved by controlling the contrast, colours, tone, texture and rhythm of an image.

18: Control your climax

Keep the ending to yourself: your visual is most powerful when existing in the moment, suspended, where action is taking place in a continuous loop.  Your control of the information is key to how dramatic the scene will be.

Tomer Hanuka (US)