Signifying Ideas through Symbology

Symbology is something used in art from time to time to express an idea that is open to interpretation or hidden in a wider picture. I personally love symbology because I feel like the possibilities of conveying ideas are limitless and it adds so much interest and thought in an image that is absolutely mind blowing.

Symbols are the language of something invisible spoken in the visible world.”

Gertrud von le fort

I could not agree with the above quote more, it is amazing how you can convey an idea or feeling through the use of simple icons as symbols to draw the image of an invisible reality. So what is symbology? and why do we use it in art. \

By definition: A symbol is a mark, sign or word that indicates, signifies or is understood as representing an idea, object or relationship. Symbols allow people to go beyond what is known or seen by creating linkages between otherwise very different concepts and experiences. (Wikipedia)

Let’s break this down – When creating an image we often use expressions and dramatic light to convey a mood or a feeling but what do we do when we want to convey a bigger idea and the canvas is just too small to create it. This is where symbols come in, we can add interest or a bigger story in our images by using symbols. Now, I’m not asking you to look up the illuminati or free masons, I’m talking about simple symbols around us that we can use as ‘ideas’.

“Symbols can be so beautiful, sometimes.”

Kurt Vonnegut

Another reason why we use symbols is because according to research symbols often evoke an emotional response in viewers or the need to further dive into the artwork to better understand it , because of this effect on the viewer we are able to leave a lasting impression. Symbols often create a layered effect of understanding so the viewer usually finds their own individual significance in an art work.

Types of symbols:

  • Umbrella: shelter and protection
  • Apple: Love, wisdom and death (temptation in religious context)
  • Candles: illumination
  • Moon : Height of power
  • Butterfly : spiritual rebirth, transformation, hope
  • Mirror : Vanity, a way to the soul, wisdom
  • Doors : Choice, transition, safety
  • Window: Veil

These are just a few examples that are all around us in daily life, there are more symbolic translations for each of the symbols I mentioned above but these are the ones I found myself leaning towards most.

Technically, in order to fully create an artwork with the use of symbols it is important to create a mood that goes with the symbol of choice. This can be done with the use of colors or light or my favorite way would be to try minimalism and see how it works out. Another symbol I purposely left out of the list that I feel we use very often are flowers. Now, the tricky bit about flowers is each flower has a different meaning attached to it as well as each color of a certain flower. Depending on what idea you are trying to create flowers can be used in multiple ways to create a larger narrative.

Photo Credits Romessa

Another way to look at symbolism is use of colors, which we know not only creates the environment for an image but also a mood for the viewer. Each color has its own significance and over the years have been used as a symbol in art. If we go back in time we can look at ‘symbolism’ as an art movement and see how the masters used it in their works and why. The artists of the time used symbolism to create emphasis on emotions, feelings, ideas and subjectivity vs realism. Symbolism is also heavily used in surrealism to create bigger worlds and ideas for the viewer to be drawn in.

Creative Exercise:

This week I urge you to try using symbols in the images you create. You can try things around you and connect a meaning and mood to your images. Another way to add interesting would be to try a minimalistic approach where you have your symbol and character together or you could try using a still life set up and add your chosen symbol.

Here’s a video that I found very helpful about ‘symbols in fine art’ by Brooke Shaden


Clearly, I can go on and on about symbology in art and there is no end to it but I end this article by linking you to another article that I found absolutely fascinating and informative.

Find deeper meaning with symbolic photography by Lauren Johnson, Alex Stoddard

The above article covers how to shoot with symbols and more examples on how symbols can used in photography.

Until next time, Have fun and keep creating!!

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