March 26, 2014

3 Ways to Gather Stories for Your Art

Gathering stories is something I believe we all do naturally. We collect moments and pieces of stories as we walk through life, like a kid on a nature hike. But I think there can be an intentionality about collecting stories too. When I begin to paint, I don't always know exactly which story I am going to tell, but I have a sketchbook and journal full of them; so it's not too hard to choose.

Often my paintings begin with some kind of color and then a theme or shape. The theme or shape grows out of whatever story is going through my mind.

A few years ago, when I discovered my dear friend's cancer had spread, I couldn't think of anything else. I couldn't make sense of how I felt until I painted her story onto the canvas. It started with pink because she'd started with breast cancer. It had elements of her through it all. I did this without thinking. It just oozed out onto the canvas from my hurting heart.

But other times when I start a painting, it's without knowing where it will end up or whose story it is.

Telling stories in art comes naturally, but I believe collecting stories helps that process ~ either through sketchbooks, journals, art journals, doodles, post-its or whatever is best for you.

On days where I've felt dry with no place to begin, collected stories have been a God-send.

3 Ways to Collect Stories:

1. Make a list of people you know: friends that are important to you, family you love; even enemies {they add dimension to your stories}.

Every person adds a wealth of stories. Just think of any one person who you deeply care about and I bet you could spend all day telling me stories about them: who is important to them, what they love to do, and what they fear.

Each person offers an infinite mine of stories and you are there to dig them up.

Since most of my paintings have people in them, this is a majority of what I collect. I enjoy thinking of one or two people who exemplify the story I'm trying to create. Of course there is room for imaginative additions, painting is a creative pursuit after all. But people give me a beautiful starting point.

2. Write down important events.

Just the act of putting down events throughout your life or the year, help bring up so many stories. I seem to start with holidays, because they're easy and then move into culturally celebrated events like weddings, birthdays and achievements.

It helps give a frame to your story. 

Perhaps your thoughts are on your brother and his marriage, or your best friend and the baby she's waited for. This event helps frame that one moment in time that you want to capture and share, just like a photograph.

The event sometimes gives me thoughts for background collage or painted hints of what I want to say to the person "reading" my story.

3. Collect small everyday moments by jotting them down or photographing them.

I think everyday moments are the ones we tend to overlook. We think days like this will always be days like this; but they won't. I can remember thinking that we'd never have a day without nap-times. But my kids grew up and suddenly no one was napping.

I can remember the day when I walked into my daughter's room and realized there were no toys. It happened gradually, but I hadn't noticed until I stepped in and it hit me. All those moments of not wanting to take pictures because of the messiness of toys, now seemed precious and lost.

Think through your day, all the seemingly unimportant stuff. What is your morning routine? What family member does what chore? How does your morning drive go? Whose shoes are always in the middle of the floor?

Also, we often shy of capturing ourselves, especially if we're overweight or have some other imperfection, but this is an unfortunate mistake. I regret not taking more photos of myself with my kids when they were little. I always felt frumpy and didn't want to be in the picture. But now I wish I had more record of those frumpy days ~ how tired, yet happy, I was.

Try to capture the un-celebrated moments of your day and tell those simple stories on canvas.

These 3 ways of capturing these moments will help you as you stare at a blank canvas. It will be a starting point from where your mind and fingers can take off.

What I love about painting stories, is that when someone looks at my art, they connect to the story. They add their story to the mix, maybe it's their brother they see in the painting, and it resonates with them. That's how painting a story can be so universal, because it becomes someone else's story as well as mine.

Do you have a method for gathering stories? What other collecting advice would you add to this list?


  1. I love your ideas for collecting stories. One of my biggest ways for collecting is by jotting them down as you said and taking photos. Every time I take a photo, my kids say, "this is not going to be a blog post is it?"

    Thanks for the ideas.

    1. Ha, that's funny. My kids definitely run when I pull out the camera too.


Thank you so much for your visit. I love hearing from you and dearly appreciate your comment!