Telling Stories with Art

My love of storytelling is the primary reason I became a writer and editor. But when I discovered mixed media, I found that I also love telling stories with art. When it came to choosing a theme for the 2018 Art Lessons, storytelling with mixed media was the clear frontrunner, and Cathy Nichols the idea person to kick off the year. Her February 2018 Art Lesson, Painting a Metaphor, makes the English lit major in me so happy, and I loved using her techniques to create an altered book page that features—wait for it—a squirrel.

Using metaphors in literature is a common device, and Cathy (who has a master’s degree in literature) explains the process as it applies to mixed media. To start, find an image that, as she says, “invites transformation” and sparks your imagination. Images of people doing things are perfect for this, and you can find them in copyright-free books and online sources. Next, think about how that transformation can be expressed through your artwork, getting the idea of the metaphor across. In the Art Lesson, Cathy offers great examples of metaphors, which will get you off and running.

telling stories with art
In Art Lessons Vol. 14: Painting a Metaphor, Cathy Nichols has fantastic ideas for telling stories with art.

I started with an image of a flying squirrel that I found on The Graphics Fairy. For me, a flying squirrel is a metaphor for a superhero. You think that squirrel you spy in a tree is ordinary, hunting and hiding acorns. But not this lady. She conceals a bonafide flight suit in that fur, so do not underestimate her. The image was sized to fit the altered book I was working in, and printed on mixed-media paper.

A book page was brushed with one coat of white gesso and allowed to dry. I wanted to see some of the text underneath, so I didn’t add a second coat. If you’re going to be using acrylic paint on the page, a coat of gesso works great as a primer.

When working with acrylic paint, you can’t go wrong by starting with a gesso foundation, whether white, clear, or black.

On a sketchbook page I drew the idea for my piece and thought about how I would be telling stories with art. The cutout squirrel was taped to the page, and I penciled in the swoosh from her flight, using swirls and stars.

Sketching a design before committing to them gives you ample time to play with ideas.

Going back to the altered book, I created a background, mixing Payne’s gray and ultramarine blue acrylic paint with a little water, then brushing it over the page. My goal was to create a night sky, but a happy accident occurred. Trying to distribute the paint across the page, I started wiping it with a paper towel. That resulted in really cool swirls, and I loved the effect.

Allowing yourself to try new techniques often results in unexpected, but welcome, results.

When that dried I sprayed the page with Ranger Dylusions Ink Spray in White Linen to give the look of stars. The page was also speckled with dark blue paint splatters that I created with a paintbrush.

Mixing mediums is a great way to add layers and depth to your artwork.

To create a cityscape setting for the squirrel, I salvaged some stamped buildings from an old art journal page I wasn’t terribly fond of, glued them to the bottom of the page, and cut tree shapes from book pages. Before adhering my superhero squirrel, I painted her with acrylic paint mixed with glazing medium, which gave the paint a bit of transparency. This part of the project, creating a little world and setting a scene, was so fun. With Cathy’s prompts, the ideas came easily, and I have tons more ideas for other projects. I love the almost 3-D effect of the elements against the painted background.

In her Art Lesson, Cathy offers tips for adhering elements to the substrate.

One the squirrel was in place, I added swoosh marks with paint (I used the bristles and the end of the paintbrush), a paint pen, and small stars punched from decorative paper. Cathy offers fantastic concepts and techniques in the Art Lesson for ways to bring your metaphor to life by layering paint, pens, collage, and more.

Adding a painted element to the piece really makes it come alive.

My squirrel needed just one more element. Of course, no superhero is complete without a cape, so I colored a small piece of gauze with acrylic paint and sewed it to the page.

telling stories with art
Telling stories with art allows your imagination to soar!

Don’t miss the companion video in the lesson, where Cathy demonstrates some of the techniques in real time. Telling stories with art is so satisfying, and these methods are sure to get your imagination rolling.

Cathy has so much more to show you! In this tutorial, find out how to make an altered book page story card.

Discover ways to turn a metaphor into stunning mixed-media artwork in Art Lessons Vol. 14: Painting a Metaphor.
Did you miss the January 2018 Art Lesson? In Fairy Tale Collage, learn how to use words and images to convey a compelling story.


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