Research paper: The use of symbolism in art

In the continuing search for good research paper topics, consider looking into the use of symbolism in art. Just as in literature, those who express themselves through media such as paint, clay or even architecture often use symbols as a way to further their own artistic expression. Dream symbols and color symbolism are just two symbolism examples.

Can you spot the symbolism in this art piece? (Credit: Prisma Archivo/Alamy)

Can you spot the symbolism in this art piece? (Credit: Prisma Archivo/Alamy)

You might think that all symbolic art is abstract art but that’s not the case. Beginning with cave drawings and progressing through today, artists continue to elevate the meaning of their work through the use of symbols.


A symbol is something that stands for something else. Think about symbols in our culture. America chose the eagle as its symbol. The U.S. flag uses the colors red, white and blue to stand for valor, purity and justice.

Art is about artistic expression. It isn’t usually trying to copy nature as a photograph would. However, even in photography the artist can frame, compose and develop the photo in such a way as to add layers of interest and meaning to the image.

Symbolism in art

When examining paintings and other works of art, it might help to have some background on the use of symbols and their meanings. A good place to start is at Questia where you’ll find millions of books and articles that make great research paper resources.

Start with the Questia Library feature and search through all of the topics related to art. Numerous books cover the topic of symbolism in art, including Illustrated Dictionary of Symbols in Eastern and Western Art by James Hall and Chris Puleston.

In the book’s introduction, Hall and Puleston explained that symbolic images mean different things to different people. Moreover, symbolic meaning can change over time.

Examples of symbolism explained in the book included:

  • The bee: symbol of industry, purity, immortality
  • Flames: often symbolized as god or purification
  • Apple: in Western art was often used as a symbol of the fall from the garden of Eden; in China the apple blossom denotes female beauty

“Symbols in art function at many different levels according to the beliefs and social customs that inspire the artist,” the authors said.

Color symbolism

One area where symbols take on different meaning depending on culture is in color symbolism. Helen Blackburn explained some basics of Western interpretations of color in her May 29, 2015, article, “Colour Symbolism in Art,” for

In Western culture, common color symbols include:

  • Red: excitement, energy, passion
  • Yellow: joy, happiness, optimism
  • Blue: peace, cold, harmony
  • White: purity, traditional bridal color

Asian cultures have different interpretations for colors. In the article, “Symbolism of Colors, Associations of The Five Elements in Chinese Belief and Feng Shui,” the writers at outlined the meanings of colors in Chinese culture.

  • Red: traditional bridal color, luck, celebration
  • Yellow: nourishing, supporting
  • Blue: healing, trust, calmness
  • White: mourning, death

Learn to look at art

Artists use color and symbolic imagery to give their works added meaning. For more background visit the Art Encyclopedia where you can learn about art, art movements and art appreciation. In the article, “Famous Paintings: Analysis and Interpretation,” the writers discuss how to look at a painting.

The article includes several links to pages where you will find information and interpretation for several classical paintings. While the writers have presented their own interpretation of the paintings, they expect that each person will form their own opinion of each piece.

“Art appreciation is not like solving mathematical equations because, there is rarely a ‘correct’ view about (1) what a particular painter was trying to achieve; (2) whether he/she succeeded; or (3) how beautiful his/her painting is. Furthermore, it is not your conclusion about a painting that matters – it is your reasoning: in other words, WHY you like it, or hate it, or feel indifferent towards it,” they said.

Learn more about art and the use of symbolism in art at Questia where you’ll find millions of resources to help you write your research papers.

Do you have a favorite artist or painting that uses symbolism? Tell us in the comments.

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