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Generating stories from pictures, and pictures from stories

March 15, 2011

When I draw, I tend to let my pen wander by itself and the drawings that emerge can be a little unexpected. The drawings I like best are those that seem to be scenes from stories, although they are stories I’ve never heard.  For example:

I find it interesting that I only have to create part of a story – the characters and sometimes, the setting – and my mind starts trying to fill in the blanks that will explain who they are and what brought them to where they are.  Here is another one:

To explore this further, I tried to do with words what I was doing with drawing. I wrote story fragments, small bits of narrative that introduced a character and hinted at a larger story.

Here is an example of a story fragment that lead to a particular doll – the “Nameless Girl”:

There was a girl who lived alone in a palace under the sea.  She had no father, no mother, no sisters, brothers or friends.  There was no one to talk to her or tell her what to do.  She did not even know what her name was because there was no one to give her a name.

Although she was alone, she was not the only living thing in the palace. Starfish covered the walls and crabs scuttled among the broken tiles.  An octopus had moved into the stairwell.  Everywhere the girl went, little fish followed her. The larger fish drifted slowly through the rooms and corridors, eyeing her like an unwelcome guest at an elaborate but silent party.

She often sat looking out from the walls of the roofless throne. Sometimes the shadows of whales came between her and the watery sky of the surface. Once she saw the shape of a small boat. Was it small or was it just far away?
And then she would walk down into the dark, from room to room, looking for a clue, for a key, a book, a letter, to explain why she was there.

I did the same thing in three dimensions – I made dolls out of polymer clay and fabric, and created settings for them in glass jars. Dolls are interesting. As far as I can tell, a doll is an object that you can imbue with life simply by believing that it is alive. And part of giving a doll life is to give it a story and recognising its character. Here is a close up of the Nameless Girl herself:

The last stage of this process will be to create some  narrative drawings of these characters and the stories they evoke.  The narrative in these drawings will be non-linear, because the stories themselves don’t really exist other than these snapshots of character and place.

I plan to use the same technique that I tried in the following drawing, in which I explored the story of “Bluebeard”.  The elements of the story are there, the key, the bloodstains and the girl,  but the drawing does not tell the story – it remembers the story – if that makes sense.

If all goes well, my next post should share a pencil stage of the Nameless Girl’s story-drawing.

Masha du Toit


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