art · artists

How writers can learn from artists and let the reader tell the story

The artist Auguste Renoir once said that none of his paintings told a specific story. He explained that he kept things vague deliberately because he didn’t want to limit the painting’s scope, and that he wanted his viewers to come away with their own meaning, rather than have him dictate to them what they ought to think.

Here is one of Renoir’s most famous paintings, The Swing:

auguste renoir, the swing

The painting does tell a story – but what is it? There’s a young man (we guess he’s young) talking most earnestly to a girl on a swing – but she’s looking away from him. What is she thinking? Is she trying to avoid him? Is she listening? Is she being coy? A man with a beard is watching the young man and he has an affectionate smile on his face (at least, I personally think it looks affectionate). And then the little girl in the corner – what is she thinking about? Is she the daughter of one of the figures? Or sister?

I could stare and stare at this painting. Although the story isn’t clear, you can tell that something intense and interesting is happening.

A while ago I went to the stunning Hepworth Gallery in Wakefield, West Yorkshire. As the name suggests, most of the artworks in the gallery were by the English sculptor, Barbara Hepworth.

Here are just a couple of her sculptures that I loved:

barbara hepworth, helena fairfax, hepwroth gallery
                  Two Forms with White (Greek)


mother and child, barbara hepworth, hepwroth gallery.
       Mother and Child

I love both these sculptures! You would have to see them in real life, and in the gallery, to experience the full power of them. I’m so sorry I can’t bring them to life properly with words. If you can imagine walking into the gallery on a cold, grim, rainy day in northern England and seeing the Two Forms with White (Greek) sculpture. This sculpture transported me away from my surroundings and to somewhere else entirely. I don’t know why, or what it is about the sculpture, but the Mediterranean – and a bright, hot landscape – leapt into my mind. It’s a great feeling to be whisked away like that – the same feeling you get when you are transported by a book.

The second sculpture is called Mother and Child – I think! Does it matter what title it has? To me, this sculpture was very tender and seems to be two figures clinging to one another – like a Mother and Child, in fact. I walked around it for a long time. I loved it.

I’ve been thinking of how artists say so much with apparently so little for quite a while, and trying to relate it to my own writing. When I’m writing, I like to know where my characters are. It’s the first thing I think of. What can they see? What surrounds them? I want to have their surroundings firmly fixed in my mind, and for the reader to see exactly what I see.

My next novel – Felicity at the Cross Hotel – is set in the Lake District. My editor has advised me to cut down on the description of the surroundings and to let the reader do some of the work of filling in the background. I am dictating too much, apparently, and instead of transporting the reader I am slowing the action. It’s a difficult balance and I worry that the reader will have to work too hard. But then when I think of these masterpieces of art, in which so much is left to the viewer’s imagination, I begin to understand how less is more.

I love visiting art galleries, and if I could choose between being an artist or a writer, I would choose being an artist every time. Unfortunately I can’t draw to save my life …!

* * *

Do you love visiting art galleries? And what is your favourite work of art? When you’re reading a novel, do you like the author to give you as much description as possible, or do you prefer to fill in the setting yourself using your own imagination?

I hope you enjoyed my post on art! If you have any comments at all, please let me know. I’d love to hear from you!




13 thoughts on “How writers can learn from artists and let the reader tell the story

  1. Great post, Helena – I’m a huge fan of art in all its forms. I also love using paintings as inspiration for my stories sometimes. I even won a national competition with a story inspired by one painting in Kelvingrove At Gallery in Glasgow and had an article published about another. Love all the images you’ve posted here – that painting has so much possibility for different stories! All the best with your new book – look forward to reading it eventually.


    1. I would love to visit the art galleries in Glasgow, Rosemary. I love the art nouveau period and Glasgow was one of the centres of it. What a great idea to write a story based on one of your favourite paintings. You’re right, they are full of so much possibility! Thanks so much for dropping in, and for your great comment!


      1. I think that writers and visual artists (maybe all artists) are doing the same thing, which is showing their personal vision of the world and trying to get their readers or viewers to see the world in a new way.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Ken, yes, I totally agree. It’s a strange and wonderful feeling when an artist/writer reflects your own world back to you and makes you see it in a new way. Like your eyes have been opened.


  3. Hi Helen loved your post on art. I also enjoy looking at pieces of art work, although I understand very little when it comes to technique and skill. I have a canvas of a garden door which has wisteria hanging down from the wall. I often stare wondering what would be on the other side and why there’s no lock or handle to open the door. The mystery of the door intrigues me. Personally I dislike having too much discription when I read , I guess it’s all about balance and keeping other intrigued

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Eleanor, I love the sound of your wisteria painting. That’s the sort of picture I love – one where you ask yourself all sorts of questions. And how fascinating that the door has no handle!
      I’ve taken a tip from my editor and I’m going through my manuscript highlighting all the sections that are description only, and which don’t move along the story. It’s sad to see some of the passages go, but I’ll have to steel myself to kill my darlings :(
      Thanks for dropping in, and for your comment!


  4. Brilliant post, Helena! I’m a huge fan of art galleries and paintings in general. Like you, I can’t draw if my life depended on it but I have studied art history for several years. My favourite artist is a toss-up between Van Gogh and Monet. Both men painted artwork that’s spoken to me. Monet’s Water Lillies set of paintings are my favourite. Did you know in his final years, he painted practically blind? Yet, those paintings have such light and beauty in them.

    As writers, I think we can take a cue from Monet and Renoir. Less is more. I’ve never been a huge setting writer; I’m all about the characters. But my editor tells me time and again that I’m describing too much of the characters’ action. “Leave some mystery to the reader.” So, that’s what I’m concentrating on.


    Liked by 1 person

    1. I absolutely love Van Gogh, too, Mrs N. Later this year I’m going to Amsterdam, and one of the main things I’m looking forward to is visiting the Van Gogh Museum. I’m really excited about it! I find it so hard to believe and so tragic that he died penniless and his art was so unappreciated in his day.
      That’s interesting what you say about over-describing the characters’ actions. I have a tendency to give the reader too much info. After reading your comment, I’ll check back over that area in my ms.
      Thanks so much for dropping in, and for your great comment!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Oooh, you’ll have to let me know what the Van Gogh Museum is like.

        Yeah, I tend to write action as if I’m writing a screenplay. But I’m working on it. ;)

        Good luck with your ms.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Great post. I am a huge fan of Renoir. I love that he leaves his paintings open to interpretation. To me they are little snapshots of life. Not necessarily with an important story hidden inside them but just little glimpses of a moment from back in time. Thank you for the lovely post.


    1. Thank you so much for the lovely comment. I love your description of the “little snapshots of life”. That’s exactly it – and with Renoir’s painting of The Swing you feel as though you are really there in that moment with the group. So glad you enjoyed the post. Thanks for dropping in!


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