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.

The Christian Martyrs Last Prayer

The Christian Martyrs Last Prayer by Jean-Leon Gerome
Christian Martyrs Last Prayer oil painting by Jean-Leon Gerome

William T Waters of Baltimore commissioned this painting from Jean-Leon Gerome in 1860. It wasn’t delivered until 1883, 23 years later. With it, Gerome included a letter explaining that it took so long because he wanted to do all he was capable of and had repainted it three times.

Christian Martyrs Last Prayer one of two preliminary works

This is one of the two preliminary paintings that Gerome started. It is now housed at the Utah Museum of Fine Art in Salt Lake City. I took a picture of it while I was there since I was curious to see the differences. He changed the shape of the three spire things on the left from cone shape to a rounded more ornate one, and he changed the shape of the niche in the wall below them from square to arched. I also find it interesting that he added the guy in red at the far left to the finished piece. My guess is that he added him to bring your eye around the Colosseum to the other side of the painting so you would take in the whole scene.

Also, there is a ghost image of the sitting Christians closer to the lion, and if we compare their position to the final rendition, we can see that he thought of putting them in at least three places. He also made several changes to the lions and even added a tiger in the final version.

Christian Martyrs Last Prayer detail

In the detail we can get a sense of his working methods. I find it amazing that he drew all of the tiny details of the Colosseum at least three times for the different versions.

Crit-Submit: The Response

Steam Punk Girl with overpaint by Dan Dos Santos

Yesterday I told you about my art work Steampunk Girl being critiqued over at Muddy Colors. Due to unforeseen circumstances I wasn’t able to respond earlier so I am going to do that now.

First off, thanks Dan for the critique.

Second, I volunteered for the wringer, so I got what I asked for.

On to the art. I thought up the idea for Steampunk Girl about two years ago and I didn’t finish it until last summer. I wanted to do a piece that could possibly be a book cover.

I was reading some steampunk comics and short stories at the time and so when I ran across the reference photo of the girl, the idea gelled together in my mind. I made it in Painter which I had just bought a couple months before, so it was rather new to me.

But that’s enough of the history. I think all of Dan’s critiques are valid and while I might have executed the solution differently, since some of the gears and walking legs are mechanically unsound, the idea behind it improved the picture. And since I thought of it as a book cover I deliberately left the top free of details to accommodate type.

I wasn’t sure of the lighting at the time since there was that big window letting in the dying rays of sunlight; also, I had an imaginary light source casting light onto the face of the girl. I like Dan’s solution of casting her into cool tones and playing up the golden light from the sun.

My thought on where she was, was in a large airship very high in the sky where the sun was actually below her vantage point. In my version you wouldn’t be able to see any buildings since she was so far up, but Dan’s inclusion of buildings helps tell the story of her world better.

I’m a sucker for pretty girls and to make her dirty never occurred to me at the time, which conjures up the image of a forehead slap now that I think of it. I think I got too caught up with making her look the right way that I didn’t think of her fitting into the story better.

I also have minimalist leanings, so I’m always thinking of making something more simplified and streamlined, and how Dan mentioned making everything else so busy that your eye rested on the calm areas is a new concept for me. The funny thing is in a different critique I was involved in today, a classmate copied a J.W. Waterhouse painting, and it was mentioned that he kept everything around the subject busy for the same reason, to focus on the girl. As you can see below.

Windflowers painting by John William Waterhouse

I’m grateful for the opportunity for the critique that Dan Dos Santos provided and I’m glad that he spoke of things that normally don’t come up in my usual art circles.


Muddy Colors

Dan Dos Santos Art