It is a basic storytelling mantra: show, don’t tell. Time and time again, from art to film to comics, it is proven true. But exactly how do I accomplish that in my art, you may ask. This list will help. Here’s five pieces from the Art Lords community that do a fantastic job of showing, alongside an analysis to help you get there with your own work.
Savior by pav327
Images have a narrative, at least good ones should. This piece highlights contrasts: the vibrant background that one might find in a futuristic club or bar contrasted with the age-old visual of a man holding a gun and pointing it at an unarmed person.
The child, sitting and calm, the man, tense and standing at the ready.
The child, clean and bald, the man, bleeding and covered in strange spikes.
Even the blood trail behind the gunman shows the difference between the two of them.
The child, offers a hand, and more importantly, a bird conjured in it. He offers an exchange, violence for peace. Maybe even healing from the damage that’s been done.
We see all this backed up and objective, both figures are given equal focus in the shot. We don’t see the interaction from the child’s perspective, nor do we see it from the injured gunman. This further highlights their interaction as the focus, and we are the silent observer.
Chloe by David Navia
Here’s another great example of showing rather than telling. The girl we see the most of is wearing shorts and a shirt which exposes her midriff, probably sleep atire. She’s curled nearly into a fetal position, and clutches the hand of the other woman, who is wearing a long sleeve shirt and running her hands through the girl’s hair. There’s a measure of vulnerability in the piece, which is highlighted in just about every physical aspect.
The line work is blurred, painted, at times it is hard to tell when one woman begins and the other ends. The background is predominantly black, suggesting nighttime or a hiding place, where an exhausted Chloe curls up in some hay or grass to rest. Chloe’s face suggests she’s asleep, comfortable, safe. Her companion seems serene as well, though awake and alert since she’s sitting up.
Even though we have no idea what their context is in this image, we feel for both the characters and want their peace to continue, or to offer a blanket. That’s great showing.
Hunted by Edouard Noisette
“Hunted” by Edouard Noisette is a fantastic example of highlighting tension in a single shot. Here our masked protagonist hides behind one of the tall monoliths in an otherwise flat and empty landscape. This, coupled with the setting sun and the nearness of his pursuer all serve to highlight a single fact.
Time is running out.
Survivor by Benjamin Nowak
This piece does a great job of characterization using background, clothing, expression, and framing.
The background of the shot is a metal wall, obviously hodge podged together by other survivors, riddle with bullets. This, with the context of the title of the piece, makes us wonder if he’s the only one who survived a recent assault. In what world? Who assaulted them? How did he survive? Asking questions means you’re engaged with the piece, which should be what the artist wants.
We see our protagonist has practical clothing on, rather than fashionable. A blue flannel with green cargo pants and what looks like an ammo vest over the top. Not only that, but an army-green backpack as well. These all indicate that he’s used to surviving on his own, and that he’s at least moderately well equipped. We can’t see his shoes, but I’d be willing to bet they’re some form of durable boots.
The last couple pieces show further hints, he’s got a beanie on and has a recently wrapped bandage on his arm. The bandage indicates a recent fight, the gun on his shoulder seems to corroborate that. With the background indication mentioned above, it’s obvious this fight was recent. Since he’s walking on the outside of the wall (which can be assumed since the wall is lit and he’s not walking in shade), he’s probably leaving the complex as well.
His expression is cold, somber. His eyes look down and forward, tough.
Lastly the way we encounter our protagonist seems to indicate some things about his character. We’re in an up close shot, though not a full close up. The gun is entirely in frame and carried on his shoulder, though it isn’t blocking his face. He’s got gear on and it is easily seen in the shot. Everything seems to indicate that he’s leaving, though we aren’t sure where from, where he’s headed, or what caused it. That’s what good art does, places us in a context that gives clues but offers a mystery to be explored and make us want more.
Nasty Pirates by Fırat Solhan
This last piece has so many things happening in it that is a premier “show, don’t tell” art.
First let’s take a look over the three characters in focus, smacked dab right in the middle of the piece. we see their expression. The main Orc seems to be ferocious, while the other two seem wicked, yet restrained. As if they know the fate of those who are in the middle of the way of their orcish friend.
Then we realize that the guardrail is probably another ship that is being boarded by these pirates. Suddenly the Orc expression has a new meaning. He probably spotted an enemy and is ready to strike, his weapon pose reinforces this theory.
The characters in the background to the right seem to be paying attention to the boarding, one is even cheering his crew mate!
While to the left we see a pirate taking a long, drawn out smoke.
There is tension, but the highly defined style employed by Firat to the piece gives the idea that there is nothing unusual for this scene. Perhaps this pirates are used to boarding, and this “snapshot” is just a regular Tuesday evening for the group. Another boat to be pillaged.
The fact there isn’t details to the ship being boarded reinforces the idea that it doesn’t matter – This is routine for this group of sea bandits.
There’s an entire story underneath Firat’s piece here, and that’s the real power of showing.