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.
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?
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!
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.