Basics: Design – Rhythm

You can do it Cha Cha Cha! You can do it Cha Cha Cha! You can do it Cha Cha Hooray!

As you read that you should have felt a pattern, or flow, of fast and slow. That sense of pattern is rhythm.

Probably the purest form of rhythm is music with its fast and slow, and soft and loud notes, and pauses of silence. To get that same feeling or sense of movement in visual art, pattern or lack of pattern is what we have to work with.

Pattern can be created by many things. The obvious place to start is to use the same shape or object multiple times, such as a fence post, or tree. But you can have other things like, light and dark, contrasting colors, repeating angles, undulating line, and even the space between things.

Alice in Wonderland Pig and Pepper by Arthur Rackham
Alice in Wonderland Pig and Pepper by Arthur Rackham

In this illustration by Arthur Rackham there is definitely a feeling of rhythm. Our eye speeds down the cloud in a back and forth S curve, but then we are slowed by two stopping points.

The first is the woman’s hand in the back, this is actually the beginning of a series of lines to lead us around the composition. And the second stopping point is the feather in the hat and it is also there to lead us back into the action. But they both set a cadence where we stop following the continuous form of the cloud and start to look for staccato points.

The staccato points form implied lines that give us the sense of movement and set a tempo of action. Our eyes jump from the woman’s hand to Alice, then her knees direct us to the crashing plates, and they lead us to the table leg which leads us up to the feathers and back to the hand.

He also sets up another rhythm with the repetition of the plates. They create almost a counter swirl to the main group and help us feel the rhythm of chaos that is happening in the kitchen.

This work has lots of other implied lines and rhythms. It’s a great one to study to see how many devices he actually uses to create this very well thought out composition, and yet we feel that all of it is in chaos.

Basics:Design – Unity/Variety

When talking about unity I also like to include its opposite, variety, since too much of either one can lead to uninteresting pictures.

Unity simply means that the parts of a picture look like they belong together.

Unity can be achieved with all sorts of devices, such as shadow and light, line, pattern, color, subject, environment, scale, proximity, texture, and anything else that can be thought of to make two or more objects look like they belong together.

Variety is when objects don’t look like they belong, and can be achieved with the same set of devices used to make unity, but you would just choose different ones. Variety is like the spice in a well seasoned dish, it’s extremely small compared to the rest of the ingredients, but adds the kick to keep things interesting.

The Watermelon Merchant by Alberto Pasini
The Watermelon Merchant by Alberto Pasini

This painting by Alberto Pasini has a lot of elements of unity and variety in it. The painting as a whole in unified because it is a scene that looks natural to our eyes and the general colors and values read as correct. But it introduces variety in some of the darker parts of the trees and lighter areas on the buildings that help bring your eye around the painting.

If we take a look at the group on the left we can see the namesake of the painting. This group is brought together into a unified whole by several things. First by being in close proximity to each other, second all of the standing figures are women, and all of them are looking down at the merchant. Third, most of them have white head coverings, and forth they share a lighter pastel color scheme.

The merchant is part of the group because he is the focus of the women’s attention, or his watermelons are at least, but he also adds variety by being seated and having slightly darker clothing in more earth tones.

Take a look at the man and horse on the right against the wall. They are unified and we can wonder if the horse is his, or maybe he’s watching it for someone, but we are certain that they belong together simply by being placed next to each other. But what happens if we do this?

Watermelon Merchant messed with

All of a sudden we’ve introduced some variety and the horse and man no longer share a story. They are not unified. And now the painting feels wrong somehow. We’ve actually broken the balance of the picture by removing the unified group on the right that counteracted the unified group of women and merchant on the left.

If we go back to the original arrangement we might look around and notice that every figure in the painting is in a group of at least two. But what of variety? Sure the darks and lights in the trees and buildings are nice, but what about the action on the street?

This is my favorite part!

watermelon merchant plus circle

Right in the middle of everything Alberto Pasini has added a single sleeping dog.

Other than to act as a sort of bridge between the people on the left and the man and horse on the right, the dog was added as a touch of variety to keep things interesting. Without the dog, the picture wouldn’t hold our attention for very long.

Basics: Design – Scale

Scale is how big or small something is. It sounds about as basic as you could get but scale can play a huge part in your composition.

Let’s say that you wanted to paint a big tree. You look at the tree and realize that it is 100 or more feet tall, and you are painting on a canvas that is only 16 inches tall. Obviously, you can’t fit the real size of the tree on your canvas, but with scale you might be able to capture its grandeur.

So how do you go about making the tree feel big on a small canvas?

Here’s our tree, but how do we tell if it is a Big Tree? This tree could be a small tree, or a medium tree, or a big tree. So, to make it look big we have to put something else in the picture to help us understand the scale of it.

This helps a a little since it gives us some context for the tree, but we want a BIG TREE not just an average tree.

There we go! By adding the little figure we can now get a sense of scale for the tree and realize that it is a BIG TREE through the use of comparison of size.

But what if we don’t want a figure in the picture, or heck, we don’t want anything but nature in the picture. Now we have a challenge, but I still think scale can help us out.

So to get the BIG TREE we used two ideas of scale. By keeping the smaller tree in the picture we kept the idea of comparison of size. The second thing we did was to make the BIG TREE so big that it went completely off the canvas. This plays with the viewer’s sense of scale, since if you can’t see all of something then is must be really BIG!

Basics: Design – Emphasis

Emphasis is also called the focal point in an artwork. Basically it means exactly what it sounds like. The artist emphasizes whatever part of the composition they want the audience to focus on.

The focal point is usually the most important part of the picture.

In this painting by Cabanel you can see that Cleopatra is the focal point. But how does he do it?

Cleopatra Testing Poisons on Condemned Prisoners by Cabanel
Cleopatra Testing Poisons on Condemned Prisoners by Cabanel

The focal point can use any or all of the design principles or elements to help it stand out.

In this case Cabanel has used several. He has used high contrast, also known as value, by placing Cleopatra’s white arm and chest in front of a nearly black background. He has also made Cleopatra and the area around her much more detailed and sharp than the rest of the painting. In addition Cabanel has made Cleopatra stand out by using more colors on her dress than anywhere else, and the colors surrounding her are also the most intense in the picture.

He has also placed her very near the center of the picture. Placement is arguably the most important way to emphasize a focal point. Anything in the center of a visual space receives the most attention since it is where the eye naturally looks at any scene, whether it’s a picture or looking at the real world.

He has also subtly used line to make her the focal point. If you follow the line of the columns in the background and then the line of the red dais in front, they form a kind of arrow pointing at Cleopatra.

Balance and scale are other principles he has used.

In this version I’ve drawn different colored lines around the visual space each potential focal point occupies. You can clearly see by having Cleopatra stretching her arm out and reclining she takes up a larger visual envelope than even her maid seated next to her who is actually closer to us. Her scale compared to everything else is much larger, and he is using the balance of the steel yard, discussed in the last post, by having her visual weight closer to where the hook would be.

All of these help to make her the focal point, and help the audience to understand which of the people is Cleopatra, and that she is the most important thing in the picture.