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.
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.
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.”
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!