Express Yourself

Most artists are putting symbols in their work whether they know it or not, says Mary Todd Beam, an artist who splits her time between Ohio and Tennessee. “We all use symbols in our work. Sometimes it might be a certain color, it could be a texture that intrigues us or a mark we keep repeating,” she says. The trick is to get in touch with what you’re already doing and take it a step further. Beam suggests looking at your last five paintings and finding common elements—a shape, a pattern, a series of marks or brushstrokes. If you see something showing up time and again in your work, claim it as one of your symbols and begin using it consciously as well as subconsciously.

If you’d like to explore symbols but don’t know where to begin, Beam recommends doodling. Standing in line at the store, stuck in the doctor’s office or just talking on the phone is the perfect time to pull out some scrap paper and a pen and start scribbling. You’ll be surprised at how many symbols you’ll create.

You can build on the five basic shapes (circle, triangle, spiral, square, equidistant cross), combine them or use objects like a bird, fish, apples, anything, to be part of your personal symbology. And as you change, so too will your symbols. The important thing is to keep track of them. Beam has two diaries full of symbols she’s created on her own and with her classes. Flipping through your own symbol diary is a great way to spark your creativity or find that special something to add to your latest piece.

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