Creating worlds with image storytelling techniques

Arturo Gutiérrez offers 6 techniques to use in your concept art to successfully convey a story and build a world...

Arturo Gutiérrez offers 6 techniques to use in your concept art to successfully convey a story and build a world...

Lets say we are masters in the technical aspects of painting and we can accurately and easily represent anything in any light condition of any style form any angle. What then? What comes next is hard in a different respect to the technical one, and because of this, it is a matter that requires a certain degree of mental abstraction. What comes after the technical capability is meaning. A sense we give to the images we create: anima, life, or soul. There are many roads to get there, but in concept art and illustration, that roads name is usually storytelling.

The most basic phrase in any language is composed from a noun and a verb. I am is said to be the shortest possible explicit sentence in the English language. In itself, the structure of language tells us that for humanity to understand each other, stories must be told: something or someone (noun) undergoing activity (verb). It is no different with images.

Images usually have a subject to them; in concept art it can either be a scene, character, environment, prop or any mix of the above. Every single one of these has a potential to tell a story.

The simultaneous use of storytelling props, environments, and characters usually adds up to the strongest image.
Ice Cream by Yohann Schepacz

Even props tell stories

The most unusual idea here can be that a prop can also tell a story. The way a vehicle or item is made or weathered gives us cues about how it is used, by whom, in what environment and how old or new it is. A very detailed metallic orb trinket with white sand in its gaps and rusty markings, can make us understand that it was made by a character from a society of high metallurgical advancements that may now interact with sand in a desert, or a hot sandy place and sweat made it rust over time.

The materials that something is composed of gives us clues about the technological level of the civilization we are looking at
Sketch by Juan Pablo Roldán

The importance of contrast

Now lets suppose a big reptile humanoid holds this orb and he lives in houses made of unpolished stone and wood. This gives us the idea that the society this orb comes from is probably not the same as our character. Maybe it was a different society or the same society in a different time. Either way, we get contrast between the story the orb tells us and the story the character tells us. The technological level differs, and this gives way to the viewers feeling curious about an explanation, wanting the story to keep going.

There are distinct differences in technological advancement from the pandas boat and the effigy
Cave Temple by Felix Riaño

Internal logic

Telling a story within an image is a bit like reverse engineering a game of clue. The key to effective storytelling is having a cohesive universe, where things make sense internally. Key word: internally. Killing someone over bubble-gum is not a very reasonable or relatable action to follow, unless in this particular universe, the most valuable currency is bubble-gum or you can have a character that is manic and hates the sound chewing bubble-gum creates, he cant stand it. You can also have a type of bubble-gum that, turns out it is a weaponized explosive. So externally it wouldnt make sense, but internally because of an environment, character or prop, it is completely feasible to kill someone over bubble-gum.

Even if we dont understand the internal logic of an image, if its choesive, we will deduce there is one
Triangle by Sebastián Kowoll

Compositional storytelling

When we see an image, our eye travels through it. Artists have a way to guide the eye of the beholder: composition. Artist James Paick focuses a lot on tension line setting to tell stories. This image for Deadpool creates tension lines that always redirect us to the main character. When we see this image, the usual flow of the eye is looking at the white distance, then the falling containers and finally the endangered characters. The story is being told by composition.

When we get to the characters, we have been trapped: anywhere else we look will bring us back to the characters. Amazing!
Deadpool concept art by James Paick

Geometrical storytelling

This way of telling a story is generating clues between elements through the use of geometry. The artist Matt Rhodes sketches geometrical compositions first. In this image, there is a similar organic silhouette to the guys in the back, no real square edges or items really. In contrast, the main character in the front has many items that are square and his silhouette generates right angles everywhere. This sets a rivalry between the party in the back and our main character: narrative.

We would know whats going on, even if the image was black and white
True Manu Grit by Matt Rhodes

Chromatic storytelling

This image by Simon Stålenhag gives us a whole story using all of the above plus chromatic storytelling. We understand that the kid is controlling the robot because of the colours and the shape of the hand. Its pretty much any team sports dynamic, dividing elements with colours.

Making the robot the same colours as the backpack makes us understand that the same people made both and they are part of a system
Fjärrhandske by Simon Stålenhag

This can be as literal as Stålenhags image, or as subtle as this image by Kilart (Choe, Heonhwa) where there is a slight difference in the cool tones the soldiers are painted with and the central golem.

This entire image is made with blues and oranges, making the chromatic subtlty more visible
Encounter by KILART (Choe, Heonhwa)

That difference is enough to generate contrast. If we put a large orange rampaging creature inside this frame, we could probably think that the golem belongs to the soldiers army. Warm versus cool reads easier than cool versus slightly cooler.

So what now?

There are a myriad of ways to convey storytelling meaning through images, these are just a few of the strongest and most basic approaches in my opinion. Applying them to an actual painting or drawing form imagination is a difficult task. Thinking before painting is key, along with sketching.

We all have yet to master our disciplines, so use your time wisely: while you hone your technical skills, try challenging your images one step further and let them tell their own stories!

Related links

Check out Blank Workshops on Facebook
Juan Pablo Roldán on ArtStation
Felix Riaño on ArtStation
Sebastian Kowoll on ArtStation
Arturo Gutierrez on ArtStation

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