Art Term Tuesday: Variety

Alyssa Dumire, Director of Education

With the shift in seasons, I often find myself shopping for plants to add to my garden. While I admire others’ peaceful yards filled with two or three types of flowers, I have to restrain myself from collecting one of each! I could never build a “capsule” wardrobe or pick just one favorite color, which is why I may like today’s final principle of art too much. Variety is difference or contrast. Without it, just like life, a work of art can be boring or monotonous. Like a visual buffet, it gives our eyes plenty of options to feast upon as they roam across an artwork. Artists rely on variety to “spice up” their work (get it?), even when they fill their work with a single subject, like Vija Celmins did (see below). She often capitalizes on a relative lack of variety to unify the work and achieve a meditative effect, but can you spot the use of variety?

A woodcut of choppy ocean waves.
Vija Celmins, American b. Latvia, b. 1938. Ocean Surface. Woodcut on paper, 1992. Gift of the Rick Hauck Memorial Fund and June E. Enoch and Joyce Leckrone. Image courtesy of FWMoA.

She adjusts the size of each choppy wave from one to the next and incorporates a contrasting range of values across the page to add interest to hold our attention. Just last month we discussed unity and harmony, and while those ideas may seem at odds with variety, artists usually strive for a balance between these conflicting concepts. Too many options are overwhelming; likewise with variety. It is exceedingly rare to find an artwork that lacks any kind of variety, but let’s see some different ways it is applied!

A man stands front and center in a white shirt and sunglasses, towel around his neck, and hands upraised. Behind him are two lines of large teddy bears in yellow, pink, orange, and greenish-blue.
Jane Dickson, American, b. 1952. Teddy Bears. Oil stick on color paper, 1986. Gift of Dr. Linda McMurray and Dr. Stephen McMurray, 1990.18. Image courtesy of FWMoA.

Which color teddy bear would you pick? Jane Dickson used a variety of hues for these cuddly creatures, which contrast the black background and allow the figure in the foreground to stand out. She maintains unity by giving almost every bear the same form (except for the odd guy out in the upper right) and sticking with a color palette (some colors repeat multiple times). What would change if all the bears were yellow or pink? I don’t think we’d get quite the same day-glo, carnival atmosphere, but it would undoubtedly be bold!

An abstracted blue sculpture.
Latchezar Boyadjiev, American b. Bulgaria b. 1959. Embrace. Cast glass, 2019. Purchase with funds provided by donors to the Embrace Fund: Linda and Bill Becker, John and Mary Brandt, Fort Wayne Art League, Elizabeth and Robert Keen, Dr. Jerry L. Mackel, Miller Family. Image courtesy of FWMoA.

What about when the work is one single shape and hue, like Embrace? While these elements unify the work, the wavy line down the center contrasts with the smoother curves along the sides and the sharper angles near the top. Boyadjiev also adds variety through textures; even in the wide view above, the slick and shiny area along the right side is more transparent than the frosty surface of the rest of the sculpture.

Two lines of roofs cut into halves by a walkway.
Junichiro Sekino, Japanese, 1914-1988. Blue Roofs. Woodcut on paper, 1970. Gift of Mr. & Mrs. William McNagny through the Fort Wayne Fine Arts Foundation Renaissance Campaign, 1986.22. Image courtesy of FWMoA.

Another blue artwork that is both strongly unified and harmonious, is there variety in Blue Roofs? Although the color scheme is monochromatic, the pale blue contrasts strongly against the darker shades, and the square shapes (chimneys?) are juxtaposed against more linear roofs.

A landscape with a river cutting through it, mountains in the background, and craggy rocks, shrubs, and trees, in the foreground.
Robert Duncanson, American, 1821-1872. Adirondack Mountains. Oil on canvas, 1868. Gift of the Fort Wayne Museum of Art Alliance, 1997.08. Image courtesy of FWMoA.

Nature is inherently both harmonious and diverse, even in a landscape as miniscule as Robert Duncanson’s (you have to visit Natural Appeal: Varying Approaches to the Landscape to see first-hand). The frilly, soft leaves in a variety of hues contrast with the rushing water and craggy mountains. All these elements in their impressive detail jointly make the scene believable (although somewhat idealized) and add interest to the composition, giving our eyes something new to engage with as they move from each area of the image.

The next time you view an artwork, imagine how it would change with the variety eliminated. This is often the best way to identify why the variety or contrast is important to the image. A bigger challenge may be to find a work without it (I’m still searching)!

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