A picture can say a thousand words

Sometimes we have to portray a series of scenes into one single picture.

I wan to make a painting which depicts a series of things into one single element, Currently I am finding it very difficult to portray multiple scenes into on painting, because due to multiple scenes I cannot force user to focus on only particular thing in that painting.

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    Note: this is not a genre I am well versed in. I worry about the validity of this question here on the StackExchange environment. I don't know if we can objectively answer this question as each arts story and the elements that make it up can be very different. However if you showed us work you have tried that you think has the issue you are describing perhaps we can try to suggest techniques, like use of certain colours maybe, that could address your issue. I suppose there is a general theory but it might be too hard to narrow it down to be useful.
    – Matt
    Apr 3, 2017 at 16:34
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    Welcome! My concern is that this is too broad. There are potentially many options for this and I'm guessing it's a very complicated subject. If you could restrict it somehow, that might help... be more specific about your project, perhaps? Or show us some examples of this in existing art and what about those examples you're trying to emulate. Show us that you've done some work of your own.
    – Catija
    Apr 3, 2017 at 21:39
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    Are you looking to learn how to direct your viewers eye movement across an image? If so then here's a nice article that covers the basic principles vanseodesign.com/web-design/direct-the-eye If you are looking for examples then grab a comic book as those artists are masters at controlling the viewers gaze. Apr 4, 2017 at 1:32
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    Is this meant to be a sequential narrative, or just simultaneous scenes in different places? What have you tried so far?
    – user24
    Apr 4, 2017 at 5:16
  • The perfect example of a complete story in a painting I can think of is The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch. Can you give some specifics about the style and technique you mean to use for your project?
    – L. Harper
    Apr 5, 2017 at 13:11

2 Answers 2


There are multiple ways to narrate a story in one painting. Some were already pointed out in the comments to your question.

  1. The comic book way: By this I mean the arrangement of the scenes in multiple frames that are all on one painting (a comic that consists of only one page if you will). There are multiple ways to arrange the frames but most commonly the reading order of the intended audience is used. In the western world you narrate from left to right and top to bottom, whereas for manga its right to left and top to bottom. Text may be used to develop the scene, but the distinguishing feature are the multiple frames. Example: Wendy

If by 'in one single element' you mean that you don't want to use multiple frames there are still some options:

  1. Composition: In painting the composition is the most important factor when it comes to telling a story in one picture. Setting up your narration you have to think about where the story begins: this will correspond to a section in the picture the eye of the viewer is immediately drawn to. This can be achieved using size, light, color, or the place in the image (usually a viewer 'reads' the image from the top left to the bottom right). Using a decreasing amount of emphasis for the following scenes, the eyes of the viewer will gaze along the line of your story (look for books about composition and see also this article mentioned by John Vukelic in the comments).

  2. Format: if you use an unusual format for your painting the composition to tell a story might be easier obtained. Taking a really wide format - like for a panorama - the viewer will not be able to capture the entire image with all details in a single glance and thus has to digest the image sequentially, which is ideal. Psychology suggests that most humans will start from the right (e.g. Werner Tübke's 'Peasants War Panorama').
    Another example would be to have a picture whose height is large compared to the width. The movement of the eye will then probably start at eye-height of the viewer and then move up before it goes down again.

  3. Put a lot into the image. Some pictures of the early (middle European) renaissance will simply contain a lot of scenes connected by landscape or other (most notably the images of Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Bruegel. With this approach it will be harder to tell a strict-time-line-story without using further tricks, as there is simply too much going on.

Basically everything boils down to the composition of your painting when you want to narrate a chronological story. Planning carefully and sketching the composition is mandatory to get a satisfactory result.

See also this blog-post about narrative.


An alternative and less evident way, is to symbolize the story.

As an example, take the rich (but often obscure) traditions of renaissance and baroque portrait painting: the clothes, posture, lighting, props, even materials, all (potentially) tell a story of the person depicted.

To illustrate this, let's have a look at Da Vinci's Lady with an Ermine, a portrait of Cecilia Gallerani, who was one of Da Vinci's patron Ludovico Sforza's mistresses. The symbolism behind the seemingly incidental addition of the ermine, although inconclusively, has been ascribed to several factors: the sitter's last name, her lover, to his participation in The Order of the Ermine, or to the purity and moderation of the young lady. Her relatively plain clothing tells us she was not of nobility.*

Additionally, the colours, her hand, her coiffure, her posture, the dark (although possibly blackened) background, along with hidden features like compositional geometry, all might and could have been used to convey information, however transparent or esoteric.

For a chronological "series of things", this might not be the right approach exclusively: nevertheless, it can be used in conjunction with the elements mentioned in the other answer, to tell whatever story you want to tell in a richer and more profound manner, as the examples given there doubtlessly have.

* https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lady_with_an_Ermine#Subject_and_symbolism

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