Sometimes, when looking through my personal library, I come across a treasure I’ve completely forgotten.  You know the kind, a small book, pushed to the back and easily overlooked.

I’m re-engaging with four such treasures.  Now I do have an excuse.  My library is difficult to access.  I have to breathe in deeply, turn around twice and hope I can slide in.  Space might be tight, but I have a library, so I’m in heaven.

And one of these books ‘Symbols and Their Meanings’ by Jack Tresidder, is a little gem.  I have a penchant for art documentaries.  You know the ones, great art, great presenter and great knowledge, where we’re led through the meaning of the artist’s intention, through the signs or symbols they’ve used – because, of course, I can’t see them.  Or rather, I just don’t know how to read them.

Yet again, I’m asking myself why I don’t broaden the scope and depth of my work, adding another layer of intent and meaning by using signs or symbols.  But I thought I’d go back a step or two and look at the history of using symbols.

Signs and symbols are ubiquitous in our lives.  They navigate using clear, unique simplification.  Was ancient cave art symbolic?  Who knows?  Signs and symbols communicate ideas, so if that’s what they were trying to do, then we’ve lost the ability to read them.  But ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs definitely were, as we’re now able to interpret and understand their intended meaning.  Religion is a cornucopia of signs and symbols representing faith, yet writing and music also communicate using a completely different symbolic language.


The Lady of Shalott by John William Waterhouse. The candles at the front of the boat symbolise life – only one remains lit – signifying death is soon to come.

But it’s signs and symbols in artwork that I find so fascinating – that hidden-in-plain-sight allegory.  Now that’s clever.  The artist is able to layer even more emotion, ideas and meaning.  It might be as simple as using colour, say red for passion or white for purity.  But passion could equally be represented by an apple (Adam and Eve) and peace by a lily.

Have a peek at my Art: Allegorical Pinterest Board for clever uses of allegory.

Greek and Roman myths and fables and stories from the bible have offered artists a rich source for their art.  Over time, the language of signs and symbols developed enabling a deeper emphasis in their depictions.

This site demonstrates the use of allegory in modern painting.  It’s like using visual similes or metaphors – the meaning’s there for all to see, but it’s deepened and related back to something else.  I just love that idea.  The featured artwork is a synchronistic painting – the depicted events that happen at different times are shown in one scene.  Just as well they explained that, as I wouldn’t have known.

So I’m going back to investigate some signs and symbols that would add to my work.  It may be that I’m more careful with colour use or what’s talking to me is actually using symbols to represent an idea.  Now that sounds really interesting.

Could you add signs or symbols to deepen the meaning of your work?

cathy jack coupland


Featured Imaged Credit: By Anonymous – Clio20, CC BY-SA 3.0,