How Are Patterns Used in Art?

A Broken Pattern Can Have Great Impact

A principle of art and the universe itself, pattern means the repetition of an element (or elements) in a work. Artists use patterns as decoration, as a technique of composition, or as an entire piece of artwork. Patterns are diverse and useful as a tool that grabs a viewer's attention, whether it be subtle or very apparent.

How Artists Use Patterns

Patterns can help set the rhythm of a piece of art.

When we think of patterns, images of checkerboards, bricks, and floral wallpaper come to mind. Yet patterns go far beyond that and it doesn't always have to be a regular repetition of an element.

Patterns have been used since some of the first art was created in ancient times. We see it on pottery from thousands of years ago and it has regularly adorned architecture throughout the ages. Many artists over the centuries added pattern embellishments to their work, whether strictly as decoration or to signify a known object, such as a woven basket.

"Art is the imposing of a pattern on experience, and our aesthetic enjoyment is recognition of the pattern." - Alfred North Whitehead (Philosopher and Mathematician, 1861-1947)

In art, patterns can come in many forms. An artist may use color to signify a pattern, repeating a single or select palette of colors throughout a work. They can also use lines to forms patterns as is very apparent in Op Art.

Patterns can also be shapes, whether geometric (as in mosaics and tessellations) or natural (floral patterns), that are found in art. 

Patterns can also be seen in an entire series of work. Andy Warhol's "Campbell's Soup Can" (1962) is an example of a series that, when displayed together as intended, creates a distinct pattern.

Artists tend to follow patterns in their entire body of work as well. The techniques, media, approaches, and subjects they choose can show a pattern across a lifetime of work and it often defines their signature style. In this sense, pattern becomes a part of the process of an artist's actions, a behavioral pattern, so to speak.

Natural Patterns vs. Man-Made Patterns

Patterns are found everywhere in nature, from the leaves on a tree to the microscopic structure of those leaves. Shells and rocks have patterns, animals and flowers have patterns, even the human body follows a pattern and includes countless patterns within it.

In nature, patterns are not set to a standard of rules. Sure, we can identify patterns, but they are not necessarily uniform. One snowflake has a pattern that is different from every other snowflake, for instance.

A natural pattern can also be broken up by a single irregularity or be found outside of the context of an exact replication. For instance, a species of tree may have a pattern to its branches but that doesn't mean every branch grows from a designated spot. Natural patterns are organic in design.

Man-made patterns, on the other hand, tend to strive for perfection.

A checkerboard is easily recognizable as a series of contrasting squares drawn with straight lines. If a line is out of place or one square is red rather than black or white, this challenges our perception of that well-known pattern.

Humans also attempt to replicate nature within man-made patterns. Floral patterns are a perfect example because we are taking a natural object and turning it into a repeating pattern with some variation. The flowers and vines do not have to be replicated exactly. The emphasis comes from the general repetition and placement of the elements within the overall design.

Irregular Patterns in Art

Our minds tend to recognize and enjoy patterns, but what happens when that pattern is broken? The effect can be disturbing and it will certainly catch our attention because it is unexpected.

Artists understand this, so you will often catch them throwing irregularities into patterns.

For example, the work of M.C. Escher plays off our desire for patterns and that is why it is so captivating. In one of his most famous works, "Day and Night" (1938),  we see the checkerboard morph into flying white birds. Yet, if you look closely, the tessellation reverses itself with black birds flying in the opposite direction. 

Escher distracts us from this by using the familiarity of the checkerboard pattern along with the landscape below. At first, we know that something isn't quite right and that's why we keep looking at it. In the end, the pattern of the birds mimics the patterns of the checkerboard.

The illusion would not work if it did not rely on an uncertainty of pattern. The result is a piece with high impact that is memorable to all who view it.