The Principles of Art: Pattern

When I say the word pattern, you probably picture the geometric hipness of your living room drapes, or the floral print of a favourite summer dress. As a painter, you might not think of patterns as a staple tool for landscape work, but patterns are all around us: in the natural world, in architecture, in the way we understand and codify things in our memories—so it’s quite important to know how patterns can be used to create and shape our compositions. Pattern in art refers to the repetition ordered arrangement of elements in a design. 

If you are like me, knowing I can have a coffee every morning is a comforting routine. Knowing where I can find a small spoon to stir in the cream means I don’t have to engage my brain before the caffeine has a few minutes to kick in—even the dog waits for me to finish before bugging me for breakfast. We are all creatures of habit, and our lives are built around recognizing and assimilating these behavioural patterns. It takes the effort out of the small things and allows us to focus on larger, more important tasks in our day. 

In visual art, pattern does much the same thing for our compositions. If I paint a series of horizontal reddish rectangles, the familiar interlocking block pattern immediately conjures a brick wall or chimney. When I pepper a mountain side with a group of vertical brush strokes, a distant forest appears. These repeating motifs can be tools for artist to use to engage the viewer and give them a clear understanding of the depth, the context, and scale of objects and areas in the piece. Pattern and repetition allow the viewer to quickly gather the scope of the work without having to decode every brush stroke. Patterns can be subtle or bold, and they allow us to spend time on the important parts of the piece. 

There are different kinds of patterns, both man-made and natural, and they are loosely grouped into two categories: regular and irregular. Regular patterns are most often found in man-made objects and structures: architecture, textiles, and fashion, but the repetition of their motif is exactly the same each time. The window placement on a skyscraper, the squares on a gingham dress, the tiles on your bathroom floor—all regular. Nature does not work so consistently, so while we might find many natural patterns that are almost regular, like snake scales or basalt columns for instance, they are not quite identical so they would be considered irregular patterns. Really any repeating motif can become a pattern you can use to your advantage.

The interesting thing about patterns in art is that you don’t need to fill a shape with the pattern to give people a sense of space. A wide green shape becomes a field of grass when you put a few well-placed wispy brushstrokes in clumps across it. A few tawny squares on the side of a building quickly become shingles that, if filled right in, feels too busy for the piece. In these cases, pattern becomes a symbol that our brains apply in repeating sequences until a change in the colour or the context tells it to do otherwise. 

In some cases, artists will use regular patterns to contrast natural elements. Overlaying a grid of dots over a mountain scene can be an interesting way to give a landscape a contemporary twist—so you’re looking through a pattern at the scene instead of incorporating it into the piece. 

Many printmakers use pattern to emphasize areas absent of that pattern, or call attention to a particular shape. Sharp-edged geometric patterns of squares will feel aggressive or incisive, while ovoid or circular patterns will feel gentler—visually speaking, the difference between funk and smooth jazz. 

Overall, a solid understanding of pattern as a tool is critical to making work with clarity. Everything from colour to texture to mark direction can become a pattern that you can harness to your advantage 
to create successful artwork, which is something I want to repeat over and over again.