The Principles of Art: Unity and Variety

It’s fitting to mark the end of this seven-part series about the Principles of Art by talking about the tightrope walk between unity and variety. As of the writing of this column I’m working on a series of prints that use blocks of similar shape that overlap each other to form patterns and compound shapes. I’m playing with the opacity of the ink, and several different variations of each shape to create natural forms like flowers as well as textural grids and negative-space play. I love working within the natural framework of the printing process to create unexpected results. It rekindles the joy of sitting on the living room floor with a bin of Lego and anticipating the regular snap-snap as the bricks click together into something altogether new. 

The inherent danger of grid work is our human tendency to fall in love with a pattern: it’s easy to get into a rhythm of repeating shapes—they feel safe and structured. Artists, and indeed all of us humans, thrive when we have good boundaries—but that’s not where the great art lives. Pattern-making is an amazing craft, and a good pattern has a lot of unity, but when you repeat something enough times our brains parse it into something for the background. We hang patterns in our windows and cover our beds with them. They add colour and interest but they are missing a narrative component. There has to be some change, some twist, something that tells a story. When the orchestra tunes at the beginning of a concerto it has unity, but it’s not until the notes start moving that it starts to tell a story.  

Sometimes in our artistic rush to break free of the constraints of pattern, to tell our very personal story, we dash headlong into variety. The danger is that in our eagerness to be heard we push too far into that realm where nothing is connected—there is no harmony, no context or relationship between elements—just chaos, anarchy (and sometimes a lot of fun). This side of the coin is the turf of artists like Jackson Pollock (the splatter-paint guy) who liberated painters from the brush-on-canvas with his barely-restrained vortexes of colour; his unsettling motion pushing composition to the brink but not quite...

As I’m creating, whether it’s a print or a painting, I am constantly trying to walk the razor’s edge between the safety of unity and the thrill of variety. The former is a little angel sitting on your shoulder whispering, “you shouldn’t! It’s not safe!” While on the other shoulder the little devil of variety prods you to let go, to risk… “how can it be bad when it feels good?” My best advice is to listen to both because as with most things in life, the answer is somewhere in the middle. Great art isn’t made by playing it safe, nor is it made by pushing off the edge into nothingness.

Art without unity is formless anarchy. Fun, but without greater context or meaning or depth or story—like a classroom of kids with poster paint and toothbrushes: it’s a blast but without the restraint of Pollock the kids’ compositions are likely to live on the fridge for a week or two before being recycled. 

Art without variety is just background: nothing to draw us in, give it life, make us sit up and take notice, to lean closer and ask ‘why?’ The variation can be very small or subtle: a slight change in hue from left to right, a slightly larger shape here and there, a break in the pattern that is the creaking door in the quiet house—it makes us sit up and take notice.

By using balance, contrast, emphasis, movement, pattern, and rhythm as tools in our quiver, we can create compositions that have both unity and variety. Not every piece needs to be great, or even good, but my goal is always to make it better than the last. Having some knowledge of these principles might just help get you there like they do for me. 

If you’ve enjoyed this more technical approach to the column over the last seven months, please do take a minute to let myself or the Fix editor know so we can plan another one like it. Happy creating. 

art@michaelhepher.com