Symbol Blog 1: The Pull of Symbols

Symbols have always intrigued me, so at the beginning of my MA in illustration I did some work to try and explore this.

Eyes (gouache)

Eyes in particular are symbols that I’ve always been drawn to. If I see something with an eye on it, I’ve got to have it. I started to become more and more interested in where this pull came from.

I wondered why particular symbols seem to be popular at the moment –  hands, eyes, cats, plants, moons – these are some of the images or motifs that I see again and again, for example on instagram, and mostly used by people who I can identify as being similar in age and gender presentation to myself, and who have similar interests. What is it, then, about these symbols that some of us seem to be identifying with?

There are lots of assumptions that I could make or conclusions I could draw about this – could some of these symbols be thematically linked for instance with a growing identification with ‘witchiness’ that can be seen spreading across instagram?

I observed a number of times, while browsing instagram, that when I saw someone else using a symbol that I felt particularly strongly identified with (like the eye) I felt somehow competitive/threatened/jealous, as though they were using my symbol.

It makes me laugh when I think about the futility of trying to claim symbols as my own, when they are by their nature universal, but also so frequently adopted and adapted in a multiplicity of situations.

It occurred to me, though, that perhaps others feel like this, when they see a symbol they  feel they have ownership of (for example a symbol they have tattooed on their body) used by someone else. Does it feel like the symbol has been stolen and/or appropriated by that person?

This is an interesting trail of thought because it leads onto appropriation in a more global/cultural sense: what happens when a particular culture has a culturally accepted interpretation/ownership of a symbol, and then that symbol (for example the eye of Horus, or the hamsa hand) gets appropriated and used elsewhere, by someone who is outside that culture?

In order to take this line of enquiry further I decided I that the only way I could really begin to investigate symbols and their relationship to meaning and identity was to enquire more directly into what different symbols mean to me personally.

To open this up I started some sketchbook work and free association to see what meaning I personally was attaching to the symbols that recurred often in my life, or that I found myself being particularly drawn to. Here are some examples:

Sketchbook 4

Sketchbook 9

Sketchbook Symbols
Sketchbook work exploring Symbols

I developed these through more sketchbook work into designs for some dual-colour riso prints, also focusing on colours that I find myself being drawn to again and again: for me that’s red, yellow and blue.

Sketchbook 10

My intention at this point was leading in the direction of trying to represent symbols in the most concentrated/simplified format possible – completely abstracted from context: an eye but not within a face; a hand but without a wrist; a moon floating in a vacuum. This, I felt, helped me to focus more on the symbol itself, to ask “what is it about eyes?” Or “why particularly the hand in this position?”

I did some explorations with different media and paper to see what effects these had on how I responded to the symbols and the introductions of particular colours:

I eventually reached a point where I felt like I had found the ideal way of representing the eye as a symbol:

However, at this point I realised that the question of how we each create meaning in relation to symbols was quite complex, but also that the meaning of a symbol can be altered when it is encountered in relationship to another symbol. To explore this I needed to find ways of making my illustrations interactive. To be continued in my next post!

About HannahMumby

Illustrator; lover of ink and gouache. Currently based in Exeter UK. If you are interested in my work or would like to ask a question, please email:

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