May 24, 2014

Narrative Art and Story Elements Part 5: Character

This is part five of How to Use Narrative Art to Teach Elements of a Story. Part one discussed setting, and part two discussed conflict, part three discussed point of view, and part four discussed plot.  This part discusses characters.

Analyzing narrative art teaches students how to observe and think critically about the world around them.

Narrative art is art that tells a story– it may be a particular moment, or a series of events over time. Powerful images can be analyzed for their storytelling qualities.  By analyzing how artists approach issues like setting, theme, and point of view, we can help kids be critical of their own writing.

Narrative Art is particularly useful in teaching about character.  Students must look carefully at all of the details and interpret them in context to understand who the characters are and what they want.  By using art to understand characters, students must make inferences from the image, and look at it from different perspectives.

In part one of this series, we looked at how the narrative art of Thomas Hart Benton helped us to understand setting, and in part two we looked at how Winslow Homer’s images can teach about conflict.  Today we will look at Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks and analyze how it can help students understand characters in a story.

Let’s see how elements of narrative art can be used to teach elements of a story.

Story Element= Character

Hopper CHair Car

Edward Hopper, Chair Car


Think about TV shows you watch regularly- for me it’s Downton Abby, Mad Men and Walking Dead (I have an eclectic taste).  Why do we obsess over these stories? Because we get emotionally involved and care about the characters. What they look like, how they feel and what motivates their actions are all integral parts of a story.  By analyzing Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks, students can have conversations about who the characters are and create “back stories”.  By looking at and discussing the painting, students have a basis to create a character driven story based on the image.

To understand the painting, it is important to know a little about Hopper’s work.  Hopper often painted people who were emotionally isolated, even in the middle of a city.  Themes of inside/outside, loneliness and personal relationships, particularly in cities, were explored in his paintings. Chair Car is typical of his work.

Nighthawks (oil on canvas) was painted in 1942 and depicts people sitting in a downtown diner late at night.  It is Hopper’s most famous work, and in general is recognized by millions as it has been reproduced on posters, T-shirt and has even been the object of satire.


Edward Hopper, Nighthawks

Edward Hopper, Nighthawks

Let’s look at Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks and write a story based on the inferences we make.  Use the questions below to help guide your writing.

In Nighthawks Hopper is particularly adept at recreating fluorescent light shining at night. The figures are small, and the street is dark, quiet and empty.  What makes this a little different than his other work is that three of the figures are looking at each other.   Often in his work the people are in close proximity, but seemingly ‘in their own world’. A few years ago I saw a show with the sketches for this painting at the MOMA- it gave great insight to his thinking. I loved it.  You can see them here at the Whitney. 

Use these questions to guide the conversation about Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks.  Don’t be afraid of unusual answers- you will probably get them. Let your students make their own discoveries but remember, it is very important that they explain their answers. Of course, based on the age level, modify the questions accordingly.

  • What is one descriptive word you can use to describe the mood of the scene?
  • Who are these people? What does each one do for a profession?
  • What time of day is it?
  • Where is everyone outside of the diner?
  • Looking at his body language, what is the man on the left thinking? How do you know?
  • What are they talking about? Is there anyone not participating in the conversation? Why?
  • Did any of these people know each other before this evening?
  • Why did Hopper choose to not put a door to the diner in the picture?
  • What was going on in the world in 1942 when this was painted?
  • What city does this take place in?
  • What do people usually do at diners? What purpose do they serve in a community?
  • Does this remind you of any place you have been?

There is a great video analysis of this painting at the Khan Academy.  If you want to see the real thing, you’ll have to go to the Art Institute of Chicago (I’ve gone- it’s worth it.)

If you’d like to see some of Hopper’s sketches in a ‘before and after’ look, check out my sketchbook video post here.

Analyzing visual art is a wonderful way to get students to think critically.   Find my detailed illustrations as writing prompts here, as well as sign up for free story starter videos! Have fun writing your story and let me know how it goes in the comments section below.



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