On visual storytelling

My sisters and I decided years ago that storytelling does not run in our family. None of us is the type of person who can regale a crowd with an exaggerated anecdote. My parents never made up stories themselves, but provided us with all of the books we could wish for. I can only speak for myself but I get horribly self-conscious with any form of audience and I’m usually still trying to recall the damn thing while I’m telling it which is always a terrible mistake and I start to ramble as I forget important details and then I forget the point of the story and it peters out somewhat confusedly….

However, since starting a career in theatre, I’ve discovered that what I can do is help other people tell stories.

My theatre education has been fundamental in this respect, and will probably continue to inform anything that I make, regardless of the medium. Not only has lighting design fundamentally changed the way I view and consider both art and the world around me, but it has led me towards a greater understanding of dramaturgy, narrative flow and rhythm, visual storytelling, symbolism, and the way humans extrapolate meaning from basic cues.

As I think more and more about making visual art, I’m growing increasingly interested in the techniques of visual storytelling, and wondering about what differences there might be between art with storytelling intention and art for art’s sake.

Stories are fundamental to human existence – they’re how we make sense of the world. All my life I have liked nothing better than getting lost in books. My mother used to confiscate them at night in an effort to get me to sleep but it never worked – I would just start a new one under the covers. So it came as an interesting change when I was recently introduced to the fascinating world of graphic novels.

I’m not sure if it’s an upbringing thing or a gender thing (possibly both) but comics to me were always hazy fictional things read by fictional young boys or fictional Comic Book Guys. Obviously, this isn’t true at all, but while graphic novels seem to have been steadily gaining recognition as a serious storytelling form, they still appear to be relatively niche.

I’d never given them much thought until another lighting designer mentioned Sandman in conversation earlier this year. He looked surprised when I shrugged and looked blank and said “Really? I would have thought you’d be right into them.” So a few months later, I gave Preludes & Nocturnes a go. (Thanks Nik, you were right.)

Graphic novels are so different to any other media I’ve encountered. They show progressive action but they’re static images. They’re not just storyboards or films stretched out over a flat plane. Their structured panel layouts make them nothing like picture books. They have a very singular structure, flow and text/image relationship. Graphic novels are so different, that when I first tried to read Sandman, I felt a bit lost. I kept finding that I’d habitually focus on the text and not remember to slow down and take in the visuals. It was like I had to learn how to read them, the reverse of moving from illustrated books to straight novels.

I became curious to watch how the visual structure changed to follow the needs of the story. Some panels appeared hastily sketched and rough; others were lavishly worked over. The layout could vary from many small sharp panels crammed into a page to the occasional sumptuous double-page spread. Compared to novels, they contained minimal text, and yet the illustrations provided a conceptual depth that far surpassed merely introducing images of characters and events. The stories, I found, could be just as vivid and complex as in any other storytelling form.

After blazing through a few volumes of Sandman, I recently devoured Art Spiegelman’s Maus – an incredible work and what must have been an epic labour. Maus really brought home how immediately images can communicate a lot of complex information. Spiegelman’s images are black and white line drawings of anthropomorphised animals with limited facial expression and yet it is never unclear what is going on. His use of body language particularly struck me – the postures and gestures of his characters allow the reader to immediately and unconsciously recognise moods and relationships.

Maus also provoked a lot of consideration on the power of symbols. I considered how moving away from realistic depiction can create greater opportunity for adding layers of abstract meaning, without losing anything in understanding. Consider, for example, the cartoon outline of a dog. It doesn’t have the complex shading or movement of a real dog, just enough indication of key dog features to make it recognisable. We interpret both a simple line cartoon of a dog and a photograph of a dog in pretty much the same basic way. But with the cartoon dog, we suddenly have a whole host of possibility for adding meaning with exaggerated features and personification.

Our brains haven’t evolved to consciously consider all of the contours and shades that make up an object or scene in order to recognise what it is we’re looking at. We naturally see objects as whole objects, and this is why artists have to learn how to break them down into their composite shades and contours in order to reproduce them.

A few years ago, I was visiting a kindergarten class, and I witnessed an exercise where the children were instructed to copy a particular scene out of a book that had just been read to them. I can’t remember the book but I do remember that it was a picture of a dog with slices of pizza flying towards its face. The interesting thing was that the kids didn’t reproduce the drawing line for line, or even copy the original perspective. The original drawing showed the dog’s head and shoulders front on with the pizza flying towards its face away from the viewer. Most of the kids drew a picture of a whole dog from the side, with the pizza travelling across the page. It seems they would have looked at the image, interpreted the information conceptually, and then recommunicated that information in the most straight-forward way they knew how.

To me, this seems like an interesting indication of the dominance of object recognition in the way our brains interpret what we see. I’m currently in the middle of reading a wonderful book called Vision and Art by Margaret S. Livingstone. It examines how the functions of our visual system affect the way we interact with art. In the book, Livingstone states that our brains process vision through two systems: the “What system” (object recognition, facial recognition, colour perception, etc) and the “Where system” (motion perception, depth perception, spatial organisation, figure/ground segregation, etc). We don’t encounter the world exactly as it is, recording photons on a screen. We’re interpreting it all as we go, filling in the blanks based on memory and expectation.

Going back to symbolism, the visual style is really only one layer of possible implications. There’s drawing a line sketch to represent a mouse, and then there’s using drawings of mice to represent a certain group of people. Suddenly, even before he uses any words, by representing Jews as mice and Germans as cats, Spiegelman introduces a whole host of cultural associations and assumptions. These associations can often communicate more subtly and forcefully than direct language can.

Human beings have an incredible innate ability for making conceptual connections and extrapolating information. In fact, any fully functioning person is doing it constantly and unconsciously. Everything about the various ways we communicate and tell stories relies on this. It’s why, for example, when we see a shot of the outside of a house followed by a scene in an interior, we automatically assume the two are connected, and that the scene is taking place inside the house. Good art takes full advantage of this tendency towards connection and extrapolation to both convey information and to surprise by subverting assumptions.

One of the things that I enjoy most about theatre is its provision for and reliance in the audience’s imagination and suspension of disbelief. The audience don’t need to have everything right there in front of them to go along with the action. When I saw Peter and the Starcatcher in New York, I was really impressed by the way they created convincing scenes with just a piece of string, lighting and sound effects, and the commitment of the performers.

Film does a similar kind of conceptual shortcutting in a different way. Theatrical abstraction doesn’t tend to translate well to film (with exceptions like Dogville perhaps) but the ease of cutting together any different footage as well as audio make it a fantastic medium for quickly linking ideas (like the basic example of the establishing shot).

Another useful book passed through my hands recently: Making Picture Books by Libby Gleeson. I adore picture books and not just for nostalgia’s sake (though like anything, the best of them stay with you for life). There is so much exquisite art and so many wonderful stories to be found in picture books. Picture books, as well, have a very singular text/image relationship. As Gleeson points out:

“A picture book is not the same as an illustrated story where the illustrations simply break up the words or decorate the text… In the best picture books the illustrators are absolutely necessary. They carry parts of the story or the narrative and in some cases, the language is dropped and the pictures along are all that is needed.”

One of the more recent items on my “things I would like to do” list is to do a story collaboration using my photographic work. It would be interesting to explore first hand how to join text and images in a meaningful way. Recently I’ve been pondering the question of using captions on a series of photographs I’ve been working on. It feels frowned upon in a fine art context – unless they are being used for irony, captions can come across as trying too hard, showing an anxiety about making the intended meaning of the image clear to the viewer. Titles sometimes seem like short little captions for images, but on the whole a certain degree of ambiguity in art seems to be desirable.

I have a definite tendency towards clarity and classification which I am trying to rebel against. I’m finding myself more and more intrigued by the mystery and ambiguity of Gregory Crewdson’s work, of Surrealists like Magritte, and the dreamlike nature of certain poetry.

Perhaps the level of ambiguity is one of the main differences between art for art’s sake and art for communication (for example storytelling or advertising). In a recent conversation with a friend, we were wondering what makes art, art. I thought perhaps it was mainly the intention for something to be ‘art’, without necessarily needing any other purpose.

In general, I find fine art can be more interesting with some degree of missing information that opens it up to interpretation and discussion. Art in the service of storytelling is usually trying to aid in communicating something relatively specific in a more direct manner. Of course, stories in all forms are subject to interpretation of deeper meanings, but they generally have a series of characters and events to present.

There is so much potential contained in the interplay between different elements in different forms of storytelling. There are many variations in balance and a whole range of advantages, limitations and shortcuts present in every kind of visual storytelling.

I’d like to explore how the different techniques used in theatre, film, paintings, illustrations, fine art and graphic novels could be incorporated into my own practice. How much can be conveyed in a single still image? How much information can be added or changed with a second image, or a moving image, or text?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.