When we hear the word rhythm, we probably think of music. Beats. Tempos. Melodies. Rhythms that move us. When it comes to rhythm in art the beat changes a bit, so to say, it comes in all different shapes, sizes, and colors. In this article we will discuss and explore the question around, “What is rhythm in art?” with accompanying rhythm art examples.
Table of Contents
- 1 What Is Rhythm in Art?
- 2 The Five Types of Rhythm in Art
- 3 Summary of Rhythm in Art
- 4 Principles of Art – Further Readings
- 5 Frequently Asked Questions
What Is Rhythm in Art?
First, we will provide a brief overview of what rhythm is and where it comes from in visual arts. Rhythm in art is part of several principles of art. These principles can also be called design principles, they are namely, balance, emphasis, movement, unity, harmony, variety, proportion, scale, and rhythm.
There are various definitions of the word “rhythm”, one being, according to the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, is that rhythm is “movement, fluctuation, or variation marked by the regular recurrence or natural flow of related elements”.
The above rhythm definition points to its inherent meaning, which is that rhythm is created by the repetition or pattern of various elements. In visual arts, this would be the art elements, which consist of color, value, line, shapes, forms, space, and texture.
Le Chahut (1889) by Georges Seurat; Georges Seurat, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
A rhythm art example would be applying similar colors next to one another in a sequence or an arrangement of shapes or lines that create a flow or movement to the artistic composition, and as a result, this flow or movement creates the rhythm.
To distill the essence of rhythm can also be challenging to achieve or apply in artwork as there are many ways to create it in art. This also allows artists of all modalities, be it drawing, graphic design, painting, or sculptures and installations, the ability and freedom of expression to play around with rhythm and apply it in many ways to create the desired effect for their artworks.
Artists can either choose to create a hyper-energized or dynamic artwork, something more calming and fluid, or something more orderly and geometrically structured. It will all be dependent on how the different art elements, mentioned above, are applied and combined.
Rehearsal of the Pasdeloup Orchestra at the Cirque d’Hiver (1879-1880) by John Singer Sargent; John Singer Sargent, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
The Five Types of Rhythm in Art
It is important to note that some art sources provide three primary types of rhythm and other art sources provide five. Below we will discuss the five types of rhythm in art, which are also the techniques utilized to apply this principle in a composition. We will also provide several rhythm art examples from different artists throughout art history.
Let us start with the regular rhythm in art, which is simply what its name suggests, regular. A regular rhythm is consistent with its motifs. Whether different art elements are utilized, for example, color, line, or shapes, these are arranged in even and consistent patterns. However, usually similar art elements or motifs are arranged to create regularity.
Some examples frequently used from the world of sound include imagining the rhythm of a heartbeat, a clock, or a tap dripping. These are all regular and consistent.
With this, regular rhythm in art is characterized by simplicity and ease, think of drawing repeating horizontal or vertical lines next to or on top of one another; evenly spaced, it will create an even visual rhythm.
On Lake Geneva: Landscape with Rhythmic Shapes (1908) by Ferdinand Hodler; Ferdinand Hodler, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Conversely, if there is too much of a regular rhythm in an art composition it can appear boring or too repetitive. However, this can be countered by adding more variety here and there within the same composition.
An example of this can be found in the oil painting Fall Plowing (1931) by the American artist Grant Wood. Here we see in the middle of the composition a regular rhythm created by the large grass bundles on the plowed field as well as the plow lines in the foreground of the composition.
However, surrounding these are different lines from the surrounding hills, which create a different rhythm adding variety. This can also be viewed as a random rhythm example, which we will discuss in more detail below.
Fall Plowing (1931) by Grant Wood; Grant Wood, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Several other regular rhythm art examples include The Four Trees (1891) by Claude Monet, which forms part of his Poplar Series (1981 to 1900). In this painting there are four trees along the banks of the Epte River, they appear evenly spaced and create consistent vertical lines in the composition.
Monet’s other painting from this series is similar, for example, Poplars at the River Epte (1900), which depicts seven trees running in a line. What creates a regularity here is the similarity of the trees, which are also positioned close together and all in vertical lines.
A Row of Poplar Trees Line the River Epte (1819) by Claude Monet; Claude Monet, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
The American artist Donald Judd produced installations or “stacks” like Untitled (1967) and Untitled (1968), among others, which consists of rectangular shapes all equally sized and positioned against a wall and spanning from the ceiling to the floor; there are also equal distances between the rectangular box shapes.
Judd’s stacks create a consistent flow, so to say, up and down the wall space, creating a regular rhythm without any other surrounding rhythms or elements that change its flow. The stacks are also the same color, which adds to the consistent rhythm.
An alternating rhythm in art consists of more than one, oftentimes two, different motifs arranged in a pattern. According to some art sources, an alternating rhythm in art is like a regular rhythm, but with more intricacies, sometimes shapes are placed in different directions. A common example of an alternating rhythm in art is that of a chessboard with its black and white squares.
The motifs may vary in color or shape, or any other art element, but the result will give the composition more character, meaning, and movement. It will also create more variety and reduce potential plainness that may result from a regular rhythm.
According to some art sources, there are disadvantages to an alternating rhythm in art as it may also require more attention to detail to convey it accurately, especially if it is created by hand, and if not applied properly it can potentially appear too busy or “cluttered”.
Some rhythm art examples include the Surrealist/Op artist M.C. Escher’s Lizard (1942), in which we see alternating lizard shapes in brown, black, and white, each molded alongside the other. While there are no evident gaps between the lizard shapes the alternating colors and specific arrangement gives the composition a unique rhythm that does not make it appear too cluttered.
The Orphism artist Robert Delaunay created numerous compositions in a diversity of colors and shapes that bordered on abstraction. With this Delaunay’s artworks are filled with dynamism and motion, one example is his oil on canvas Endless Rhythm (1934).
This painting is composed of circles and curved lines, otherwise also semi-circles, and running straight through the middle is an implied straight line.
There is an alternating rhythm created between various elements here, for example, in the large black and white circles there are alternating colors bordering the top and bottom circles; the top circle’s left half is yellow, and the right half is blue, while the bottom circles’ left half is blue, and its right half is yellow.
Furthermore, the big black and white circles appear underneath the smaller, alternating in color, gray and blue circles on top. These are further contrasted by the alternating colors of the thick line swirling through them creating semi-circles.
Endless Rhythm (1934) by Robert Delaunay; Robert Delaunay, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons
A flowing rhythm in art is when a pattern follows the “organic” patterns made by nature, which are typically circular or curved lines and shapes and often described as “undulating”, which means rising and falling, usually in the form of waves. Flowing rhythm in art provides the visual composition with more character and dynamism, especially if a wave is portrayed. Furthermore, the flowing rhythm provides a pathway for our gaze.
While the flowing rhythm in art is characterized more by art elements like curved lines and shapes, as mentioned above, other art elements can be applied to emphasize it like color, value, size, and so forth.
A famous flowing rhythm art example is the Japanese woodblock print by Katsushika Hokusai, titled The Great Wave off Kanagawa (1831). In this composition, we see a large wave to the left about to envelop the small boats on the ocean’s surface. The large wave is surrounded by other smaller waves and curves that give the entire composition a flowing rhythm and undoubtedly a dynamic movement, which also evokes emotional aspects.
The Great Wave off Kanagawa (1831) by Katsushika Hokusai; Katsushika Hokusai, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Another example includes The Scream (1893) by Edvard Munch, although here the flowing rhythm is created by the swirling brushstrokes evident in the sky and landscape surrounding the screaming figure standing on the bridge, who is also painted in flowing brushstrokes. The entire composition is undulating, and the rhythm creates a strong emotive quality.
The Scream (1893) by Edvard Munch; Edvard Munch, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
We see similar emotive qualities evoked from a swirling landscape in one of the most famous paintings from the Dutch Vincent van Gogh, titled The Starry Night (1889). In this composition, Van Gogh depicts a starry night sky in strong swirls of paint, the texture of the paint further emphasizes its dynamism.
The Starry Night (1889) by Vincent van Gogh; Vincent van Gogh, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Progressive rhythm in art occurs when any art element, for example, color, shapes, or forms, arranged in a sequence or pattern is changed. The word progression implies an advancement or forward movement of either a series or sequence of objects or figures. However, it can also mean that something advances or recedes in size in space.
Progression is demonstrated by how art elements are utilized in a composition.
These can change in size or shape, or they can remain the same but only be viewed from an angled perspective in space, which will give them a progressive appearance, otherwise, art elements can be in different colors giving it the appearance of progression.
Progressive rhythm art examples of the above-mentioned ideas can include different shapes like squares or rectangles placed in different consecutive sizes, for example, the famous Three Flags (1958) by the American artist Jasper Johns.
In this painting, there are three American flags placed on top of the other, however, each flag becomes larger in size as it receded into the background; the top flag is the smallest allowing us to see the other two behind it.
Another example includes the X-ray of Nautilus Shell (c. 1910) by Edward Charles Le Grice, which is a clear illustration of how progressive rhythm unfolds; the shell’s segments become larger from the inside out, and smaller vice versa.
Random rhythm in art refers to the random application of art elements; there is no order to how the sequences or patterns are placed in the composition. This can include almost any art element or art principle combined with one another or utilized singularly. Although it might not appear ordered, sometimes it can be planned to appear disordered. Furthermore, it can be geometric, abstract, or more figurative subject matter.
Random rhythm in art can create more diversity in composition, leading our gaze hither and thither, keeping us always engaged. However, random rhythm in art can also pose challenges if it is not depicted accurately.
Some random rhythm art examples include the famous Abstract Expressionist Jackson Pollock and his large canvases of splashed and dripped paint. For example, Autumn Rhythm: Number 30 (1950), in which we see various colors of paint splashed onto the canvas in what appears as lines, some are long, short, thick, thin, curved, twirled, and linear. There are also various dots of paint.
In Pollock’s Blue Poles (1952) we also see streaks of paint covering the canvas and around eight vertically linear streaks of paint spaced across the canvas. Pollock produced numerous of these types of paintings, also referred to as “all-over” or “action” paintings. Another common random rhythm in art example is Young Corn (1931) by the American artist Grant Wood.
In this painting, we see a landscape of expansive fields leading into the distance. There are different rhythms depicted in this composition, which makes it random.
The rhythm examples include the undulating hills and curved lines from the road, the line of the trees to the right, as well as the lines from the fields that mold along the smooth curves of the hills. These all appear flowing in their rhythm and there is also a regular rhythm depicted in the plowed field in the foreground, the middle ground, and far background.
Undergrowth with Two Figures (1890) by Vincent van Gogh depicts different rhythms, for example, the repeated rows of trees leading into the background suggests a progressive and regular rhythm, it also creates the effect of stillness with its consistency and structured arrangement.
When we look at the grass, there appears to be more movement, an energetic rhythm is created by how van Gogh utilizes texture here as well as short and choppy brushstrokes. Additionally, more color is utilized for the flowers and bushes, the bottom area is filled, all giving it a livelier feeling compared to the monotones of the trees as well as the larger areas of space between them.
Undergrowth with Two Figures (1890) by Vincent van Gogh; Vincent van Gogh, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Summary of Rhythm in Art
|Rhythm in Art Techniques||Characteristics||Rhythm art examples|
|Regular Rhythm||Consistent repetitions or patterns of art elements.||Fall Plowing (1931) by Grant Wood|
|Alternating Rhythm||Different motifs are arranged in alternating patterns or sequences.||Lizard (1942) by M.C. Escher|
|Flowing Rhythm||Follows more curved, circular, and fluid forms, often taken from “organic” forms in nature.||The Great Wave off Kanagawa (1831) by Katsushika Hokusai|
|Progressive Rhythm||A pattern or sequence of art elements changing in shape or size, sometimes it diminishes in size or enlarges in size.||Three Flags (1958) by Jasper Johns|
|Random Rhythm||Uses one or more different types of rhythms in art compositions.||Autumn Rhythm: Number 30 (1950) by Jackson Pollock|
In the article above we discussed what rhythm in art is, as one of the principles of art, rhythm provides a visual composition with a sense of dynamism. It can give an artwork character and lead our gaze towards the focal point, several focal points, or no focal points, but merely the entire composition.
Rhythm in art is depicted by a series or sequence of patterns that are oftentimes repeated, these consist of art elements like color, line, shape, form, texture, and space. There are also different types of rhythms in art that we explored, namely regular, alternating, flowing, progressive, and random.
Principles of Art – Further Readings
- Principles of Art main article
- Movement in Art
- Emphasis in Art
- Unity in Art
- Texture in Art
- Proportion in Art
- Balance in Art
- Harmony in Art
Rhythm in art adds diversity and variety to a visual art composition, without a sense of rhythm the artwork would be almost lifeless and lack a beat. As it is in music too, rhythm provides a foundation of movement or motion that can be applied in many ways, just like a song can be played in many different tunes, and it can appear fast or slow-moving.
Read also our rhythm art web story.
Frequently Asked Questions
What Is Rhythm in Art?
Rhythm in art is one of the principles of art that gives an art composition motion, movement, or dynamism. It leads our gaze to the main focal point or several focal points in an artwork. Rhythm can also be depicted with several techniques. Depending on how it is depicted it can make an artwork livelier, calm, or energized.
What Are the Types of Rhythm in Art?
There are five types of rhythm in art, namely, regular rhythm, alternating rhythm, flowing rhythm, progressive rhythm, and random rhythm, which can be a combination of any of the above types of rhythms.
What Are the Principles of Art?
The principles of art, namely, balance, harmony, variety, rhythm, movement, emphasis, proportion, scale, and unity are described as “principles of organization”. These are like guiding rules that determine how artists or designers can utilize art elements, which are color, value, line, texture, shape, form, and space, in a composition. Following the principles of art in artworks will ensure it is a unified whole where all the necessary elements work together.