Painting represents one of the single most important aspects of human life. It is an expression
of ourselves, of our thoughts, dreams, and passions. Art is as beautiful as it is glorious.
However, one thing that every painting needs is a story. Painting is very visual, and yet it must
have context even if its abstract in nature. The artist who laces his or her paintings with depth of
story offers the world something much more valuable than a painted canvas. Here’s what you
need to know about how to give your painting a story and make it a good one.
How Symbolism Relates to Telling a Story Through Painting
At the heart of every story ever told through the painted canvas, is symbolism. The paintings we
have from the Dark Ages are littered with symbolism. The depth and specificity of this
symbolism can make paintings from this period difficult to interpret without specialized
knowledge. For those who make an effort to learn, that specialized knowledge can unlock a
whole new world of meaning when you take a fresh look at these paintings.
Symbolism reigned in the paintings of the Renaissance when progressives and religious
dissidents snuck in symbols known only to a select few as to avert persecution.
Other times symbols in Medieval paintings were used to convey deep religious connotations
that were readily recognizable to people of faith. For example, doves are associated with
resurrection and the Holy Spirit. Lambs symbolized Jesus personified as the good shepherd
while dragons, somewhat harshly, were associated with sin and the Devil.
If you are feeling especially creative, you can weave symbols from different religions into your
painting to tell an intricate story. If you know the symbols that are used in several different
religions, you can use them to craft a painting that tells a story of unity. For example, you could
paint an interlocking pattern of symbols representing different religions and cultures revolving
around one central theme of solidarity. This is a beautiful way to represent unity and diversity in
a single piece. This, of course, is only one possibility of many. Let your mind and spirit run free
with creativity, learn more about what different symbols mean and use them for inspiration.
Using Ancient Symbolism
In ancient times, before the invention of the painted canvas, figures who were larger than the
rest had a conveyance of importance. The rule of thumb was that the larger the figure, the more
important they were. This was especially typical of images chronicling the conquests of a leader
who was superimposed and made bigger in appearance than the rest of the people in the
You can use that same conveyance of significance in your painting to tell a story. Whether
you’re painting a historical scene or something from the fantasy of your imagination you can
assign significance to various figures in your painting by making them bigger than the rest. The
interpretation of larger figures being more important is a human one that is largely independent
of culture. In other words, almost anyone can discern that the tallest person in a painting is the
Another curious creative quirk you can capitalize on is the use of Celtic obelisks as a possible
symbol of the connection between Heaven and Earth. Similar obelisks are found in many other
cultures around the globe including Egypt. The Tree of Life has a similar connotation and you
can use trees in your paintings as a way to convey the sensation of life and a connection to the
Even if your art is not spiritual in nature, you can still make use of the symbolism to convey a
specific message through story in your paintings.
Using Flags, National, and Cultural Symbols
If you’re looking to weave a story involving peace and unity or even conflict between nations or
cultures in your paintings. You could, for instance, paint a range of flags circling around the
globe in an expression of global diversity, peace and goodwill. Alternatively, you could use the
East German flag which is no longer in official use and pair it with the modern German flag while
painting a scene that tells a story of transition from dark times to a better life and a unified
One of the artist’s greatest tools for storytelling through the painted canvas is a mirror. With
mirrors, you can convey all kinds of messages that when taken together, form a cohesive and
You can, for instance, tell a story of personal growth with multiple appended images of someone
looking themselves in the mirror showing different emotions. The arrangement of these emotions is
especially important in telling your story. If you start with a prideful face and transition to anger,
then sorrow or shame. Most interestingly, when you reverse the order of those emotions, it tells
a completely different story.
Another story you can tell is that of aging and you can get very creative with this theme. You
could show a person standing in front of the mirror who is quite young in the mirror and yet very
old away from the mirror and vice versa.
One stellar example of this is the painting of Jan van Eyck, The Arnolfini Double Portrait in
which an Italian couple is facing the viewer. At a first glance, it would appear that the woman is
with child, but alas, she is not. The lump over her stomach is a mere quirk of fashion. Looking
behind them, the savvy eye will glean that their reflections are visible in a mirror in the
The detail that the artist put into the reflection adds to the intrigue of the painting’s story
immensely. Upon closer examination, it is revealed that there is yet another figure in the
foreground, the identity of which remains unknown and has been the subject of much
An example like the Jan van Eyck, The Arnolfini Double Portrait serves to remind us that a
single painting can contain many different stories, especially if you leave room for multiple
The Essentials of Expressing Story in a Painting
In order to effectively express story through a painting, you will typically require a combination of
several different essential components. There is a, however, a notable exception to this which
we will return to shortly.
First, if you’re telling a story, most paintings will require the use of symbolism, themes,
emotions, objects, and entities.
The rigidity of the requirements for these components is quite ambiguous because of the sheer
variety of possible combinations that go into telling a story in a painting. For example, you can
tell a perfectly good and easily discernible story in a painting that only uses plants, animals, and
natural scenery with no humans included. Likewise, you can tell a story using only a natural
background with no entities whatsoever.
Furthermore, you can express a broad and moving story as Thomas Cole did most brilliantly in
a series of paintings aptly named, The Course of Empire. In the first painting, he depicted a
pastoral beginning with very few humans and some simple animals in peaceful and
undeveloped wilderness. Next is a painting flaunting the glories of Rome in a display of
decadence, excess, and ostentation perpetrated by a large number of people. Finally, the next
painting shows the dark twilight of empire as it shows a scene of desolation and decay as the
once magnificent buildings have fallen and people are nowhere to be found.
Mr. Cole’s series of paintings instills a beautiful albeit chilling sensation as the story unfolds.
You can emulate this in your own work as you strive to either tell more in a single painting or
stretch a larger story across multiple paintings as Thomas Cole did.
The more you think about the use of essential concepts and how you can stretch them out to
show longer or more profound stories, the more you will have to work with overall in terms of
ideas. As a painter, wherever your interests lie, you should endeavor to convey stories through
painting as naturally as possible. Even the most mercenary of painters can agree that you
cannot be too obvious how the story in a painting is conveyed lest it be perceived as overly
simplistic and devoid of value.
Painting a Story of Romance
One of the most powerful stories you can tell through a painting is one of romance. This
romance can be tragic or triumphant according to the whims of your muse. There are countless
ways to express a love story in a painting.
It can be conveyed visually in any number of ways from locked eyes to holding hands, the
variations are limitless. It can be subtle or obvious, depending on how or if you desire your
audience to interpret it.
Now think of the other varieties of symbolism we’ve discussed previously. You can combine any
number of those elements and weave them into a painting imbued with a complex love story.
Inspiration is a creative force that sometimes sweeps over us with an overwhelming sense of
purpose, other times it is fleeting or comes in spurts. That inspiration, whether it came in spurts
or was free-flowing, it should be organized. Everyone’s creative process is different, but there
are some general concepts you can follow that will be beneficial.
First, take as many notes as possible. Every time a thought on your painting comes to you, be
sure to write down. Reviewing these notes can lead to a more refined final product. When
reviewing your notes as well as jotting them down, tie in a central theme that will be the crux of
your painting’s story. As you go along and develop your ideas further, start thinking about other
smaller, more subtle or detailed elements to your story. You can even entertain thoughts of
weaving multiple stories into one painting.
An example of this could be a romance in which a couple experiences the tragic bliss of
forbidden love. Continuing our example here, think about it and the themes that it relates to.
How would you express the story of Romeo and Juliet in a painting? Questions like these are
ones for you to ask yourself as a painter.
When inspiration is not coming freely nor in spurts but is halted altogether, there are many ways
for the painter to find inspiration that can turn into a beautiful painting belying a profound story.
As a painter, there is a whole world of resources available to you from pictures, paintings,
movies, music, books, and of course your own experiences.
It can be quite useful when looking for inspiration to take a look at the history of painting itself.
The broad range of extraordinary changes that have occurred throughout the history of painting
is breathtaking in its emotional power and luminousness. One of the finest books on the
history of painting that can benefit any painter in need of inspiration or some direction on the
history of their craft is The Story of Painting by Wendy Beckett.
Another way to find inspiration is to socialize with other artists. Be careful however to talk about
concepts rather than pure ideas as not to give yours away.
Don’t Be Afraid to Add a Touch of the Chaotic
By chaotic here we mean abstract as in don’t be afraid to tell a story that is not readily
comprehensible to the average viewer. If you have a story in your mind that strongly appeals to
you yet is so specific of abstract you fear that no one else will understand what your story
means, embrace it.
Whatever you do, do not scrap the idea simply because it won’t be easily understood. Also, be
sure not to try to conform it too much or pull it from the abstract to the common in an effort to
make its meaning less arcane. To do so would blemish the purity of your own creation. It would
mar it and betray the originality of your idea.
If you’re telling a story through a painting, there’s nothing inherently wrong with representing the
story through clear visual statements that are easy for viewers to follow. It is only when your
initial idea is abstract by nature from conception that you should make an effort to preserve as
much of its distilled meaning as possible however obscure.
Of course, much of your preference in these matters will depend on whether you’re a purely
commercial artist or one who is wholly dedicated to the craft itself and thus free of concerns
over such mundane constraints as conventionality.
The Importance of Painting to the Human Story
Painting has an enormous impact on the story of humankind itself. It is an essential and
priceless part of our collective creative, intellectual, and social heritage. While methods and
materials have experienced many changes, the core meaning of painting remains because it is
so very flexible. That’s because painting can be whatever you want it to be. It is a vehicle
through which your mind and spirit can travel across the planes of time and the senses and into
the world of the abstract. Even in this abstract world of the creative, there is a semblance of
order and that order is structured by story.
As artists, we traverse these planes to find new things and old things to bring back and express
them on the canvas. Revered artist Salvator Dali reached into the world of dreams for much of his
inspiration and produced such bizarre yet awe-inspiring paintings as, The Persistence of
One of his methods was to place a tin plate on the floor next to where he slept while holding a
spoon that would wake him as it fell from his hands and hit the plate after falling asleep. In
waking up so abruptly and in the first phase of sleep, he would recall wondrous dreams that
were quite different from the ordinary.
Be A Part of it, Paint Your Own Story
There is some irony in that while the primary intention of this article is to help you learn how to
give a painting a story, what you ought to be doing is giving stories a painting. Think of it this
way, if you create the story first, you can build the painting around it.
Whether you represent it textually or visually, jot down the kernel of each story idea you have.
Then ponder how best to represent those stories in a painting. In doing so, you will be able to
express story through the art of painting most effectively. It will help you grow as an artist, as a
painter, and as a human being.
As an artist, you are in the position to benefit the world with your own creations. Do not restrain
yourself, unleash your muses and lose yourself in your own craft. The more time you spend in
that creative space, the more potent of an artist you will become.
Give it a try. Take a deep breath, think about what you’ve learned, and pick up your brush, it’s
time to paint!