Well, although most of my recent photo-based paintings don’t really include that much in the way of hidden depths (since I often don’t have time to include them), I dabbled with adding some to one of my upcoming paintings.
This was mostly because I was going through a bit of an “Ancient Egypt” phase at the time and because, when I made a previous painting of this area, I was reading Robert Sheckley’s “Alien Harvest” at the time. Here’s a chart showing all of the references and the original source photo:
So, how can you add some hidden symbolism to your realistic photo-based art? Here are a couple of quick tips.
1) Look for what is already there: Simply put, the best symbolism in realistic art will simply just place emphasis on things that are originally there. In other words, your choice of what to paint matters a lot.
The best way to find the right image is simply to think about the themes/symbolism you want to include and, whilst in the mood for making a painting based on this stuff, look at your photos until something jumps out at you.
For example, I originally hadn’t planned to add any ancient Egypt symbolism to this painting but, when looking through my photos for one to paint (after reading part of an ancient Egypt-themed novel), I noticed that one of them had a pyramid-shaped arch in it… and then I noticed that a tree in the background looked like an ankh.
So, once you’ve noticed something vaguely related to the themes/symbolism you want to include, then just subtly emphasise it slightly in your finished painting. For example, the ankh-shaped tree in the painting is slightly larger/thicker than the tree in the original photo.
2) Know where to use artistic licence: If you have to change something in order to add some symbolism to your painting, then try to make sure that the change looks at least vaguely realistic. In other words, go for “subtly evokes…” rather than “obviously states…”.
The thing to remember is that, as much as you want to add symbolism to your painting, it still has to work well as a realistic painting. In other words, your changes shouldn’t be too obviously noticeable at first glance and/or should just look like “ordinary” artistic licence to someone who isn’t looking for symbolism.
For example, when I decided to add some “ancient Egypt” symbolism to my painting of the pharmacy, I shortened the name on the sign to just “Pharmacy”. In part, this was because I had a smaller space to work with, because I wanted the sign to look striking and because I didn’t want to include branding etc.. in my paintings (since this gives them more of a general/timeless quality).
But, at the same time, I realised that the word “pharmacy” shares four letters with the word “pharaoh”. So, I deliberately made the first four letters of the word slightly more noticeable, whilst also writing the letter “M” in such a way that it looked a little bit like the letter “A” at a glance. So, the sign almost reads “Phara- cy” at first glance. This is the kind of thing I mean when I talk about using artistic licence in subtle ways. The sign still tells the viewer that they’re looking at a pharmacy, but it is also a sneaky ancient Egypt reference too.
Sorry for the short article, but I hope that it was useful 🙂