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Rhythm and Repetition in Art Explained! The Principles of Design

A Guide for Teachers

Why are rhythm and repetition so important? And why are they always paired together? Well, rhythm and repetition play a large role in creating visual interest in an artwork, and work together to create an interesting flow that brings your eyes across the artwork. Keep reading to find out the difference between the two principles of design and how you can use them - with examples from famous artists!

Not a reader? No worries - feel free to watch our Rhythm and Repetition in Art video that breaks down these principles and all the ways they can be used!

What is Repetition in Art?

Repetition is used to make patterns in an artwork. This makes the artwork more active and creates unity within it. With repetition, parts of the artwork match with one another. Think of a checkerboard - the repeated black and white squares create a sense of unity because there are repeated colours.

What is Rhythm in Art?

Rhythm is created when one or more elements of design are used to suggest movement. It uses repeated elements to create a path for the viewers’ eyes to follow. Think of it like the beat of a song, it uses repetition to create a stable rhythm. Rhythm in art uses repetition to create a mood and flow. Repetition is pretty straightforward -- meaning that all it needs are repeated elements, whereas there are many different types of rhythm that can add to an artwork.

How do Rhythm and Repetition Compliment Each Other?

Rhythm and repetition are usually taught together when discussing the principles of design (principles of design are applied to artwork to create visually interesting pieces). Why is that? Well, that’s because they’re usually used together when creating art. Most of the time, rhythm is based on the repeated elements. Imagine it like a song, where the same notes are repeated over and over, like in a chorus. Rhythm will take those notes and add a flow and mood to them, and the same is said for art. Without rhythm, repetition in art can feel boring and lack emotion.

Different Types of Rhythm:

Random Rhythm

Broadway Boogie Woogie by Piet Mondrian

Random rhythm has no noticeable pattern. Imagine falling snow, crowds of people, or an array of rocks on a beach. These have repeated elements but there’s no pattern to them. Take a look at Broadway Boogie Woogie by Piet Mondrian above. This painting was inspired by taxis on the grid-like streets in New York City, and is an example of random rhythm. Notice how there are repeated colours (red, yellow, and blue), but there is no real pattern that the arrangement follows. Yet, this piece still feels united and draws our eyes along it because of the rhythm it has.

Regular Rhythm

Untitled (stack) by Donald Judd

Unlike random rhythm, regular rhythm holds a perfect pattern. The pattern is easy to spot because it repeats the same elements over and over. Although it’s easy to spot and create, it usually is the most boring form of rhythm because it lacks variety. In Donald Judd’s sculpture above, we see how he uses regular repetition to space the boxes apart. Judd wanted to create an artwork that was as inorganic as possible, so regular rhythm was a helpful tool to achieve that.

Alternating Rhythm

Lizard by MC Escher

Alternating rhythm is when you repeat more than one element in a pattern, unlike the 1,2,1,2 pattern of the checkerboard that we saw above. Instead, alternating rhythm has the chance to be more complex. Like the painting above, titled Lizard by MC Escher, there is a pattern that can be read as 1,2,3,2,1,2,3. Although there is a clear pattern, this artwork doesn’t feel boring because it is arranged in a complex way and uses three repeated elements in different orientations to form a tessellation

Flowing Rhythm

Helixikos Number 3 by Hans Hokanson

Flowing Rhythm is caused by bends and curves in an artwork. It’s usually found in nature, like waves, flowers, and hills. This gives an artwork a natural and calming flow. Take a look at the sculpture above by Hans Hokanson. The winding shape of the sculpture drags your eyes through the swirls and follows the movement of the sculpture. The ridges along the sculpture almost give it a staircase effect, helping our eyes to follow the shape.

Progressive Rhythm

Spirals by M.C. Escher

Progressive rhythm repeats a pattern, but changes an element bit by bit as the pattern continues. Some shapes may grow bigger or some colours may appear lighter to show perspective. It can be used to show emotion, a shift in mood, or even to show a progression of space or perspective. We can see this in MC Escher’s Spirals, as the shape and repeated design slowly becomes larger as the spiral continues.

Examples of Repetition by Famous Artists

Campbell's Soup by Andy Warhol

Andy Warhol was one of the most famous pop art artists, and based much of his work off of repetition. Take a look at these repeated Campbell’s soup cans and see how he used repetition in his art.

Golcanda by René Maghritte

René Magritte was a surrealist artist who created unusual scenes in his paintings. In this example of his work, he used repetition to create an image that is strange because of the repeated forms.

Examples of Rhythm by Famous Artists

Pop Shop Quad II by Keith Haring

In this work, Keith Haring uses repeated figures, but changes their movements, to create a sense of rhythm in the art piece.

The Great Wave by Hokusai

In this work, Hokusai uses flowing rhythm (and natural shapes) to depict a wave’s movement as it crests and builds up momentum.

How These two Principles Relate to the Elements of Art

Rhythm and repetition rely on the elements of art to create paintings, drawings, or any other art form. The elements of art include line, shape, colour, form, space, texture, and value – the building blocks of a composition. Since rhythm uses repetition to create a musical flow to artwork, there needs to be some sort of repeated element in the piece of art for rhythm to take place.

A repeated colour, or shape, or even the distance between two shapes (space) can all be used to create rhythm. Depending on the type of rhythm being used, the artist will have to decide how many elements they want to repeat (they might not use all seven elements).

How to Create Rhythm in Your Art

Color Study with Concentric Circles by Piet Mondrian

One way to create rhythm in your own art is to consider one or more repeated elements that you want to include. Like the painting above, you can choose a shape - like a circle - and colours that you change throughout each circle.

Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh

Another way you can create rhythm is to depict an image with curves and bends throughout, like the Starry Night image above. This can usually be achieved by drawing something in nature, like clouds or waves.

Teacher Resources:

If you’re a teacher that’s looking for classroom content centered around the elements and principles of design, visit these quick and easy resources!

10 Principles of Design - Visual Art Handout

Elements of Art Teaching Tools

If you’d like more worksheets related to art, check out our teachers pay teachers page where you can get worksheets and lesson plans for your classroom! More classroom resources like this can be found on our art resources for teachers page, where we break down the elements of art and more!

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