10 images that tell a story

Chris McCabe explores the ways in which a scene can tell a narrative, from facial expressions to symbolism, composition, and more...

Chris McCabe explores the ways in which a scene can tell a narrative, from facial expressions to symbolism, composition, and more...

Hi, my name is Chris Tulloch McCabe and I am a concept artist. Here I will showcase ten of my favorite images with a strong story or sense of narrative. A difficult task as I didn't know where to start. As a concept artist, being able to convey story or suggest culture and history with an image is a desirable skill, and these ten appeal to me in relation to that. Things like painting technique, color, and composition are an afterthought and only really play a part in why these ten work when it impacts the narrative quality.

The Death of Socrates

by Jacques-Louis David
David's neo-classical painting Death of Socrates is full of story. There is the invested story that requires some knowledge of the history, and also the passive story that one can absorb purely by just looking at the image. I love it because its very staged and simple, like a sculpture. This helps to keep a clear narrative. The man on the bed is Socrates. It shows him and his followers as he is about to drink the Hemlock poison by choice. His followers on the left are distraught, which is in contrast to Socrates himself. This seems to be a big theme throughout: contrast.

Jacques-Louis David uses this to help tell us Hey, there's something important here and I love that. Another point of contrast is the old man sitting at the base of the bed, which so happens to be another follower, Plato. This contrast is my favorite because it can be taken in two ways. Its actual intent of Plato being much younger than this, when Socrates actually took his life and therefore the old Plato here suggests this whole image is some sort of romantic memory from his past OR the passive version, where its a despondent old man that has seen it all before, the brash idyllic youth destructive as ever. So yeah, its just good story all around and very inspirational.

Nameless and Friendless

by Emily Mary Osborn
I'm a big fan of Victorian-era imagery. An odd mix of vibrancy, conservatism and romanticism. This painting definately had a very clear way of reading it. The story was as much a commentary on women's treatment at the time, as it was just a lovely painting. It's understandable at a glance and has great communicative energy. But also much like many of these 10, I love a painting that I can have fun with and play with alternative narratives within them. For example, Emily Osborn depicted a women that is trying to get her art sold along with her little brother. The dealer looks not all that impressed and she looks very uncomfortable and not all that confident. She plays with the string in her hands.

Meanwhile, buyers in the background look her up and down while holding what would be considered a classic depiction of an ideal female. This is in stark contrast to the real woman in front of them. But another version could be she is a widow (due to the black headscarf and dress) and has fallen on hard times, so has come along with her son to try and make some quick cash. The buyer is actually surprised while trying to remain shrewd, and meanwhile the customers in the background spot the painting might be up for sale and are trying to listen in, in-case an opportunity arises for them to take advantage of the widows situation.

The Pioneer

by Frederick McCubbin
This is a much more linear straight-forward expression of narrative but I love it. I can see it as a sequence in a film quite clearly. Context-wise its set in Australia and is about hard, tough people trying to strike it out on their own in the bush. The first panel shows a couple who have settled in this space in a dark, rough spot. A busy and maybe content male in the background is just tending to a fire in front of their caravan. The female close to us is looking like I am not sure about this or just contemplating where this will all go. Then the second panel with a somewhat more settled, happy family, showing the bush looking more tended and cleared, along with a small dwelling in the light at the back. This has a warmer tone in the canopy to suggest that this once hostile place has been tamed.

The final panel is my favorite as its not clear if it shows the baby, now adult, at the grave of their mother/father, or the father at his wife's grave, leaving us to speculate that maybe the son has left the bush life for the city in the background (that I am told is Melbourne). This is really exciting to me as it shows a small, intimate narrative of one family, but also the larger story of a nation. Very cool. Again the environment supports the narrative; the trees are cleared and tamed yes, but also patchy and showing gaps bits are missing much like this once family.

The Isle of the Dead

by Arnold Bocklin
Okay, this is one of my favorite images full stop! It never gets old for me. There's so much I like about it. So yes, I am a fanboy and though there doesn't seem to be a real clear narrative or story to be told, that only makes it even better! Its odd, unsettling and morbid, and at the same time calm, subtle and beautiful. For me it is a painting of mystery. The more I know about it, the less I enjoy it.

In some ways I wish it was found in a cellar somewhere, leaving us with no idea when, or who, painted it. So this is the very antithesis of reading into a painting. As far as story goes this is just full of potential. If you put music on your headphones, open this up in Photoshop, zoom in and pan around it to the music. It wont be long before that impenetrable darkness in the trees, along with the echo of the paintings name, start all the creative cogs turning.

The Women of Amphissa

by Lawrence Alma Tadema
On the surface this just looks like a bunch of loosely clothed people twirling and lying around, like people seem to do so often in paintings, but as always on closer inspection you can see that there are other things happening. There are two types of people in the painting. I like this. I like a suggestion of difference, culture or politics through clothing, expressions and staging. In this you can see the women in the foreground are actually in looser dresses that seem to be shorter on the legs and with free, unkempt hair, whereas in the background we can see the line of women that seem to be in more conservative clothing with tied-up hair, much more upright and ordered like the pillars and structures behind them.

This is fitting because they are local women to this city and the others are from a neighboring city that they are in fact at war with. These foreground women are worshipers of the god of wine Bacchus, and in an evening of celebration ended up in the neighboring city. This explains why the background women have somewhat disapproving expressions mixed with a sort of Okay, lets get this mess sorted before the local army sees this. It also shows a female solidarity which I like too.

The First Cloud

by William Quiller Orchardson
This was the first image I thought of when trying to think of my favorite scenes. Its great. Similar to The Death of Socrates, I like how stripped back the setting is, with lots of space to really allow us to focus on the human interaction. It also has a sort of two-frame composition: his world and her world. Like the title suggests, I think its meant to be the first real issue between a couple, maybe a post-argument moment. His expression is perfect. I rally get a sense that he is a mixture of angry, confused, a little sad, and lost. She in contrast seems like she has had enough and just wants to be out of his sight. The fact that she leaves the scene and he is still standing also suggests that he was willing to keep arguing and she did not.

Small things like the way she almost leans to look into the next room, like she actually has something in the other room that she is now more interested in, and he is now an afterthought. He almost poses his hands in his trousers like he asked a question that she has no interest in answering. Even the room itself, like the unlit fire, give you a clue that they have not been home and it is maybe a disagreement they had while out. Or the decor, clearly affluent and comfortable, but it all feels dead and pointless if you have bad human relations. A great painting.

Fish Sale on a Cornish Beach

By Stanhope Forbes
This image is close to my heart as its one of the Newyln School paintings, and I spent almost every summer as a child in and around this area. This is how it feels even now when its overcast. I love the story in it in particular. The foreground group is discussing the catch of the day. The male who appears to be a fisherman with a possibly disappointed look, listens to the female sitting on the basket. I wonder what she is saying. This could be in relation to the large group in the background that seems to be buying and selling fish. Maybe our close group wont get much for this lot? As with all of these, its humans that drive story and drama for me. The environment is a setting and support, but humans are the key and this is a good one for that.

A Boyar Wedding Feast

By Konstantin Makovsky
Much like the previous fish sale painting this is all about faces. Every single one tells a different version of the story, showing how important expression is to narrative telling. An alternative view on what's happening at the focal point could be that it is the moment the husband pulls back his wife's veil for the first time. They are by tradition meant to kiss now, but we can see she is not all that happy about the prospect. I love it because, as I say, every single face shows a different reaction to the moment.

The seated male closest to us is clearly just admiring her and taking it in his stride. The little boy at the front is just innocent and genuinely intrigued. The female directly centre looks either concerned or sympathetic. She also looks much like the wife and could be her sister? Which would make sense as she would have confided in her about her feelings before this day. The lady at the back in the doorway is clearly sad. A great example of a story told predominately through just faces.

Parable of the Wheat and the Tares

by Abraham Bloemaert
I always loved this from quite an early age. Its symbolic in its messaging. It depicts villagers in the foreground sleeping, possibly after a night of drinking. They are the symbol of laziness and at the time this was a big no-no. One of the seven deadly sins in fact! How dare workers have fun! Anyway, in the background you can see the devil sowing seeds in their stead. The tree house is a sort of trap for doves which people would eat. This was seen as a morally lazy way to feed yourself as it required little work.

The goat is also a symbol of lust. This is all great but the thing that sticks with me now, as it did when I was a child, is how damn creepy it is. That devil, I find him very, very odd and disturbing. It is obviously not meant to be literal but I liked pretending it was. How would the scene look if it was a film? A demon was literally out in broad daylight while you sleep just meters away. The mill wheel turns slowly, wind blows in the trees, with the hoot and flaps of the trapped doves above. Very peculiar and gives me shivers!

The Fog Warning

by Winslow Homer
A nice, simple scene here. Just a fisherman who has gone out to catch a rather large fish. He was clearly successful, but on his way back to the mothership (which you can see on the horizon) a storm is brewing. He looks concerned and with all the extra weight of the catch this could go bad fast. The coming doom is enhanced by the sharp points of the storm clouds coming from behind the destination. Can you get here before I reach you? Nothing fancy but I like it for that. Sometimes its nice to look at an image and for it to just tell one story well, as opposed to juggling multiple things.

Related links

10 classic paintings I love, and why, by Álvaro Escudero
5 composition mistakes to avoid
Check out some of Chriss work
Grab a copy of Ultimate Concept Art Career Guide

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