The Art of Storytelling | Finding Inspiration for a New Painting

The art of storytelling is just that, an art. Art can express so much. It can capture a moment in time, a feeling or a memory. It can express a desire for a different world. Art can also just be pure fun and play!

Setting the Scene

Setting, unlike plot or conflict, is an element of storytelling that feels most like home to visual artists. With setting, artists have the power to transport viewers to a completely alternate universe. It can be anything you dream up. You are the architect of your imagination. But where should you begin? For me, the starting place has often been the scenes of childhood memory. For you, it may be memories of a trip overseas or the place you lived when you first fell in love.

Inspirational Warm-Up Exercises

Since the art of storytelling requires you to imagine the stories you will paint, it’s a good idea to gather together references and inspiration points. You have a unique viewpoint. Look through old photos, make a list of your favorite objects and mine the richness of your inner life to create beautiful new art.

Remember that storytelling is a process. If, at first, you can’t draw a person or a tree, please don’t be discouraged. You’ve simply discovered a skill you can develop. Keep practicing and concentrate on your strengths. Make mistakes. Make things up. Soon you will start to feel like a child again—a child who likes to play games and make-believe—and this is exactly the mindset you need to begin painting stories.


Use Smell to Evoke a Strong Memory

Quickly close your eyes and imagine freshly cut grass. Buttered popcorn. Cotton candy. Were you able to summon a memory? Smell is one of the most powerful gateways to the imagination. Now think of a place that has always meant happiness to you. Write down a few smells you associate with that place.

If it’s the beach, maybe it’s the smell of the ocean. If it’s your grandmother’s kitchen, what did she like to cook? Maybe it’s that trip to Greece you took two years ago. What kind of suntan lotion were you wearing? If possible, try to get a real sample of that smell. Take a field trip to the beach, open up a bottle of Hawaiian Tropic and inhale. Then close your eyes and begin to imagine your happy place.

4-2-768x576You don’t have to paint a photo exactly for it to provide guidance in your composition. The bright colors and bold stripes in this photo I took at Coney Island helped me pick out scrap paper for my collage.


This vintage Coney Island postcard reminded me of my favorite ride—the Wonder Wheel—and served as a handy reference for its shape.

Reference: Gather Images of Your Happy Place

Once you’ve basked in the sweet smell of your joyous memory, try to summon a concrete vision of the place you remember. While the imagination is a strong force, you might still have gaps or fuzziness instead of solid memory. This is completely natural. One of the best ways to supplement these gaps is to use real pictures to build up your mental landscape. Look for photos in old albums or memorabilia to use as reference.

Ready to make your own piece that shows the art of storytelling? Click on the image below to download a free step-by-step demonstration from Storytelling Art Studio by Cathy Nichols.


Where I Go When the Sky Darkens, mixed media on wood panel, 10″ x 5″

Storytelling Art Studio by Cathy Nichols is the perfect guide to show you how to create mixed media art that tells impactful stories. It’s a creative guide for mining your own life to imagine new worlds, characters and emotional narratives. The book is available now on Amazon, the North Light Shop and wherever books are sold!


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