Encouraging Visual Storytelling. (Moving Forward)

By Carroll, Karen Lee | School Arts, April 2003 | Go to article overview

Encouraging Visual Storytelling. (Moving Forward)


Carroll, Karen Lee, School Arts


Over the course of the last thirty years, interest in narrative art and visual storytelling has come to the fore in art education practice. It reflects the convergence of several ideas. First, there is the recognition that the narrative impulse is very compelling. Everything to a young child is a story. Second is the notion that the development of graphic narrative conventions helps children tell richer and more wonderful stories visually. For example, young Edvard Munch used many narrative strategies in his early work including developing characters, showing action, points of view, costumes, props, settings, and sequential formats not unlike comic book layouts today. The research of Brent and Marjorie Wilson and Janet Olson has done much to forward the practice of developing narrative techniques. In practice, narrative skills seem particularly useful in providing a bridge from early schematic drawing to a more flexible and dynamic language that can express emotions, action, interaction, special effects, time and weather, all in the service of story. The striking parallel between narrative visual skills and the development of story concepts in the language arts gives the encouragement of visual storytelling even more instructional value.

Narrative representation is not something just for young children. Even Edvard Munch maintained a strong narrative element throughout his adult work, creating illustrations for the books he had read in adolescence. Thus, building a vocabulary of narrative techniques, experimenting with the various ways in which different formats and materials can accommodate story, and the search for themes can be a viable thread in the K-12 curriculum.

Jerome Brunner has lent even more credibility to the significance of story. He has arrived at the conclusion that it is through story that we construct most of the meaning we get from life. We tell stories to reflect on our everyday experiences, the ordinary and the extraordinary. We are attracted to stories which are fun to tell and envision. Some come from literature, drama, music, myths, legends, and folktales. Some are reinvented, fractured, recast, or simply revisited in a fresh way. Stories can also be invented out of imaginary situations and our need to think beyond the limits of our real experiences. And some stories can come from deep within, spoken from an inner voice, a kind of dialogue with the self.

SchoolArts has been a primary source for reporting the developments in research and practice that have informed teaching through visual storytelling. The elementary teachers in the city of Providence were among the first to add a narrative thread to their curriculum. An emphasis on narrative has been a constant element in the teacher preparation program at the Maryland Institute College of Art. Janet Olson has served as a guest consultant to a study group for Narrative Art that organized a pedagogical exhibit in the spring of 2001. Thirty MICA alumni teachers submitted 300 student works for this K-12 show, which included a range of work from traditional formats to digital prints and animation. The show was organized to illustrate how narrative art is fostered through the development of vocabulary, experimentation with formats, and exploration of a variety of sources and stimuli for visual storytelling.

Today, the Center for Art Education at MICA continues to encourage visual storytelling. It has made narrative the current focus of investigation in our new Master of Arts in Art Education program. Sharon Johnson's own research into the adolescent use of narrative informs her work as the program coordinator. Here, practicing teachers return to the studio, ground themselves in narrative forms of expression, and create research studies they then test with their own students. As a central organizing theme, we have discovered that "narrative" is an extremely open-ended concept, appropriately supported by theory and enticing to pursue. …

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