Rhythm in art refers to the arrangement of shapes in a way which creates an underlying beat. It is similar to the rhythm of music, but instead of notes and sounds, we use colors and shapes.
The best way to learn about rhythm in art is to see it in action. Below, I take a closer look at master paintings which feature a strong use of rhythm.
Examples of Rhythm in Art
Below is a fantastic demonstration of rhythm using nature by Claude Monet. The trees are spaced at almost even distances apart, but there is some variance to make it seem natural. This provides a strong beat to the painting.
The leaves on the treetops merge together to create a snaking S-shape. This joins the tree trunks together and reinforces the beat.
In the background, there is a much more organic arrangement of clouds in the sky. This breaks up the sense of rhythm in the painting.
Below is a similar but more realistic example of rhythm by Ivan Shishkin. The tall trees provide a beat to the painting. The beat is stronger with the nearest trees and gets weaker as the trees recede into the masses.
Also, notice how the bottom of the painting is organic and does not appear to have any sense of rhythm. This area contrasts against the strong rhythm of the area above.
In Vincent van Gogh's Undergrowth with Two Figures, the trees provide a very repetitive beat, which contrasts against the energetic brushwork used for the grass and flowers.
In the painting below by George Inness, rhythm is created by the vague fence posts which recede into the distance. These fence posts then join with the line of trees and houses. This contains your attention around these areas. Also, the tall tree on the right stands out as it does not conform to the standard rhythm of the overall painting. It is like a loud musical note used to grab your attention.
There are two major elements of rhythm in the painting below: the S-shapes created by the ocean breaking along the shore, and the line of boats and people on the shore and in the water.
The foundation of the painting is built on soft, pastel colors. This allows the delicate rhythm of the painting to stand out.
In John Singer Sargent's painting below, a strong, organic rhythm is created by the contours in the water. The rhythm is stronger and more defined closer to shore.
This rhythm is broken by the fisherwoman. That is what painting is all about: creating a rhythm using patterns and shapes, and breaking that rhythm with powerful statements.
The ducks are also arranged in a way which provides a less-regular beat over the top.
In Sargent's painting below, you can almost feel the rhythm of the orchestra. If you look closely, the drummer and bass players are dominant in the foreground, whilst the brass instruments appear delicate. This mimics their roles in music.
Tips for Using Rhythm in Art
- When it comes to rhythm in art, sometimes less is more. Don't try to force it if it is not there. But of course, if rhythm is a strong feature of your painting, then you may want to exaggerate it.
- You can make a powerful statement by building up a sense of rhythm in your painting, then abruptly breaking it (like Sargent did to some extent in his Fisherwoman).
- The rhythm of your painting could have many levels, not just one standard beat. Just like there are many different levels of the rhythm to a complex song. It is not just one, regular beat; there are all kinds of tones and sounds woven together. For example, in your painting you could combine a strong beat using dominant and regular shapes, with a subtle beat using intricate details and patterns.
- If you want to make a subtle rhythm stand out in your painting, then you need to tone down the surroundings. Just like in Sorolla's The Beach in Valencia.
Exercise for Your Next Painting
When you are creating your next painting, think about if the subject has a rhythm which you could capture. If not, consider manipulating the subject or framing it in a way to create a rhythm. For example, you could slightly change the position of certain objects to make them appear more regular, or push some things back and bring other things forward, or change the perspective. Just be careful not to depart too far from the subject you are painting, unless that is part of your strategy.
Also, before I wrap this up, I should note that rhythm does not need to be apparent in your paintings. It is just one of the many tools at your disposal.