A Different Kind of People Watching, Master Painting #1

Are you a people watcher? Are you entertained by the family dynamics of people in museums, restaurants, and airports? Do you sit in public places and make predictions about the passers-by, or develop their life histories? What occupations and hobbies they have? What personality types they exhibit?

A variation of this was once a favorite activity of mine as a creative writing teacher.

I’d show my students a photo or art masterpiece and have them free write about it, whatever came to mind. For example, Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks:

If I had a dozen students, I got a dozen unique and varied responses, from poetry to prosaic description to short story. Even when most wrote short stories, each took a completely different direction.

The protagonist (point of view character) might be any one of the four people at the counter: the waiter, the woman in the red dress, her date, or the lone man across the room.

So many questions were raised . . .

  • Where exactly are these people? What city? What time is it?
  • Why are each of them here on this particular night?
  • What brought them to this point in their lives?
  • Who’s the main character?
  • What are their personalities like? What are their moods?
  • What is the tone/mood/atmosphere of this diner on this night?
  • What is a typical day like for each of them?
  • How often do they come here and why?
  • Are they strangers? Or do they know each other? How do they get along (or not)?
  • What do they aspire to?
  • Where do they wish they were instead?
  • Who do they wish they were with instead?

So many story possibilities! All in one picture.

We all know a picture is worth 1000 words.

But in addition, a picture evokes 1000 stories.

If I had 1000 students, guaranteed, they’d each have a different combination of character interactions, dialogs, motives, plots . . .

According to the dictionary, EVOKE means . . . bring to mind, put one in mind of, conjure up, summon (up), invoke, elicit, induce, kindle, stimulate, stir up, awaken, arouse, call forth, recall, echo, capture.

What it evoked for each student proved to be as varied as the ice cream Sundaes and Shakes menu at Ivanhoe’s (200 of them!). We had a blast reading the stories together afterward, seeing where their imaginations took them.

I’d written my own version of the story and none of theirs were like mine. And that’s a great thing!

I revel in this creative diversity. It’s just another reminder of the ingenuity we each inherently have because we’re made in God’s image. See Post #2.

This diversity is something that teachers of the arts contend with when dealing with many students at once. How do you encourage individual ideas when working on a class assignment? Particularly, in art class.

In my next post, you’ll meet an elementary art teacher who does this extremely well.

In the meantime . . .

How would YOU answer some of the questions above about the Nighthawks picture? What story do you see unfolding . . . and whose story is it?

Ever musing,


P.S. Coming next: An artist who’s just as comfortable sculpting polymer clay trees as she is painting Tom Petty portraits (& other stars), and also “draws” the best from her art students

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18 thoughts on “A Different Kind of People Watching, Master Painting #1

  1. These were some of my favorite types of creative writing story starters.
    Isn’t it wonderful, how art leads to more art?
    The creative process isn’t a straight line from beginning to end.
    It branches out and doubles back on itself and grows and grows.
    God is so good, creating us in His image to so we can create too!

    1. Yes, I love how art leads to more art. Think of Jan Vermeer’s painting Girl With a Pearl Earring that inspired the novel by Tracy Chevalier, that inspired the movie . . . and so on.

  2. I am an avid people watcher! I’ve often teased family members that after I retire and become a little old man I want to live in a house with a front porch so I can sit in my rocking chair and watch all the people go by! Answering questions such as those you mention in this blog help to bring out people’s inner creative genius! When I was teaching U.S. History I would ask my students to assume the identity of a person we were studying and to write a journal entry for one day in that person’s life. To read their creative works was one of my greatest joys as a high school teacher! Nighthawks reminds me of the Art appreciation course I took in college which proved to be a good foundational piece for all of the art museums we have visited over the years, particularly in the U.S., France, Italy and Spain! By the way, the couple is very worried about a loved one who is on a U.S. warship in the Pacific during WWII, not knowing if they will ever see him again!!!

    1. I love the writing assignment of assuming a historical figure’s identity–a great way to dig into someone’s life and times, see from his point of view, and create some empathy as well!

      Thanks for your “people watching” observation about the characters. Anybody else have one?

  3. I think every good writer has to be a people watcher. Perhaps the lone man in the Nighthawks is a people watcher. I always find people on dates at restaurants to be some of the most interesting. A little observance says a lot about which date they are on, whether there will be another date after this one, and who’s got the leverage in the relationship. The trick is to catch all these observations in quick glances so as to not come off creepy.

    1. You’re right! There’s an art to people watching so you don’t get “caught.” You can probably tell a lot about married couples, too.

    2. So, Mark, is the couple in this painting on a first date or a tenth? And who has the upper hand? What is the lone man people watcher thinking as he observes?

  4. Yes, I LOVE people watching and coming up with their stories!
    Have you ever played the game Bubble Talk? I found it by chance at Target and now use it regularly in creative writing classes. It’s basically like Apples to Apples but with pictures and captions. Once we play it a few times, I adapt it so students can use it as story starters. They love it!
    Nighthawks makes me thing of Norman Rockwell! Always a story there! In fact, I get so caught up in the story of a picture that I ended up buying my house because of one. We were going through a home, and they had this painting on the wall. (Charity by Frederick Morgan) It told the story of this mother having a picnic with her kids and sharing food with others. I wanted to be that kind of mother. So I bought the house and hung a print of that same picture on my wall where I could see the story daily. We’ve lived here now for 20 years, and I pray that those around me would say the story has come alive.

    And by the way, the main character of Nighthawks is outside looking in, wishing she were the lady in the red dress …and the guy with his back to us is really a spy! 😉

    1. I’m not familiar with Bubble Talk but it sounds like a good impetus for dialog and story writing.

      I love how much the picture in your soon-to-be home moved you so much that you bought the house and hung up the same picture as a daily motivation.

      So now we have 3 interpretations of this master painting. Any more out there?

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