3 symbols

birth growing forming
life healing joining
death decaying fragmenting

there are only 3 core symbols, everything else is derived from these 3. new symbols are created in powers of 3. when a new concept is added to the group, it would apply to all existing symbols. a new concept may not just add a graphical element to a symbol, it may completely transform the symbol

3 symbols

3 symbols
enamel paint on c-type print, aluminium mount, 75 x 75 cm

3 symbols is an experiment in how to reconcile in a single image the idea of photographic realism with the symbolism of forms, lines and dots, which represent the ‘unreal’ and hidden, the fundamental forces that lie within/behind what we see and experience as ‘real life’. Together these 2 layers, one of formless colour and the other of colourless form, represent the intangible and shifting boundaries between our perception of the world and the world itself; the point at which our symbols for the world merge with our perception of it.


composite for 3 symbols

The real is represented by a composite of 630 images appropriated from a systematic search of Google Images. The image selection process started with formulating a list of 21 words to be used as image search terms. A seed list of words beginning with the letters R, G and B was constructed, from which 21 words were selected randomly/intuitively.

source list of words

3 symbols: seed list of image search terms


reincarnation grieve bridge
rwanda give blessing
radius gesture burma
restrict grave before
rarefied grow blindness
ruin guilt bandage
replenish genocide burn

21 selected image search terms

These 21 words were typed into Google Images and 30 images for each word selected. Each set of images was composited into a single image, resulting in 21 images which were then merged in repeating sequence R-G-B to form the final composite.

[a number of arbitrary factors contributed to the process, for example, 7 folders fitted on my laptop desktop screen in a vertical column of icons, 30 was the number of images i had downloaded for the first word before i checked how many had been downloaded]


The unreal is represented by simple elemental forms, painted onto the surface of the composite image in 3 rectangular desaturated spaces. 3 graphical symbols were created to represent the forces of birth/growth, death/decay and healing/reconciliation. These monotone patterns painted on the image surface symbolise the fundamental, abstract nature of matter. This abstract world is colourless, colour arises when we perceive the abstract; the act of perception solidifies what in reality has no substance or colour.

The 3 symbols were based on a series of black and white line drawings which represent birth, healing and death.

birth life death
growing healing decaying
forming joining fragmenting
concept drawings

concept drawings

3 primary symbols

3 primary symbols

The symbols are contained in 3 columns, whose size and placement is derived from the dimensions of the golden rectangle.

spaces for symbols

spaces for symbols

3 columns to contain birth, life and death

3 into 9

The 3 primary symbols were extended into a set of 9 to represent the primary forces of birth, healing and death acting on each other.

[the 3 symbols become 9 symbols when each column is divided into 3 (the original 3 symbols would need to be stretched to fill the columns, and it seemed natural to multiply the symbols together into a 3×3 matrix]

symbol matrix

symbol matrix

The division of the 3 columns into 3 rows introduces the idea of a dominant (primary) force and a secondary one. The 3 columns represent the primary, and the rows represent the secondary. Hence each cell is a space in which a primary force interacts/transforms a secondary one.

The 3 primary symbols occupy cells 1, 5 and 9 (these cells are the ones where both the column and the row represent the same symbol).

The remaining 6 symbols were derived as follows:

9 symbols

The ‘addition’ of 2 symbols to form a 3rd derived symbol is an intuitive operation, partially based on the technique of compositing. It is transformative rather than additive, intuitive and non-linear, and the order in which the symbols are combined affects the form of the derived symbol.

The process of combining 2 symbols graphically to produce a 3rd can be understood in terms of what properties each symbol possesses:

birth = lines radiating from a centre, attraction of magnetic poles…

healing = closed loops, joining together

death = broken arcs, opening forms, breaking apart