Developing Personal Symbolism


So you’ve gotten pretty good at your medium of choice and have even collected a few good commissions under your belt. Confidence is slowly seeping in as a personal library of images begins to grow from a collection of sketches and half-formed thoughts into a gallery of images that one can truly be proud of.

And…what now?

I feel like I’m at this point lately with my artistic evolution. I’m proud of a select few of my pieces and gaining the confidence to start marketing myself as a ‘professional’ on art show forms, but I still feel like I’m not quite there yet. There’s a key ingredient missing and I’m still in the process of discovering what it is through trial and error. Lately I’ve been turning back to my roots, to the artists that made me want to draw in the past and the artists that keep me inspired to draw each and every day. They show me a glimpse of the worlds I could create and the emotions I could convey if I could just get myself there.

What is it about their art that I enjoy so much? Why am I drawn to them? Why do their pieces feel ‘finished’ to me and why do mine don’t? I turn to artists who are my contemporaries. Meeting them at shows and admiring their work is an extra kick in the butt for inspiration that makes each convention a joy. I see the work of folks like Matt Hughs, Stephanie Pui-Mun Law, and Tom Fleming that strike a deeper chord with me because of the dreamlike, and oftentimes dark ethereal quality of their work. What do they all have in common, I wonder?

And it hits me. Their work has a deep core rooted in symbolism and heavy with emblems reflective of their own stylistic choices. The root that grows from mother to fetus suggesting a piercing tactile bond. Alighting swarms of butterflies indicative of the freed soul. The bleeding apple representative of Eve’s sin. Each artist spins a tapestry of symbols unique to their own choice of colors, emblems, and compositional style.

I won’t say this is key to success for all artists, but I do know that the presence of a system of symbolism really draws me to the work of most of the artists on my favorites list. I’ve seen the embryos of symbols creeping up in my own work. The climbing, barren vines blooming with white roses at the angel’s presence. Candles burning in the dark where forgotten ideas lay undiscovered or discarded. There are so many fragments of symbols I don’t quite understand and haven’t yet fully given birth to yet. If I keep drawing and painting and observing, I’ll find them waiting in nooks and crannies of my perception, some obvious and some not.

But I suppose finding one’s own system of personal symbolism is like finding Enlightment, a fleeting perfect thing that will never last as long as the mind keeps searching for meaning in everything.

And how boring would it be if our symbols never changed or evolved at all?

6 comments

  1. Hayley E. Lavik says:

    In our parallel genres, we both struggle with that knee-jerk stereotype that fantasy works are bound to be empty, shallow, and materialistic, pretty things to make money. Yet some of the most captivating, moving, lasting pieces of work we encounter have the fantastic at their core. I think you’ve really cut to the heart of it here, that there’s a level of symbolism underpinning those works, something beyond just the moment’s entertainment. Whether that be visual iconography, or the underlying themes we deal with over and over again in recurring works, they lend depth and substance to a piece, something to chew on, and also capture a little piece of how we are at that precise moment in our lives. As you say, these things evolve constantly.

    It reminds me of studying William Blake’s woodcuts in one of my university courses, and going over the symbols he brought into his images. Branches over the head cut someone off from the sky, showing them as closed-minded and unenlightened, but branches with fresh blooms or leaves could symbolize enlightenment and growth. Nearly the same thing, but somehow laden with different intent. Of course, having children in a woodcut was always a good tip he wasn’t calling the figure closed-minded.

  2. Angela Sasser says:

    Renessa, I read your blog and I’m so happy to have a writer share their thoughts here as well. It’s amazing how so many things crossover in the creative field and I believe symbolism is one of them. An artist will spend years perfecting a visual style and symbolism just as a writer will discover their own voice through drafts and practice. It’s interesting as well to know that we look for our own voice in others and try to bring what we like into our own work. It is a point of victory when we stop being the sum of our pieces and become our own fully realized creature:)

  3. Angela Sasser says:

    I always have to wonder how folks like Blake came upon the symbolism they did for their writing and art. One might think symbolism in art was perhaps a more prevalent form of expression in his time, or perhaps I just find more symbols that I relate to in the art and writing of earlier eras?

    I was telling the previous commenter how delighted I was to have writers commenting on this blog (and this particular topic) as well. It’s so amazing to me when subjects of expression cross creative fields and reveal that our processes are not so different after all, you get right down to the basics.

  4. Christine Griffin says:

    Boy, am I struggling with this right now! I don’t know what I want to say, without the guidance of a client. I’m miserable! I worry constantly that people will think what I’m depicting is cheesy or contrived. It’s no end of frustration….

  5. Angela Sasser says:

    I find no artist or creative individual escapes this frustration. We all go through it at some point and in phases of our ongoing development. Just gotta trudge on through and do what soul-searching you can by practicing your craft and thinking about why you’re doing it in the first place. I’m sure you’ll figure it out and gain confidence in the process!

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