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Explore Special Meanings and Symbolism
When you think about it, you probably have a personal symbolism — objects or colors or landscape features that hold special meaning for you. These ideas can develop from our experiences, our culture, daydreams or fantasies, or from books or poems we’ve read.
Artist John Harrell makes creative choices in his acrylic paintings that put forth his own ideas about objects, places and colors. The results are paintings that feel rich, compelling and complete.
For myself, I associate a rich-colored green with well-being and positivity. And in my mind, drums mean movement and latent power. These are my personal ideas. Because of that, they can be a powerful source for narrative.
I point out the existence of personal symbolism because sometimes we drift away from the things that have a meaning to us in order to work with objects or scenes with “universal appeal.” But that is really a lost opportunity to convey something powerful and intimate to your viewer.
We all recognize fantasy images of superheroes, for instance. They are the figures who are the biggest, tallest and strongest — and because they often wear a cape. These sorts of recognizable and “easy” symbols have their place, but I think fine artists often do their work a disservice by being too didactic with their symbolism in just the same way.
Harrell is an exception. He brings strong colors and narrative objects to his paintings so he can relate to his work — and his viewer — on a real and personal level. A beached boat becomes a symbol for age, time passing and the need to face unexpected changes.
A path that opens up in a forest can be taken to mean a choice or even a sacrifice. Pastel colors in orange and pink take on a positive symbolism regarding the energy and fast pace of a city street.
When you allow yourself to explore your own personal symbolism, there is character and uniqueness to the choices you make which puts your work in a category all its own. Next time you are thinking of how to convey an idea or narrative in your work, reflect on symbols that hold a personal meaning. I think you’ll find the outcome rewarding and meaningful for you and your viewers.
Personal symbolism can come into play no matter what kind of painting or drawing you create. It raises our awareness about the many things that objects, colors and textures can communicate to viewers, which every artist should try to be aware of.
In John Harrell’s video workshop, Acrylic Painting Scenes From the City, I discovered using unexpected colors in a painting or depicting figures in an otherwise empty cityscape can have a great deal of symbolic impact. This was only the beginning of the things I found out!
It’s up to us to decide what our personal symbols are and how to apply them to get the effects we want in our work. Harrell does that to great effect in his video workshop, and it is a lesson worth learning. Below is a preview of his instructional video so you can start exploring symbolism in your own art today. Enjoy!