Friday, December 14, 2012

Narrative work

Posted by: Dave

For years I have heard people whining about the contemporary art scene with the phrase "but where's all the multi-figure narrative work like they used to do in the 19th century....waaaaaaaah?"  Well, it's time for them to shut their cake holes because I have taken my first steps towards such a thing (not like I'm the first).  A lot of people may wonder why I have not attempted anything similar before.  Quite frankly, because it's hard to pull one off well and it takes a lot of planning.  That's probably why you don't see a lot of people doing them.   I always wished I was like Rouge from  X-Men who could touch someone and adsorb all their powers;  in this case art powers.  I would walk up to some of my favorite artist's like Yuqi Wang, Scott Waddell, and Mian Situ and shake their hand, only to turn around and run off laughing with their skills of narrative painting.

(Sidenote, painting "random naked chick in bed reading book" does not count as narrative painting unless the story is about a woman whose cloths exploded and she decided to do some book research to figure out the enigma of why).

In this piece, there are two fisherman on the hunt for some aquatic creatures to destroy; I don't know, maybe some baby seals or something.  It took quite a bit of time to dig up the correct articles of clothing I needed, a boat, and a model who had a mustache so manly that Burt Reynolds would blush.
I did quite a few thumbnails to work out the composition.  One trick for this is not to simply sit down with a sketchbook and try to do fifty in a row.  Some are done in a sketchbook, a scrap peice of paper and even on napkins at a restaurant.  When I get an idea, I jot it down.  By the time I am ready, I have no idea what happened to the first 49 I did, but the winners are kept. 

I also try to do at least 5-10 color studies.  Ironically I always end up going with one of the ones I did first, but I do a bunch more to make sure to kill time until the show "Shark Tank" comes on.  I was thinking of going on "Shark Tank" and offering them the investment of 50.00 dollars and a ham sandwich for 51 % of the equity in my business.

After that, time for the full-on drawing that will be transferred for the final painting.  In addition to these stages I still have to do ocean studies, boat studies, sky studies, and some portrait, narrative work sucks.

Start of cartoon
Some of the color studies.


  1. Well then ... I guess the guantlet has been thrown down and it's up to all of us to start stepping up. =)

    A few years ago Jonathan Linton sat quietly and listened to my broken record commentary that realists should stop whining about being underrepresented in the contemporary art world and instead start pointing to examples of great multi-figure narrative paintings that rival and surpass those of earlier generations. Do great work and it can't be denied. Oh ... can't find them ... then GET TO WORK!! (if you've ever heard me talk in person, you know I speak with a lot of intense humor and passion because all of life has a weird humor to it). Of course ... I had given my own paintings a pass on this - siting various excuses including; "I'm a student" and "I'm not the one complaining" (HAHAHA!) ... about a year later Jonathan mentioned he was working on this (below) and later won an award for it ->

    I'm not taking credit for influencing Jonathan's painting ... on the contrary ... he probably would have done that anyway. But, he did admit that our conversations him and I do think we need to push each other to accomplish great things - things we've probably all been thinking about doing and just need a little push.

    Thanks for this post. You rock!

  2. i'm starting the "random naked chick in bed reading book" blog. :)

    1. Ha awesome, the narratives will go as follows "woman in freak dog attack loses clothes, then researches canine breeds in bed" or "woman runs from burning house without even the clothes on her back, looks at real estate listings in guest bedroom at friends house."

    2. So this riff actually came in conversation with Leah today, and she was like, "There are lots of real reasons that a woman would be lying in bed reading a book naked," and I was like, "What?" and she was like, "One, it's summer and it's hot out and I'm not running the air conditioning, or, I like being naked, or the main one, most of those paintings the model just didn't bother getting dressed during break and she was reading a book and the painter liked the pose and said let's do that, and she was like, awesome, this is comfortable and I can read my book."

      This is what Leah has to say about this.

  3. To my mind, the reason most artists don't tackle the "great narrative subjects" our predecessors did is because so many of them deal with either religion or nationalism; themes for which most have lost faith. In other words, artists would need a compelling reason to go to all the trouble of hiring the models, arranging composition, etc., and at this point they don't have one.

    Of course, this doesn't explain how few mythological paintings are being made nowadays. Perhaps they're just too lazy... or scared. Illustrators do a fair bit of that sort of thing, but the "fine" artists seem unwilling.

    Another reason may be that the market simply isn't there for History painting at present. In galleries, as well as in the minds of patrons, decorative art rules. I have found, however, a small but growing audience for History painting in my hometown of Charleston, South Carolina.

    I wish you luck with your project.

  4. Thanks, David, for your thoughts on this, and for sharing some of your process. It really does take a lot of work to even think about painting one of these large multi-figure narrative paintings, not to mention assembling all the parts and then painting them!

    CinSC's theory that many artists today don't have a compelling reason to paint one of these works may be true. I don't think you can force this urge to say something. It has to be genuine and it has to be compelling.

    Wow, David, I love your background scenarios for "chicks in bed" paintings! Have you considered incorporating them into some paintings? I'm serious!

  5. Agreed, it was a lot easier when the narratives were picked for you. A crucifixion piece was most likely going to have one Jesus, one Mary, a cross, etc. Now its about composing them all. Nowadays its hard to find something to paint without being derivative or trite.

    As a subject, I think I might explore spontaneous combustion as it relates to woman's cloths. It might have something to do with polyester, not sure yet.

    1. One advantage of the dearth of narratives currently being commissioned is that you, the painter, have a great deal of latitude in determining the subject. In one picture I chose the subject (ancient history) and set it in a contemporary building, as many a European painter might have done. The owners of the building then became interested and we began negotiations for their eventual acquisition of the thing. They also asked for some changes (props, background, etc) making our relationship more traditional.

      Forget about being derivative; no one is completely independently creative. Just the act of painting such pictures today - and taking them seriously - is a fresh idea.