Art Term Tuesday: Rhythm & Repetition

Alyssa Dumire, Director of Education

In our continued exploration of the principles of art, today we offer another two-for-one special of terms that often work together: repetition and rhythm. We learn by repetition and our brains love to recognize patterns, so while the idea of repetition may sound boring, the predictability it can add to an image lends a pleasing sense of unity (more on that later). When the elements in a work are repeated, often with variations in size or position, it results in rhythm. In music, rhythm refers to the beat, the placement of sounds in time. In an artwork, rhythm is the visual beat; when you look at a work with a strong sense of rhythm, you might imagine the sound it would generate or the type of music the artist was listening to as they made it. Rhythm often goes hand in hand with movement and pattern, and the way we describe its different forms is similar: it can be regular, alternating, progressive, flowing, or random.

A quilt, four squares by four squares, against a blue embroidered background. Each square is white with a pinwheel design. Each wheel of the pin is a different color.
Unknown American Quilter, Amish American. Dresden Plate Quilt. Cotton, ca. 1935. Indiana Amish Quilts from the David Pottinger Collection at the Fort Wayne Museum of Art. Purchased with funds provided by the Beta Chapter, Fort Wayne Art League, 1992.22.5. Image courtesy of FWMoA.

Regular rhythm involves the repetition of identical, or nearly identical, elements. In the Dresden Plate Quilt, above, the plate motif or block carries across the entire blanket. While there are variations in color placement, there is enough consistency that we’d still call this regular rhythm. 

A black quilt with an elaborate checkerboard pattern in blue, pink, orange, purple, and yellow.
Mrs. Jerome H. Hochstetler, Amish American, 1917-1964. Four Patch – Diamond in a Square Quilt. Cotton Sateen, ca. 1935. Indiana Amish Quilts from the David Pottinger Collection at the Fort Wayne Museum of Art. Purchased with funds provided by the FWMoA Alliance, 1992.22.47. Image courtesy of FWMoA.

When a work includes two or more elements that repeat in a predictable manner (also known as a pattern), alternating rhythm occurs. Quilts, unless they are a “crazy” or improvisational quilt, tend to be composed of a series of repeating blocks, resulting in one of these first two types of rhythm. If we consider their original use, this makes sense; patterns add interest to a decorative scheme. An area of alternating or regular rhythm within an artwork can act like a solid color but with added visual texture.

A black-and-white toned photograph of a wooden staircase. The photographer stands at the bottom looking up as the staircase curls upstairs.
John Bower, American, b. 1949. Courthouse Stair, Franklin, Johnson County, IN. Silver gelatin print, 2004. Gift of the Artist, 2018.162.2. Image courtesy of FWMoA.

In progressive rhythm, the repeated element is slowly transformed as it repeats. Think of a target: in this classic example, the decreasing size of each repeated circle leads us to the focal point of the bull’s eye. Photographs and representational paintings and drawings often incorporate progressive rhythm through the use of perspective. In John Bower’s photograph above, the wood balusters supporting the railing would be identical to each other in real life, but appear to decrease in size as they recede up into the ceiling.

A chaotic painting of a man in shadow squaring off against a man in black. Both have blue shadows. Around them swirl multiple creatures in the primary colors.
Julio de Diego, American, b. Spain, 1900-1979. Symphony Fantastique (Fantastic Symphony). Oil on board, 1945. Gift of the Farnsworth Corporation, 1956.02. Image courtesy of FWMoA.

Flowing rhythm is recognizable in works with a sense of movement. The curving staircase in John Bower’s photograph sweeps through the image in one example. In Julio de Diego’s Symphony Fantastique wavy lines repeat throughout the work and flow from one element to the next. The sense of rhythm, in conjunction with the title of the painting, references music.

A wall of needleworked squares embellished with fake jewels.
Liz Whitney Quisgard, American, b. 1929. Lots of Circles. Needlework and yarn on buckram, 2017. Gift of an anonymous donor, 2019.112.1-32. Image courtesy of FWMoA.

Sometimes, elements repeat in a totally random way, yet still create a sense of rhythm. Can you find any patterns in the arrangement of Lots of Circles, above? I certainly can’t, yet the fact that each element is the same shape unites the work. The concentric circles also display progressive rhythm, suggesting water ripples or blooming flowers. Multiple types of rhythm often work together in this way. See if you can identify them in a painting by Quisgard, below.

A painting of an archway. As each arch gets smaller to the center, they change in shades of pink. Within each arch is a circular design in greens and blues radiating outward.
Liz Whitney Quisgard, American, b. 1929. Ribbon Arch. Acrylic on canvas, 1996. Gift of an Anonymous Donor, 2019.121. Image courtesy of FWMoA.

Within each area of the painting, repeated circles and dots show regular rhythm, while the descending arches are a great example of progressive rhythm, alternating with black.

Now, try to spot the use of rhythm in the three works below. Here’s a hint: they all share one type in common (but it may be combined with other varieties). What does rhythm add to your experience of each artwork?

Aluminum folded into a ribbon-like sculpture and painted white, orange, blue, and light blue.
Dorothy Gillespie, American, 1920-2012. Quaver VIII. Enamel on steel. Gift of Joel and Joyce Buckman, 1979.05.a & .b. Image courtesy of FWMoA.
An abstract print of waves in yellows, purples, and blues.
Jeffrey Gibson, Native American, Choctaw, Mississippi Band and Cherokee, b. 1972. The Stranger. Monotype over lithograph with spray paint additions on paper, 2008. Purchase with funds provided by the McMurray Family Endowment, 2014.325.b. Image courtesy of FWMoA.
A black-and-white linocut of people picking cotton in a field. In the back, a house sits against the horizon line of sky and rolling mountains.
Margaret Burroughs, American, 1917-2010. Cotton Pickers in Texas. Linocut on paper, 1954. Purchase with funds provided by the June E. Enoch Collection Fund, 2019.41. Image courtesy of FWMoA.

Leave a Reply

error: Right click disabled for copyright protection.
%d bloggers like this: