Variety in Art

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What Is Variety in Art?

Variety in art refers to the use of different qualities or instances of the visual elements. It is the opposite of repetitive or monotonous use of the elements.

Below is a great demonstration of variety by Tom Thomson. Notice all the different colors, lines, shapes, and brushwork. The end result is pleasing and interesting to look at (the goal of most paintings).

Tom Thomson, Opulent October, Winter, 1915
Tom Thomson, Opulent October, Winter, 1915

For the purpose of composition, below is a painting by Claude Monet which demonstrates a limited variety of elements. But that is appropriate for this foggy depiction.

Claude Monet, The Palace of Westminster, The Fog Effect, 1903
Claude Monet, The Palace of Westminster, The Fog Effect, 1903

(You might also be interested in my Painting Academy course. I go into more detail on how to design interesting compositions for painting.)

Below I discuss some of the different ways you can incorporate variance into your paintings below.

Color Variance

There are three primary ways you can vary your use of color:

  • Value (how light or dark a color is);
  • Saturation (how rich, vivid or intense a color is); or
  • Hue (where a color is located on the color wheel).

Below is an example of color variance in terms of value. There is hardly any change in saturation or hue.

Camille Corot, The Gust of Wind, 1860
Camille Corot, The Gust of Wind, 1860

The stunning Impressionist painting below features color variety mostly in terms of value and saturation. Light and saturated colors are used to draw your attention towards the focal point in the painting, being the faces of the four ladies. There is limited hue variance, with mostly different red and yellow tones being used.

Abram Arkhipov, Visiting, 1915
Abram Arkhipov, Visiting, 1915

Monet's work is a fantastic example of hue variance. If you look closely at the painting below, notice all the distinct colors—blues, purples, greens, reds, oranges, yellows.

Claude Monet, Haystacks, 1891
Claude Monet, Haystacks, 1891

Below is another example of color variance in terms of value and hue by Monet. There is a strong value contrast between the shadowed trees in the foreground and the high-key background. If you narrow down on the background, notice how it is all painted within a very tight value range, but there is a wide variety of different hues (yellows, purples, greens, blues, oranges).

Princples Of Art - Contrast, Claude Monet, Juan-Les-Pins, 1888
Claude Monet, Juan-Les-Pins, 1888

(If you want to learn more about color, make sure to grab my free Color Theory Cheat Sheet). 

Line Variance

Line is perhaps the most fundamental of all the visual elements. It basically refers to a mark that spans between two points. Your lines can be:

  • Thick or thin
  • Broken or continuous
  • Long or short
  • Straight or curved

In the remarkably realistic painting below by Ivan Shishkin, the trees form verticle lines throughout the painting which vary in terms of thickness, length, and color. Overly repetitive use of line in the painting would appear unnatural and rigid.

There is also a pleasing contrast between all the verticle lines and the horizontal or diagonal lines formed by the edges of the path, river, grassy land, and the tree canopy and floor.

Ivan Shishkin, In the Birch Tree Forest, 1883
Ivan Shishkin, In the Birch Tree Forest, 1883

Nicolai Fechin was a master of line work. In his drawing below, notice the delicate and clean lines used to outline the subject's face and features; the rough lines used for her hair; the short, tapered lines used for her eyelashes; and the soft lines used for her lips and nose.

Nicolai Fechin, Drawing
Nicolai Fechin, Drawing

Brushwork Variance

Many beginner painters tend to develop a bad habit of overly repetitive brushwork. They use the same strokes over and over again without thinking.

There are so many different marks you can make with your brush which vary based on:

  • The way you hold your brush;
  • The pressure you use;
  • The amount of paint you use;
  • The fluidity of the paint (how much medium you use);
  • The surface you are painting on;
  • How dry your brush is; and
  • The angle of the brush.

Joaquín Sorolla's work is a masterclass in brushwork. Look at the variety of his strokes in Bacchante below. Short, aggressive strokes are used for the background areas. More refined and blended strokes are used for the female around the center. Solid strokes are used for the deep red wall in the corner. So much brushwork variance, but it all seems cohesive and purposeful. I get a feeling of organized chaos.

Joaquin Sorolla, Bacchante, 1886
Joaquin Sorolla, Bacchante, 1886

Fechin is another artist who comes to mind when thinking of brushwork variety. He used all kinds of strokes and tools to create his dynamic paintings.

In Lady in Lilac below, notice how most of the painting appears like nothing but an abstract arrangement of colors. But as a whole, it all seems to work. The intricate brushwork used for key features gives context to the rest of the painting.

Nicolai Fechin, Lady in Lilac, 1908
Nicolai Fechin, Lady in Lilac, 1908

Technique Variance

Technique basically refers to the means and methods by which you apply paint to canvas. Some of the main techniques are scumbling, glazing, linework, and palette knife work. But the only limit in this area is your imagination.

Joseph Turner's work features a masterful range of techniques, from ambient scumbling to intricate linework. Below are three of his paintings. I suggest you take a look through his work to get some ideas of how you can incorporate varies techniques into your work whilst retaining a sense of cohesiveness. You should also check out my post on his painting below, The Fighting Temeraire.

J.M.W. Turner, The Fighting Temeraire, 1838
J.M.W. Turner, The Fighting Temeraire, 1838
J.M.W. Turner, Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway, 1844
J.M.W. Turner, Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway, 1844
J.M.W. Turner, Goldau, 1841
J.M.W. Turner, Goldau, 1841

Shape Variance

Nothing stands out more than a lack of shape variance. It tends to look bland and unnatural if you use the same circles or squares throughout your painting (unless you are painting rigid architecture).

Your shapes can be:

  • Big or small
  • Geometric or organic
  • Solid or weak
  • Light or dark
  • Colorful or dull

Shape is a strong feature in Claude Monet's Arch to the West from Etretat below. The cliff forms several strong shapes in the positive and negative space (the positive space being the cliff and the negative space being the sky in the background).

Claude Monet, Arch to the West from Etretat, 1883
Claude Monet, Arch to the West from Etretat, 1883

I have outlined these dominant shapes below. When I think about shape, I first think in terms of these dominant, big-picture shapes.

Claude Monet, Arch to the West from Etretat, 1883 (1)

I can break the dominant shapes down into smaller, more intricate shapes, as shown below. Notice all the variety in these shapes; no two shapes are the same.

Claude Monet, Arch to the West from Etretat, 1883 (2)

If you want to see more examples of shape variance, you should check out the work of Edgar Payne. He was a master of using shape to depict the natural environment.

Edgar Alwin Payne, Sycamore in Autumn, Orange County Park, c.1917
Edgar Alwin Payne, Sycamore in Autumn, Orange County Park, c.1917

Edge Variance

An edge represents the transition between two shapes. It can be either hard, soft, or lost.

Edge variance is essential if you want to paint with a quality of realism. If you only use hard edges in your painting, then it will look very harsh and rigid. If you only use soft edges in your painting, then it will look blurry and out of focus.

Venice in the Fog by Sargent is a beautiful demonstration of edge variance, with soft edges used to depict the moody background, and hard edges used for the busy foreground.

John Singer Sargent, Venice in the Fog, 1882
John Singer Sargent, Venice in the Fog, 1882

Below is another example by Sargent. Notice how hard edges draw your attention towards the beggar's out strung hand, which is a key feature of the painting.

John Singer Sargent, A Parisian Beggar Girl, 1877
John Singer Sargent, A Parisian Beggar Girl, 1877

Additional Readings

If you want to learn more about this topic, you should check out my posts on the principles of art and the other visual elements.

Thanks for Reading!

Thanks for taking the time to read this post. I appreciate it! Feel free to share with friends. If you want more painting tips, check out my Painting Academy course.

Happy painting!

Signature Draw Paint Academy

Dan Scott

Draw Paint Academy

5 thoughts on “Variety in Art”

  1. For a book I’m writing, I’m seeking an example painting that exhibits the widest variety of types of marks. The best examples I have come up with so far are by Cy Twombly. What paintings might you point to?

    Reply
  2. I’ve learned so much in this one post! It really helped to explain the terminology I’ve been learning in my art class. The way he breaks down the work and explains it in photos is so helpful! You should make a textbook. I’ve added you to my favorites. Thank you!!!

    Reply

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