A few months back, I talked to a painter and animator friend about craft, technique, and composition, with an ear toward what we could learn from each other’s genre. She had recently made a list of all the physical motifs that appear in her work, or in some cases her head and her life, and she read it to me. A motif, as I understand it, is different than a symbol, a metaphor, or a theme in that it simply refers to anything that recurs in a work. It doesn’t have to stand in for something else. It simply gains power and resonance through repetition, brings different parts of a composition into conversation, or provides a kind of unity to the whole.
Motifs can be physical or abstract, but I’m most interest in the tangible and sensory one–objects, landmarks, colors, sounds, and body parts. A writer or visual artist may or may not be conscious of and/or intentional in their use of motif. But my friend’s exercise, making a list of her own motifs, seems particularly exciting to me, in a way that making a list of one’s own metaphors or themes is decidedly not.