Finding Rhythm in the Visual Arts

Translating What You See Into a Visual Beat

Green pattern

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Rhythm is a principle of art that can be difficult to describe in words. We can easily recognize rhythm in music because it is the underlying beat that we hear. In art, we can try and translate that into something that we see in order to understand an artwork's visual beat.

Finding the Rhythm in Art

A pattern has rhythm, but not all rhythm is patterned. For example, the colors of a piece can convey rhythm, by making your eyes travel from one component to another. Lines can produce a rhythm by implying movement. Forms, too, can cause rhythm by the ways in which they're placed one next to the other.

Really, it's easier to "see" rhythm in just about anything other than the visual arts. This is particularly true for those of us who tend to take things literally. Yet, if we study art we can find a rhythm in the style, technique, brush strokes, colors, and patterns that artists use.

Three Artists, Three Different Rhythms

A great example of this is the work of Jackson Pollock. His work has a very bold rhythm, almost chaotic like what you might find in electronic dancehall music. The beat of his paintings come from the actions he made to create them. Slinging paint over the canvas in the way he did, he created a mad fury of motion that pops and he never gives the viewer a break from this.

More traditional painting techniques also have rhythm. Vincent Van Gogh's "The Starry Night" (1889) has a rhythm thanks to the swirling, well-defined brush strokes he used throughout. This creates a pattern without being what we typically think of as a pattern. Van Gogh's piece has a more subtle rhythm than Pollock, but it still has a fantastic beat.

On the other end of the spectrum, an artist like Grant Wood has a very soft rhythm in his work. His color palette tends to be very subtle and he uses patterns in almost every piece of work. In landscapes like "Young Corn" (1931), Wood uses a pattern to depict rows in a farm field and his trees have a fluffy quality that creates a pattern. Even the shapes of the rolling hills in the painting repeat to create a pattern.

Translating these three artists into music will help you recognize their rhythm. While Pollock has that electronic vibe, Van Gogh has more of a jazzy rhythm and Wood is more like a soft concerto.

Pattern, Repetition, and Rhythm

When we think of rhythm, we think of pattern and repetition. They are very similar and interconnected, though each is also distinct from the others.

A pattern is a recurring element in a particular arrangement. It may be a motif that repeats itself in a wood carving or piece of fiber art or it may be a predictable pattern such as a checkerboard or brickwork.

Repetition refers to an element that repeats. It may be a shape, color, line, or even a subject that occurs over and over again. It may form a pattern and it may not.

Rhythm is a little of both pattern and repetition, yet the rhythm can vary. The slight differences in a pattern create rhythm and the repetition of elements of art create rhythm. The rhythm of a piece of art can be controlled by everything from color and value to line and shape.

Each piece of art has its own rhythm and it is often up to the viewer to interpret what that is.

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Esaak, Shelley. "Finding Rhythm in the Visual Arts." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Esaak, Shelley. (2020, August 27). Finding Rhythm in the Visual Arts. Retrieved from Esaak, Shelley. "Finding Rhythm in the Visual Arts." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 4, 2023).