A miscellany of weekly ramblings on comics, art and film by Ted Mathot, storyboard artist and writer/artist/self-publisher of graphic novels and comics

Monday, October 12, 2009

Single Image Storytelling (Part 1)

Oftentimes when I review story portfolios, I'm looking not only for sequential storytelling, but also for single images that tell a story. Sometimes these are character studies drawn at an airport or coffee shop, figments of imagination or vignettes of moments. This kind of storytelling is not always the easiest to pull off and requires an acute sense of observation. Attention to gesture and attitude as well as a good sense of composition lead to clear storytelling in this sense.

Here are a couple examples of storytelling in illustration:

Cover illustration by Oscar Cahén

On first glance, this image appears to be a group of people looking at a painting. Then we take notice of the way they are clustered. We want to know more and ask ourselves: "why are they huddled together like that?" and we look closer to investigate further. In effect, we've been pulled into the story. Upon further inspection, the painting they are looking at is of a large sun and bright colors. We see the crowd is dressed in winter clothing. The paintings surrounding them (that they are not looking at) are of cool valued winter scenes. The Calder-like mobile above them could represent snow or rain. We now know why their interest is focused on the summer piece.

Obviously, color is important here, but compositionally it is doing its job as well. The artist has created focus by grouping the characters together and posing them in a way that is interesting and that draws us in. We barely see any of their faces but still are connecting with them based on their postures.
They're sick of winter and that one painting is their momentary escape from it.

The artist is using several tools here to make the story perfectly clear. The woman is out of place in the environment. How do we know this?

Composition: The woman is surrounded compositionally by a forest of male figures. Their looks are all directed towards her. The most noticeable is the man that's with her. His head is tilted at an unnatural angle to draw the viewer's attention to the woman. She is crowded into a sliver of the image.

Gesture: The woman is mid-step; off balance. The man's feet are rooted to the ground. The woman is touching her head/hat, a sign of possible insecurity; maybe it's loud in the gym and she is holding her hand to her ear. Her purse is clutched tightly at her side. The men are smoking cigarettes...one has wrapped hands, another has a tattoo and is carrying a bucket of rags.

Color: The woman is colorful; her green hat and yellow paper in her pocket are the most colorful things in the image. They draw attention and create contrast. The men are mostly neutral earth tones and are low contrast in relation to one another.

Value: The woman is bright, her shirt being the lightest value in the image. The men generally are dark. This creates contrast in the characters and therefore contrast in the story. If the woman was just as subdued tonally as the men, what would the story be? Where would the focus be?

More to come soon...


Vinny said...

Thanks for posting this. The post couldn't have come at a more apropriate time for me. I create the backpage comic for my college's campus newspaper and since we only have so much space and time, I really need to focus on putting as much info and character within the story as possible and in the most effective way. Man, it sure isn't easy and I think I've been doing a so so job. This post helps put a lot into perspective. Thanks a bunch and feel free to check out the comic on my blog. I'd appreciate any critiques if you have spare time.

Kelly said...

I really like this kind of storytelling and your breakdown. Thanks for the excellent post!

YAXIN said...

the cover one is a little masterpiece of storytelling ^-^

Dennis S. said...

Thank you! This is not only educational but very inspiring. More Please!

REM-Brant said...

Thanks for sharing the great examples, plus your breakdown.

Jett said...

Thank you for posting this! I've been working on my portfolio and tips like this certainly help!

Also...any plans to be at APE this year?

Anonymous said...


Thanks for the post. I agree with the others that your insights are helpful and interesting.

For me, the best single image storytellers were the soundtrack album cover artists who are a dying breed. Bob Peak (Camelot) is the one.

For contemporary ones, Ronnie's SketchTravel piece and your Cora covers are excellent.


OV! said...


nice breakdown.

hope all is well.


Ronan McDermott said...

That was a very interesting read. Thanks for posting. I look forward to part 2.

Chris Palmer said...

So much goes into every illustration like these. Thanks for the run-through on the images.

David Wolter said...

Cool info - thanks!