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Artist’s Life

Narrative Art

“Narrative art is visual art that tells a story. It manifests itself in every kind of medium, in every culture, in every form that you can imagine…. Narrative art is as old as humanity.”


Don Bacigalupi
Founding President, Lucas Museum of Narrative Art


“The Dance of Cogul”, prehistoric rock art, Spain

Traditions of Narrative Art

According to the Tate Museum website, “Much of Western art until the twentieth century has been narrative, depicting stories from religion, myth and legend, history and literature (see history painting).”

Stories and myths that are passed from one generation to the next are an important component of culture. Once people began to form permanent settlements, the preservation of these stories was often aided by visual depictions.

Lion Hunts of Ashurbanipal (ruled 669-630 B.C.E.), c. 645 B.C.E., gypsum, Neo-Assyrian, hall reliefs from Palace at Ninevah across the Tigris from present day Mosul. (click to enlarge)

If the Assyrian King Ashurbanipal wanted everyone to know about – and be constantly reminded of – his great bravery and accomplishments, why not have the stories of his astonishing deeds carved in relief along the palace walls?

Giotto di Bondone (Fresco cycle in the Arena Chapel in Padua (Scrovegni-Kapelle).

Visual Aids

The narrative art that many of us are most familiar with are the Renaissance frescoes depicting scenes from the life of Christ that adorn the walls of European churches, particularly in Italy. The importance of these works cannot be overstated, for one simple reason: most people at the time couldn’t read. These colorful, poignant pictures told, step by step, the story of Christ’s life. Their great beauty and emotional qualities did much to inspire awe among parishoners and visitors alike. You could call them “visual aids” that helped to convey the central message of the church.

fresco panels from Arena Chapel (above)

Story Illustrations

Undine, by Arthur Rackham

The other form of narrative art you’re probably most familiar with is book illustration. When we were so young that our knowledge of words was limited, these pictures helped us to better understand the stories our parents read to us, as well as those we began to read to ourselves. For the very young child, there are many stories told by pictures alone. These are usually referred to as “picure books”.

Then He Took Her Home, by Kay Nielsen

As a child, my favorite books were fairy tales and other fantasies. I fell in love with the sumptuous, romantic illustrations in these books. In particular, I admired the work of Arthur Rackham, Kay Nielsen, Edmund Dulac, and others from what’s known as the Golden Age of Book Illustration. These artists had a great influence on my early work, which continues even today. You can read my post about it here.

Telling Stories

Fragments of Memory II

mixed media collage on antique book cover, 10.75 x 15.5 inches

ingredients: vintage maps, antique postcard, stamps, and other ephemera, vintage sewing patterns, antique book page,  vintage lace and textile, image transfers, colored pencils, metallic ink, stitching

Fragments of Memory II, above, does not tell a story in the same way that the fairy tale illustrations or church frescoes do. Here, a narrative is only suggested, leaving the viewer to fill in the details with his/her own imagination. In this way, the viewer becomes a participant in the work, and has a more personal engagement with it.

What do you think the story is? Is the woman longing for her home in Africa, or dreaming of ancestors who came from there? Does the hummingbird suggest a message carried to her family there? Perhaps she is a gardener, or a lace-maker. Then again, it may make you think of something entirely different.


                    The Spell is Broken                     mixed media on antique book cover

Here are a few of my pieces that seem to fall into the category of narrative art. What stories do they spark in your imagination? I would love to read your comments on this, so please don’t hesitate to share!

                                                       The Gift                                                                        mixed media collage on antique book cover

                                     Story of my Life Story                                                mixed media collage on antique book cover


  1. Terry Garrett

    Thank you for this wonderful post- most of my collage work is narrative in nature. This was very informative. Love your work always Sharmon.

    • Sharmon Davidson

      Thank you so much, Terry! I always enjoy hearing the interpretations of my work that others come up with, don’t you? Sometimes I find them more interesting than my own. Your work is wonderfully narrative, I think, because the stories seem to be so personal. That’s one of the things I love about it! xox


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