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Design in Art: Repetition, Pattern and Rhythm

Author: Lucy Lamp

What is Repetition, Pattern, and Rhythm?

What is repetition, pattern, and rhythm?  How do they relate to each other?

Repetition refers to one object or shape repeated; pattern is a combination of elements or shapes repeated in a recurring and regular arrangement; rhythm--is a combination of elements repeated, but with variations.


Repetition, pattern, and rhythm in a Buddhist mandala

Taizokai (Womb World) mandala, second half of ninth century.

Hanging scroll, color on silk.The center square represents the young stage of Vairocana Buddha.


This scroll includes all three of these elements: repetition, rhythm, and pattern. Repetition is seen throughout the mandala in the repetition of figures. This is most evident in the center and the area immediately surrounding the center of the mandala. Pattern can be found in the areas where there are repeated figures that are different in size but follow a regular, ordered arrangement in their recurrence. Rhythm can be seen in the two outermost layers, especially the second one from the edge, with a black background.  Differing sizes of similar figures are repeated, with variations in their order and grouping.


Repetition is an object, form, or figure that is repeated.


To get an idea of the effect of repetition in an artwork, look at the illustration below. There appears to be two boxes.  In the first box, there is one colored circle. The second box is overflowing with multicolored circles, so many that they cannot all be contained within the box. What words do you think of when you look at the two different boxes? You might think of spare, lone, almost empty, lonely...or you might think of abundant, innumerable, unmanageable, out of control.




Donald Judd: repetition as a minimalist

Donald Judd, untitled (1969/1982),

anodized aluminum  each of 10 boxes 6 x 27 x 24 inches

Walker Art Center Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Edmond R. Ruben, 1981

From the Walker Art Center website: "One of the foremost practitioners of Minimal Art, Donald Judd is best known for his sleek, boxlike constructions made of industrial materials such as aluminum, plywood, sheet metal, and plexiglass. Through these works, he sought to create a depersonalized art in which the exploration of space, scale, and materials served as an end, rather than as a metaphor for human experience. Emphatically concerned with pure forms, Judd’s works become statements about proportion and rhythm as well as three-dimensional space. His stacked boxes seem to come directly out of the wall rather than projecting from a backing surface. This creates the impression that the artwork shares the observer’s space instead of being set apart like a sculpture on a pedestal".

image from the curriculum guide for the exhibition So, Why Is This Art?, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, 2002.

If Judd's concern is with pure forms, how does the repetition of a single form --shape, dimensions, spacing and color--affect your respsonse? Does it strengthen Judd's intent? Are you able to experience this work as pure form only, or do you look for metaphoric references that relate to hman experience?




Easter Island: Ahu Tongariki, repetition as intimidation

Ahu Tongariki on Easter Island. c 1250--1500 CE

Moai restored in the 1990's by a Japanese research team after a cyclone knocked them over in the 1960's.

Photo taken by Ian Sewell, July, 2006.

source Photo gallery from Easter Island

Moai are monolithic human figures situated on platforms called ahu on Polynesian Easter Island. They were carved from rock and have overly large heads. They represent the faces of deified ancestors.(aringa ora ata tepuna).

Imagine encountering  this row of 15 moai, overwhelming in size and able to be seen from a far distance. The height of the moai is more than twice the height of the average human. The largest one is 33 feet high.  Imagine seeing one lone moai on the coast, compared to a row of 15 of them.


A close up of the moai at Ahu Tahai, restored with coral eyes by the American archaeologist William Mullo.

Photo by Bjarte Sorensen





Christo and Jeanne-Claude: the Umbrella Project


Christo und Jeanne-Claude Umbrella Project(Japan)  1991

1,340 blue umbrellas in Ibaraki Japan, and 1,760 yellow umbrellas at the Tejon Ranch in southern California

Photo taken by Dddeco 27 December 1991, image under the GFDL

Another massive project by Christo and Jeanne-Claude was the installation of large scale blue and yellow umbrella sculptures, 1.340 blue ones in Japan, and 1,760 yellow ones in the U.S. Besides covering a large area geographically in each site, the sites also linked one country to another. Imagine a field with one large umbrella sculpture. Now imagine more than a thousand of them, in the same field. What is the effect of repetition in this project?





Do-Ho Suh: Public Figures--a monument to many

"Let’s say there’s one statue at the plaza of a hero who helped or protected our country—there are hundreds of thousands of individuals who helped him, and there’s no recognition for them."
— Do-Ho Suh


The maquette (model) for the sculpture

Do-Ho Suh  Maquette for Public Figures

From the Public Art Fund website: "For the lobby of City Hall, Do-Ho Suh turns the traditional monument upside down with his small-scale maquette for Public Figures. Instead of a single figure perched on a pedestal, Suh creates a pedestal supported by myriad miniature anonymous male and female figures, refocusing the viewer's attention from the individual to the collective masses. Challenging the established notion of the common citizen revering a monument to an important figure, Suh emphasizes the power of the individual within public space."   Public Art Fund is a non-profit arts organization supported by generous gifts from individuals, foundations, and corporations, and with public funds from The New York State Council on the Arts, a State Agency, and the City of New York Department of Cultural Affairs.


The completed work

Do-Ho Suh   Public Figures    2001

stone and bronze 111.81 x 82.44 x 108.27 inches 284 x 209.4 x 275 cm Edition of 3   

Lehmann Maupin Gallery New York

image source


Do-Ho Suh uses repetition in much of his work, as a profound statement about the value of each individual within a larger group. In this sculpture, each figure is different from the others although they appear as a single entity. As a group they carry the immense weight of history and the actions of every person, great or small.  For more of his work:


Pattern is a combination of elements or shapes repeated in a recurring and regular arrangement.



Symbolic uses of pattern

Pattern is often used symbolically to represent many things: people, beliefs, the natural world, history, tradition.  Colors and shapes have specific meanings, and are passed down from generation to generation. The predictability of pattern is important in establishing a historical tradition and cultural practice.


Ghanaian kente cloth

Detail of hand-woven Asante (Ashante) ceremonial cloth featuring red and yellow (primary colors), green (secondary color, complementary to red), and black (neutral color and the darkest tone available).


From Color interactions: simultaneous contrast, Kente cloth on "One of the most sumptuously colored textiles used for clothing is Ghanaian kente cloth, made by Asante and Ewe weavers using specially designed looms. Kente was probably introduced from the western Sudan during the 16th century, when heavy, elaborate, labor-intensive versions of this fabric were designed for wealthy tribal chiefs and simpler designs became available for the general citizenry. Kente is woven in four-inch (9.5 cm) narrow strips that are sewn together. A characteristic Asante kente has geometric shapes woven in bright colors along the entire length of the strip, while Ewe kente often displays a tweed effect by plying together different colored threads in many of the warps. Ewe kente may also incorporate pictorial symbols...Colors convey mood, dark shades being associated with grief and used for mourning ceremonies, while lighter shades are associated with happiness. The symbolic significance of kente is located in the motifs (the elephant signifies kingship, the scorpion bitterness). The colors of the Ghanaian national flag – red, yellow, green and black – are popular in modern cloths."



Maori Tukutuku panels

Pou Tangata represent the many people who have lived in Tamaki Makau Rau

The Purapura Whetu represents many stars in the sky, many people in the iwi

The Ngaru Nui represent the waves of the Ngatokimatawhaorua. The zig zag part are the waves. The rectangle part is the waka

image sources

From the Christchurch City Libraries website: "Tukutuku panels are a traditional Māori art form. They are decorative wall panels that were once part of the traditional wall construction used inside meeting houses. Originally tukutuku were made by creating a latticework of vertically and horizontally placed dried stalks of kākaho, the creamy-gold flower stalks of toetoe grass, and kākaka, long straight fern stalks, or wooden laths of rimu or tōtara, called variously kaho tara, kaho tarai or arapaki. These panels were lashed or stitched together. This was done by people working in pairs from either side, using the rich yellow strands of pīngao, white bleached or black-dyed kiekie, and sometimes harakeke, to create a range of intricate and artistic patterns. Stitches were combined to form a variety of patterns...The art of tukutuku weaving is still at risk. It is a time-consuming craft that demands patience and persistence. The panels pictured here were produced for the new Māori Resource space at the Central Library in a community funded project facilitated by members of Ngā Puna Waihanga Waitaha Tai Poutini. They represent about 900 hours work undertaken by more than 180 volunteers during the year 2001. In all their tukutuku wānanga."

P.W.  Christchurch City Libraries



The Alhambra

photo by Lucy Lamp

Islamic spiritual art does not allow the incorporation of imagery, so pattern is used to convey spiritual principles. This is a detail of a wall from the Alhambra in Spain, one of many, each with complex mullltilayered patterns that appear to mimic aspects of the natural world.



Pattern as decoration

We are all familiar with the use of pattern as decoration, from clothing, to everyday objects, to home decorating . Below is an example of an elaborate use of pattern in home decoration.

Yinka Shonibare Victorian Philanthropist’s Parlour, 1996-1997.

from webexhibits: "Shonibare uses a batik fabric that has African characteristics. However, instead of originating in Africa, the fabric was invented in Indonesia, and the batik printing technique was industrialized by Dutch colonizers in the mid-19th century. Soon after, the British began to produce the fabric in Manchester for West African markets. Shonibare buys his batik from the Brixton market in London. Therefore, Shonibare addresses the (mis)perceptions and the questionable origins of art that is interpreted as “African.” In Shonibare’s work, the fabric comes to symbolize the complex history of Western colonialist exploitation in African countries."


What is Rhythm?

Rhythm is like pattern, in that the same elements (i.e.shape, line) are repeated; however, with rhythm there are slight variations in the pattern. Rhythm is easily perceived but complex and subtle. Think of  water on a beach; it  continually breaks on the shore in lines that are repeated,  yet each one is different.

photo by Lucy Lamp


In pattern, elements are repeated in the same way thoughout the whole composition, as in the example above. In the example of rhythm below, the same elements are used, but with variations. See if you can sense and understand the difference.

Rhythm is most easily understood within music. Rhythm represents our desire for order. Rhythm is like our own heartbest; it gives us a sense of the pulsing of life.


Examples of rhythm in art


Grant Wood: rolling fields and plains of the midwest

Grant Wood Young Corn  1931

image source

"I  realized that all the really good ideas I'd ever had came to me while I was milking a cow. So I went back to Iowa. "  Grant Wood

as quoted in "Going Back to Iowa: The World of Grant Wood" web page created and designed by Janet Haven for the University of Virginia American Studies Program




Vincent Van Gogh: personal vision of the night sky

Vincent van Gogh The Starry Night    Saint Rémy, June 1889.

Oil on canvas, 29 x 36 1/4" (73.7 x 92.1 cm).

Museum of Modern Art    Acquired through the Lillie P. Bliss Bequest  472.1941

“I often think that the night is more alive and more richly colored than the day”.Vincent Van Gogh

a picture is worth a thousand words


Eugène Jansson: rhythm of a Nordic night

Eugène Jansson Riddarfjärden, Stockholm, 1898
Oil on canvas, 115 x 135 cm
Nationalmuseum, Stockholm, NM 1699

from the exhibit A Mirror of Nature: Nordic Landscape Painting 1840-1910 June 24 - September 2, 2007 at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts

From the exhibition catalogue:  "In a manner characteristic of Jansson, this view of the city is at once highly stylized, in its play of rhythmically billowing forms, and topographically correct. As in all his works, a reality that is familiar to us is refashioned into a new, soul-endowed world. The dream-like mood is evoked by the interplay of vigorous brushwork and thinly diluted paint, which causes the surface to vibrate with life in subtle modulations of colour."  



Rhythm in an ancient Minoan fresco

Three women, fresco from Knossos palace, island of Crete  Minoan civilization (27th c. BCE --15th c. BCE)

Wikimedia Commons. source cavorite 11 February 2006

The Minoan civilization was long and peaceful. The palace at Knossos was large, colorful, and advanced in its engineering. The walls were covered with frescoes of humans and animals in a vibrant enjoyable world. In this fresco, notice the varied repetition of the figures, the hair, hands. and clothes. The graceful variations in these elements impart a graceful rhythm to the fresco.