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From Portraits to Stories – How to Dive Deeper in Visual Expression

"Mirimer" - a watercolor painting by Paivi Eerola of Peony and Parakeet. See her blog post about moving from portraits to stories in visual expression.

Here’s my latest watercolor painting called “Mirimer”. The name is a combination of “Miracles” and “Meri” (sea in Finnish). I love to invent these names that mix the two languages!

When I started this piece, I had two things in mind: I wanted to use Cobalt Blue Spectral (see the previous blog post about this gorgeous color), and I also wanted to continue my series of watercolor fairies.

Watercolor fairies by Paivi Eerola of Peony and Parakeet

These fairies really speak to me. I feel that I should have started making these story scenes a long time ago and not wasted my time for stiff self-portraits, for example.

Life in Self-Portraits

As a teenager, I stared myself at the mirror and made self-portraits all the time. Any cardboard or piece of paper had my face!

A self-portrait by Paivi Eerola. See her blog post about how to move from portraits to stories.

Every time I wondered if this would be a portrait of an artist: “Would my dream come true? Is this piece good or not?”

It has taken tens of years to move from literal self-reflection to expressing my emotions and my inner world. If I could turn back the time, I would peg myself to move from technique back to childish imagination, because there’s always enough time to learn the techniques, and never enough time to deepen the expression.

A self-portrait by Paivi Eerola.

This is a self-portrait from a couple of years ago, and I like that the inner world finally begins to show.

However, for me, the greatest satisfaction of art is not in self-portraits or portraits in general. I want my art to move from portraits to stories, be more dynamic than just staring faces, tell about my experiences, and how I can see them in a new light. I believe that our inner world is full of stories that connect us to other people on a deep level. When I have thought about my artistic style or whether my art is “good” or “bad,” I have often neglected this story-telling aspect.

Mirimer – From a Portrait to a Story

When painting “Mirimer”, there was a magical moment when I heard my mother calling my name. She passed away tens of years ago, and I thought I had forgotten the exact tone in her voice, but the painting brought back the memory. It must have been because of the blue color, her favorite. I realized that I wasn’t painting a portrait of a fairy anymore. I was painting the story of accepting loss as a part of life.

Watercolor painting in progress. By Paivi Eerola of Peony and Parakeet.

Mirimer became a blue-hooded angel, and the drops of water got some red to indicate that life carries pain that we can’t get to choose.

A detail of a watercolor painting by Paivi Eerola. See the blog post about moving from portraits to stories.

Illustrating Stories by Lucas Cranach

Stories also came to my mind when I went to see Lucas Cranach’s exhibition in the Sinebrychoff Art Museum. Lucas Cranach (The Elder) and her son, Lucan Cranach (The Younger), were not only German master painters in the 16th century, but they also knew how to run an art business. They had a workshop, an illustration studio, which had many employees, a logo, a style that everyone had to follow, and they produced prints too. So even if they lived in the Renaissance, they did what most artists today dream about. They built a visual world around stories that people yearned for.

Lucas Cranach the Younger, Diana and Actaeon.

Many of the Caranachs’ stories were from Greek mythology. This painting, my favorite from the exhibition, tells a story about Actaeon turning into a stag when Diana and the nymphs splash water on him. They don’t like him to watch them, and his dogs begin to attack him too!

Paivi Eerola and Lucas Cranach, the Younger. See Paivi's blog post about moving from portraits to stories in visual expression.

In the painting below, there’s Venus and her child, a little cupid. The cupid has been stealing honey and the bees have bitten him.

Lucas Cranach the Elder, Venus and Cupid the Honey Thief

There’s also an old poem, written in Latin on the top corner of the painting too:

As Cupid was stealing honey from the hive
A bee stung the thief on the finger
And so do we seek transitory and dangerous pleasures
That are mixed with sadness and bring us pain

A detail of a watercolor painting by Paivi Eerola.

From Portraits to Stories – 5 Tips

  1. Allow more intuition and imagination into your process: Add splashes and other unexpected elements. Spend time with a color that speaks to you. Instead of actively painting something, spend time discovering and highlighting what already can be seen.
  2. Grow your skills from faces to body gestures. Learn to process a shape that’s on paper, in your head too so that you can find alternative ways to continue the painting.
  3. Play with the scale of the elements. We tend to make shapes that are all equal in sizes. But if you want to paint a tiny fairy, for example, you need huge flowers to indicate the small size.
  4. Let go of strict outlining, and leave room for spots of light and shadows. There’s no story without the atmosphere, and the atmosphere is created by setting the lighting.
  5. Take time to let the story unfold. Often, the stories have many layers, and the first associations are just the path to deeper ones.

Magical Forest – Discover Stories by Painting!

Magical Forest, an online art class by Paivi Eerola of Peony and Parakeet. Move from portraits to stories and paint nature and fairies in watercolor!

Paint watercolor fairies and nature’s spirits in their magical surroundings. Enjoy freeing up your expression while exploring flowery woods, shallow ponds, leaf chapels, and adventurous sceneries. Magical Forest begins on January 1st >> Sign up Now!

4 thoughts on “From Portraits to Stories – How to Dive Deeper in Visual Expression

  1. Thankyou Paivi this post will be helpful getting ready for the course.
    It will help me make preliminary sketches of wildflowers from my chilhood.

  2. Hi Paivi,
    As always, you share your inner world deeply with us, and it has moved my heart! Making art is a journey that brings us little miracles, like yours! Thank you for expressing this!

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