Mary Cassatt has always been one of my favorite artists. The main reason is because before I could really read, all I knew is that her initials were MC and my initials were MC. In retrospect, she’s possibly the original reason I love art.
She was also one of “those” artists… I knew her work, I knew she was good, and I knew we shared initials (actually, Cassatt is obviously her last name, while mine is Marck, so I didn’t even have that right.) But as I start working on building my visual library, I decided to study her more closely. Obviously, she has massive technical skills with a brush, and her color palettes are almost always dead-on. But what I decided to focus on was her storytelling abilities. The way Cassatt manages to create little narratives in each work is (in my opinion) one of the main reasons her work can be so captivating. I don’t feel like I’m in a museum; I feel like I’m in the room.
As I was browsing through Cassatt’s work, I was trying to pull a few concrete tips about narrative, some clear-cut steps to take in my own work. How does she make me feel a little bit like I’m a character in the story? As if I’m a real-life observer in the moment, not a posthumous* viewer.
Originally, I was just going to say “action,” but it’s a lot more than that. The people are always reacting to something (or someone), and that gives the viewer more of a story to imagine. The difference between action and interaction is that the former is simply the process of doing something, while the latter is the process of two or more actions overlapping. In other words, actions are a single road, while interactions are a crossroads. More places to go, to choose from, to explore. In Cassatt’s work, we often see subtle facial expressions that hint at some stimulus. We see body language that interacts with the environment and other subjects. Everything about her work suggests a cause-and-effect type of narrative. Part of me is kind of surprised at how obvious this is, but it’s really a complicated thing. Because for interaction to be effective, it has to start a conversation.
What is she seeing? What is she reading? What are they saying to each other? These are questions that the paintings pose, and then the viewer instinctively answers in her own mind. Viewers don’t feel engaged when they have all the answers, because it’s not a conversation with the painting; it’s a lecture. At the same time, if the viewer feels like there are too many questions, they’ll feel overwhelmed and maybe frustrated. Too many or too few, the wrong amount of questions will drive away viewers. But with just the right questions, the viewer feels engaged, invited into the painting. I think this is what people are really referring to when they say a painting “speaks” to them; the painting is sparking questions that the viewer genuinely wants to answer. It makes them feel welcome.
Actually Doing This Stuff
For me, the logical next question was “How do I do this?” I know how to practice the technical part of my work (color theory, value, perspective, etc) but how do you practice the conceptual part?
Practicing visual storytelling is tricky, because I have to figure out how much to show, and how much to hide. And beyond that, I have to choose a perspective and environment that contributes to the narrative. Even if I manage to figure out all of this stuff, I have to make sure that whatever narrative I’m trying to share is worth sharing. It’s. So. Hard. Simple, but hard nonetheless. I think it’s important to look at real life, and think about real events, instead of just trying to constantly draw on memory/imagination (which is definitely my weakness!) Moments that feel real in a painting or illustration have to be experienced in real life first.
I’m interested in finding other paintings/painters who also demonstrate stories in their work… any suggestions?