Symbolism can dramatically enrich your work if you know how to use it. It can also invade your work unconsciously, sometimes contributing to the painting, or sometimes undermining it. As you critique your paintings in progress, include a search for inappropriate use of symbols.
For example, I had only been painting a couple years, and was working on a large landscape in a workshop. As the painting developed, so did a prominent pubic shape right in the middle of the subject mountain. I was so embarrassed I didn't want to be seen painting anywhere near that shape! But it had to be altered without damaging the believable contours of the mountain, the quicker the better. It was a self-taught lesson I never forgot.
Other shapes and relationships have caused me trouble from time to time: Utility poles that look like crosses, boulders that look like Volkswagens (maybe I wanted one in my youth.) And barriers: Barriers frequently impose themselves in my paintings, forcing me to break them for the viewer and for myself. Occasionally I leave barriers in place when they work for the painting.
Symbols came to humans before language. They developed in various forms: Religious, cultural and personal. A few are universal, such as the circle. Some become tainted by history, such as the swastika, an ancient widespread symbol of the whirlwind and the four cardinal directions.
Some artists develop a code of personal symbols and definitions. How you explain these to your collectors is a personal issue. I align myself with Native Americans who believe that revealing too much too often diminishes the power of the symbol. Other artists believe the story would be lost without explaining the symbolism. Know where you stand.
I've deviated a little from my original point. But I guess I wanted to stress that symbols and shapes in your paintings contain incredible power for the people who view your work. When you find inadvertent symbols and shapes that distract from the meaning of your work, adjust them out of existence.Comment on or Share this Article →