Sunday, April 15, 2012

Contrast Can Be Enough to Tell a Story

We've been talking a lot at work lately about ways of getting a lot of "storytelling" into an image. Some artists are masters at painting a beautiful picture and some are masters at telling a story through their pictures. What makes the difference between the two?

Sometimes it's as simple as creating a contrast within an image. When you show you audience two things, they compare those two things and create ideas about the differences between them. As simple as that sounds, this can be more than enough to create a story within the mind of the viewer.

Norman Rockwell did this very effectively. Here, the contrasts couldn't be more basic: grey, static symmetry and control vs. color, chaos and excitement.

In this one, the family heads off the church, and dad has elected to stay at home.

Rockwell does all he can to create contrasts between the two distinct groups. The figures in the background are rigid, straight and symmetrical (and they're all walking in sync) while Dad slouches in an untidy, symmetrical way. The church goers are dressed conservatively and dark while Dad's outfit is full of color and a crazy pattern. His messy disheveled newspaper (both in his hands and all over the floor) adds to the effect, as does his rounded chair, in opposition to the vertical straights of the curtains behind them and the rigid, flat, straight lines of the house we see through the window that frames the church goers (there's a reason that house is seen flat-on, with no depth or perspective).

Even Dad's cigarette smoke is a crazy, disorderd zigzag of a line.

Sometimes it's as simple as warm colors against cool.

The idea is simple but's not just a portrait of a person in a newspaper stand. It's cold out and the newspaper vendor has created a warm, cozy fortress against the freezing temperatures. Not a huge, spectacular story but one with a lot of charm and mood.

I love this next one. Rockwell flattens everything out (see the previous post) for maximum comedic effect. The window of the truck makes a great frame-within-a-frame to highlight the two truck drivers. Everything about the truck drivers says "practical and everyday"...their uniforms, their caps, even their rough skin texture. They're in a plain truck, doing some sort of everyday job, nothing glamorous or exciting. These are practical, everyday guys that work hard for a living. Their attitudes suggest that they like to clown around and have fun.

Everything about the girl is the opposite. She seems very reserved and almost disgusted by the guys (but too reserved to show it). Everything about her is in contrast to the two guys: her soft skin tone, her golden fair hair, the sleek lines of her car, her driving gloves...and especially that ridiculous hat. Clearly that hat has no purpose other than to look fashionable (I doubt it would even stay on in a convertible, but that's besides the point). I love how Rockwell gives that hat such a ridiculous look. It's clearly not to keep the sun out of her eyes and not to keep her hair contained. It's obviously has no practical use, it's merely for show, and Rockwell clearly took great efforts to communicate that to the audience.

On other thing I love about this painting: the fact that he added the reflection in the back of the side mirror to show us that they're stopped at a red light. He wanted a flat composition so he didn't want to compose it in depth the include the stoplight, so he found a smart, elegant solution.

The red stoplight is important, because if the audience thinks these guys are doing this kind of thing while they're driving... well, suddenly it's not whimsical and fun anymore. Then it feels like a story about distracted and irresponsible truck drivers about to plow into somebody! Without the stoplight to tell you for sure, you'd be distracted by that question ("are they driving? Or at a stoplight? Or stop sign?") and you wouldn't be able to just focus on the details and enjoy the story.

Another great Rockwell use of contrasts, here it's a father and son as the son waits for the train to take him away to college. Everything about the differences between the father and son (and the environment the son is leaving behind) tell a simple, emotional story.

I used this idea of contrast myself when I was painting a picture for my graphic novel. The idea I was trying to create was that of a young boy thrust into the role of King before he was ready. So I wanted to show what the expectation of a King was to create the contrast between what is expected of him, or what the previous version of a King was....and what he is, to create the idea that there's a big gulf between the two, and that's he's wholly unprepared.

Creating a story within one piece of art can sound like a big, confusing concept to wrap your head around but it's not, really. And creating a simple contrast can be very effective for communicating a powerful idea.


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Ishtar Dragon said...

Oh wow, I think this is a great tip! I shall include it in my future works!

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Nikhita said...

Thanks for the tips! I never really understood what it was about rockwell paintings, but you've made me understand them better! :)

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