Do You Shy Away From This Painting Approach?

Figurative realism and allegory go hand in hand. Allegories—complex narratives built on layers of symbolism—are what allow works by Caravaggio, Titian, Bernini, Dürer, and Vermeer to carry resonance and remain intriguing centuries after they were created. Even though the power of storytelling is well known, allegory isn’t always an easy sell in our contemporary world, which may explain why some artists shy away from it. The stories and references can seem esoteric and irrelevant, and yet the appeal of allegory for practicing visual artists is a long line of exemplary works to learn from. Fine art oil paintings that utilize tight and effective compositions, teem with visual interest, and support complex narrative scenes.

The Allegory of Painting by Johannes Vermeer, 1665-67.
The Allegory of Painting
by Johannes Vermeer, 1665-67.

Employing allegory in one’s fine art oil painting can start with something as simple as a symbolic representation—a skull standing in for mortality; a blooming flower as a sign of spring; an apple as sensual temptation—or employ an extended metaphor like those found in Greek mythology, biblical stories, epic poems, parables, and even children’s fables. The allegory can be a simplistic reference or one that is understood on literal and figurative levels.

Melencolia I by Albrecht Dürer, 1514.
Melencolia I
by Albrecht Dürer, 1514.

The successful use of allegory in contemporary artwork comes down to utilizing the history and points of reference that allegories provide while giving them a contemporary appeal. For Patricia Watwood, an established contemporary artist and guest blogger on Artist Daily, that means opening the lines of communication. “A lot of artists make multifigure compositions that are somewhat inscrutable and illustrate private narratives,” the Brooklyn-based artist says. “I was more interested in finding a narrative that the public could know and respond to. Even if they had to Google the allegory itself, they could see how I presented the story in my oil paintings and start to understand what I was trying to communicate and what I value.”

Watwood has found that an exploration of allegory helps her workshop students understand the importance of creating a composition that is well thought out. “It’s very inspiring to them to create a complete environs, adding and taking away elements and props to create very different effects,” the artist says. “A setup can become classical or contemporary, depending on how you use certain elements to create a narrative story. It allows them to try compositions in different ways with different effects.”

Homage to Rembrandt: Bathsheba, by Patricia Watwood, 2001, oil, 46 x 46. Collection of the artist.
Homage to Rembrandt: Bathsheba, by Patricia Watwood, 2001, oil, 46 x 46. Collection of the artist.

When artists embed a complex allegory in a painting, they allow viewers to evaluate an artwork on many different levels—personal, art historical, philosophical, and cultural. That’s a rich mix, one that gives works of art staying power. They are more than beautiful or well-executed objects. They are deliberately composed, thoughtful wrought, and smartly referential.

There are hundreds of artists whose works reinterpret allegories that have been with us for centuries. Right now, it is our turn to take their deeply resonate inspirations to heart and bring our rich art historical past into the present. That means we contemporary artists have to be at the top of our game, brushing up on the many oil painting techniques found in resources like Discover Oil Painting. You’ll find compositional strategies, paint application demonstrations, and more. With this book all of us can take strong next steps in our own practices. Enjoy!


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Courtney Jordan

About Courtney Jordan

  Courtney is the editor of Artist Daily. For her, art is one of life’s essentials and a career mainstay. She’s pursued academic studies of the Old Masters of Spain and Italy as well as museum curatorial experience, writing and reporting on arts and culture as a magazine staffer, and acquiring and editing architecture and cultural history books. She hopes to recommit herself to more studio time, too, working in mixed media.   

8 thoughts on “Do You Shy Away From This Painting Approach?

  1. One of the interesting things about Patricia Watwood is how she often mixes the personal and the historical, in terms of allegory. I would imagine that we realists painters should consider mixing the personal and historical with many other aspects of painting, as well.

  2. I almost can’t paint without having a theme, whether allegorical or narrative, in mind (unless I’m en plein air). But I’ve found it’s hard to connect with an audience (and my allegories and narratives are in the classical, humanist tradition), in part because galleries aren’t always sure their customers will get it (and they’ll be intimidated if they don’t). But once upon a time allegorical/narrative painting was the pinnacle of the artist’s practice, and it was directed toward public art (even private patrons had a public dimension to their lives and collections). So, it would be great if there was a community of artists who were interested in classical allegory, but we’d also need to connect to an audience….

  3. I am striving to be a contemporary allegorist. As you mentioned in your post it is extremely difficult to find training in this area which incorporates imaginative realism with allegory and requires a high level of technical skill to get many things right including perspective, lighting and the distinct detail of the allegorical elements that is so important to make the composition work. These paintings can include figurative or animal, landscape and still life elements all in one painting! I do wish more information, classes, videos were available on the topic of composing and painting effective allegorical works.

    Maybe Interweave/North Light could fill this gap!?

  4. One aspect of the Old Master tradition that isn’t so much acknowledged, and it has to do with allegory, is that artist’s mostly weren’t depicting actual people doing allegorical things; instead, they were painting idealized (classical) figures who stood for abstract concepts. That means that Realism per se is somewhat antithetical to allegory–and Courbet knew it. His realism was an attack on the whole idea of allegory. In other words, we’ve been through this before, and we need to distinguish between realism (real people doing real things) and allegory (idealized people doing allegorical things).

  5. Great article and examples. Painters of this era Caravaggio, Titian, Bernini, Dürer, and Vermeer painted from life, and created their scenes to tell their stories. They painted with absolute acuracy and paid great attention to values and light in their paintings. So different from the teachings from art schools today that deplore realism, accuracy and detail and want artists to let the pertson figure out what he/she intended. Few could paint in this style today because there are so few teaching the old school ways.

  6. Titian sometimes painted from life, but it’s hard to imagine him posing a figure like his Bacchus from Bacchus and Ariadne and painting him from life. And antique sculpture was at least as important as live models for artists’ subjects. Yes, there was a realist strain in the Old Master tradition, but there were many, many more who drew from life as a tuning exercise but painted from their knowledge of the live figure something more idealized: Raphael, Veronese, the Carracci (see Goldstein’s book), Reni, Cortona, Poussin, Pozzo, Gaulli, Giordano, Ricci, Tiepolo, etc., etc. This is a harder tradition to recover, because it requires more than just observation and accuracy, it involves judgment and culture.

  7. Courtney, thanks for this unusual story. And finally, a website that is truly interesting with comments from artists way more advanced than I am from whom I can get inspiration.