Designing Believable Narrative Illustrations with Mood, Story and Setting + “Scallywags!”, a New Digital Painting and Process Video

An important part of creating an illustration has has depth and holds the viewer’s attention
is filling it with characters and props that are entertaining and consistent.

As someone who usually draws silly cartoon animals and adventurous little girls, making characters the are believable and appropriate for their environment can be a challenge. One of the most important things to consider in designing characters to set up a visual scenario is, ‘what story do these characters tell, and what is the most effective way to tell that story?’ There are numerous ways to set up and fully understand story and content before you begin an illustration, but I’ll run through the steps that I typically take.

What story do your characters tell?

Using appeal or the lack thereof in clever ways to establish the characters’ personalities so that they can be understood on the first glance is very important. Big eyes, broad smiles and enthusiastic facial expressions will often come across as dopey, cutesy and childish. Creating a character with narrow eyes and sharp features, and hoping that he will come across as cute, for example, may be challenging.

So always be aware of how you want to the viewer to feel when they look at a character, and what background information you want them to absorb.

Be aware of details and style

Further, be aware that creating a very moody scene in a soft, friendly style may be difficult. Style is something that comes with times and practice, but it can be manipulated if you keep in mind the mood, setting and story that you are trying to convey in a piece.

For example, using more or less saturation of color, thicker or thinner lines, larger or smaller eyes, will all impact how your scene and characters are understood. That been said, defying typical convention, when done well, can have surprising results; for example, creating a very dark scene with typically cute characters can be unsettling.

Remember: Mood, Setting, Story

For example, in the painting Scallywags!”, I am displaying only the very end of what is meant to be understood as a treasure hunt story. We can see that one skeleton has already been defeated by the gull, which implies that he is good with a sword. The look of concentration on his face separates him from the happiness of Ferrett and Racoon, who are ecstatic to have finally found the treasure.
Clearly, the skeletons are protecting the treasure.

From these assumptions, the viewer (hopefully) is able to understand the story quickly and easily. There are many other ways to establish mood, setting and story in a composition, but remember to keep them in mind in every narrative work that you produce.

Thanks again for reading!

If you’re interested in how I painted this image, watch the video below for a complete speedpaint!

More Details!

Here’s more places that you can find and follow my artwork online:

My Etsy Shop
My Facebook Fan Page
My Portfolio
My Tumblr
My Twitter: @graceparkman
My Youtube Channel

Buy a print of Scallywags!


“Scallywags!” Digital Painting

“Scallywags!” Process video

Grace Avery-Parkman is a fantasy and visual development artist from Regina Saskatchewan. If you have any questions or concerns, please drop her a comment or email to

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