I guess there’s about a billion paintings of sky, mountains, trees and water. Beneath these basic and universal elements lie symbols that may empower our work.
For example, the sky may represent infinity, eternity, immortality, transcendence or inspiration. As the traditional residence of gods, the sky may suggest omnipotence. The sky may also be symbolic of order in the universe.
Mountains are thought to contain divine inspiration, and are the focus of pilgrimages of transcendence and spiritual elevation. Mountains surpass ordinary humanity and extend toward the heavens. They symbolize constancy and permanence and at their peak signify the state of absolute consciousness. Mountains can also signify danger. Climbing a mountain may depict inner elevation.
Trees may invoke struggle, rebirth, and other traits such as barrenness, complexity, productivity, fecundity, and the presence of the sheltering mother.
Water — by way of river, lake and ocean — may be suggestive of ambition, tranquility and life-force. Ocean, in itself, suggests the beginning of life on Earth, and symbolizes formlessness, the unfathomable, and chaos. The ocean can also be seen as a symbol of stability as it has existed largely unchanged for centuries. The ocean is considered to be boundless, a place where one can easily be lost, and can therefore be seen to represent the boundless span of life and the way one can become lost on life’s journey.
Spirited with these understandings, the next question is in what way need these elements be artistically rendered in order to best bring out their symbolic character? To this there are a billion answers — ranging through hyper-realism, stylization, obfuscation, to the merest flick of suggestion.
PS: “To transmit the spirit, there must be form. When the form, the mind and the hand are in total accord, each forgetting the other’s separate existence, then the spirit will reside in your work.” (Tung Ch’i-Ch’ang)
Esoterica: Simplicity and naivete can be deceptive. Crudeness can be deceptive. Even straightforwardness can be deceptive. Be aware of what may be hidden among trees, water, mountains and sky. It may be transcendent spirit. “Great art is at once surface and symbol.” (Oscar Wilde)
This letter was originally published as “Symbols” on October 19, 2001.
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“We artists allow others to see through our windows.” (Robert Genn)