The Principles of Art: Rhythm

We are approaching the end of this series about the Principles of Art. You might notice that we are starting to split hairs a bit, like, what’s the difference between pattern and rhythm? Last month’s column on pattern talked about repeating elements to help cue the viewer, and while patterns require a kind of rhythm, in terms of the Principles of Art, the term rhythm means something a bit more expansive that relies on variety instead of consistency. 

Stand in front of a piece of art. Take a minute to feel it. When you go to a concert and the bass starts rumbling and the drums kick in, and you just close your eyes and feel that beat? Do that but do it with your eyes. Just stand back, relax your mind, let your eyes blur a bit if you want, and feel the underlying rhythm of the piece. It can be obvious, or it can be subtle, but if it’s well put together it’s there. 

Like music, the rhythm of art is about creating sensibly spaced elements on the field in a way that creates order but is not uniform like a pattern. Well placed elements can help the movement of the piece by connecting the viewer’s gaze one to the next. A good visual rhythm can act like a guide, pacing and informing us as we peruse the scene. 

Imagine painting the ocean from the side as if you’re watching from a rock while the waves go by. There is the main rhythm of the swell of the waves, but as they break there is the sub-rhythm of the curls of white water at the crest of each wave—each an individual motif that all work together to create an undulating subtext for the piece.

To create rhythm in your art you can use repeating elements that are similar enough for people to connect them, but each one has its own character. Those elements can be literal shapes like circles or squares, they can be something more subtle like a distinct way of curving a series of brush strokes, or a combination of many things that together create a pace. Picture the sky in Van Gogh’s Starry Night, and how each star (circle) is a different size, but the directional brush strokes curve around each star in a similar arc, creating a rhythm across the sky. 

When you use a term like rhythm it’s going to be hard to get away from the musical comparisons, so I’m not even going to try—it works so well because most of us already have a solid understanding of musical rhythm, so we just need to copy and paste that over to our seeing mechanism and there is a reasonable understanding waiting there. When you hear music with a beat, you want to move—I have a friend that, when he hears the first few thumping notes of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” he can’t help it: he has to get up and dance. Rhythm can have that much power over us.

We might not notice as clearly, but visual rhythm is just as important to a compelling work. When people see it, they may not start dancing, but they may feel compelled to step closer, or drag their eyes through the intricate sub-rhythms you’ve created. Their hearts may soar with you as you wrap their eyes around the stars in your sky, or flutter at the sensual curves on a flowing dress—so embrace the rhythm of your work because without it our pieces can feel disjointed and unemotional. If you don’t have it yet, it’s time to get down with your bad self and get into the rhythm.