On Form (Part Two)

Visual rhythm exists around us in all spaces and at all moments.

What is meant exactly by the term “visual rhythm?” As an abstract concept, we may perhaps define “rhythm” as the perception of patterns. In music, we perceive recurring metric patterns—that is, events in sound that are separated by spaces—as rhythmic. Of course, the greater the amount of regularity and similarity perceived between events in sound, the more likely we are to describe something a rhythmic. Conversely, a complete lack of perceivable regularity or similarity is labeled as “arrhythmic.” On the one hand, for example, the sound of a jackhammer is described as highly rhythmic because, not only is each strike of the machine equally spaced, but each strike also maintains at any given moment a nearly identical timbre (or sound color) and dynamic level (or volume). On the other hand, the composite din of a busy city street could be described as arrhythmic; it is comprised of many different sounds (people talking, cars driving and honking, radios blaring, maybe even jackhammers hammering), each sound characterized by a unique timbre, a unique dynamic level and a unique amount of repetition, which combined, is perceived as chaotic or arrhythmic.

Visual rhythm works in a similar way. It is the perception of repetition in the objects that surround us, and as a principle of art, it becomes perceivable when positive shapes are repeatedly positioned in a composition while being separated by negative space. Additionally, the conscious application of a particular visual rhythm becomes, along with negative space, an integral element in the creation of form within a work of visual art. You may remember in my last blog on form, I primarily discussed negative space and the use of negative space to create an atmosphere, to create the “feeling” within a painting. Well, if meaning exists within the negative space, then visual rhythm is the primary way in which one may organize the negative space. In fact, the two formal elements—visual rhythm and negative space—work hand in hand to create the form of any work. One cannot really exist without the other, and both play an equally important hand in directing the feeling and the atmosphere of the work.

In art, five basic types of visual rhythm are recognized: regular rhythm, alternating rhythm, random rhythm, flowing rhythm and progressive rhythm.

  • Regular rhythm occurs when positive shapes and negative spaces produce repetitive “visual beats”—or rather, the size, color and texture of the positive shapes is uniform as is the negative space between those shapes (although this does not necessarily mean the shapes and the spaces are the same) and the uniformity of the pattern becomes predictable. Perhaps the most often cited example of regular visual rhythm is that of a brick wall.
  • Alternating rhythm occurs when a visual motif changes at regular intervals (as opposed to merely repeating). Think of the black and white squares of a chessboard.
  • Random rhythm occurs when positive shapes and the negative spaces they create are not repeated or are repeated without order or any clearly planned arrangement. Jackson Pollock’s “drip paintings” could be described as primarily exhibiting the characteristics of random rhythm.
  • Flowing rhythms are created when curvy or wavy positive shapes and negative spaces are repeated. A good example of a flowing rhythm would be floral patterned wallpaper (or a painting of wallpaper, like the painting Red Room by Henri Matisse, which was discussed in my last blog).
  • Progressive rhythm occurs when there is an incremental change in the motif or visual beat each time it is repeated. Progressive rhythms are, in part, responsible for the perception of a three-dimensional perspective on a two-dimensional plane (like a canvas). Imagine looking up at the seats of a theatre or stadium—as they get further away the pattern they create gets progressively smaller.

In previous blogs (specifically Captured Moments and On Form (Part One)) I have discussed how the four separate themes that suffuse my work—water, sky, trees and birds on branches—allow me to access, to capture, in different ways the fleeting moments that continually pass through our lives. You could say that each visual motif provides in some sense a different perspective through which to view and explore these moments. It just so happens that these four motifs also roughly correspond to four of the different visual rhythms, allowing me to explore not only a unique perspective on a specific moment in time, but also to explore and even highlight a specific visual rhythm. For example, whereas the water and sky motifs lead primarily to an exploration of flowing rhythms, and at times, even of random rhythms, the birds on branches and tree motifs lead me to an exploration of more regular and alternating rhythms. Progressive rhythms exist in many of my paintings, a gradually changing color or shape usually pulling the mind’s eye into the canvas and creating a feeling of depth.

Four examples of different types of visual rhythm, left to right: Among the Oaks and In the Light of the Silvery Moon – examples of regular and alternating rhythms, Grand Finale and Imagine – examples of flowing and random rhythms

As a way of underscoring what I have just described, I’d like to look at two of my own works and view their form through the lens of visual rhythm. The first of these is a relatively recent work entitled Suspended. As an example, I like this painting very much as it shows how the conscious choice of a specific visual rhythm (or lack thereof) can help reinforce the concept behind the work. In this case, the composition of the painting is comprised primarily of a random rhythm. Additionally, because there is a total lack of progressive rhythm, we lose a sense of dimensionality—or rather, we don’t feel as though we are necessarily going into the painting. The result is a feeling of stasis, of a moment suspended. Furthermore, with this particular painting, one could not really point to any section of the canvas and designate it as “negative space.” Instead, the meaning lies not in the negative space, but rather is implied by the specific visual rhythm that I have decided to use (or, conversely, have not decided to use).

Suspended (2017)

In the painting below, we can see how two different types of visual rhythm define the different sections of the canvas; the upper quarter of the canvas could be described as exhibiting a random rhythm while the lower three-quarters exhibits both a flowing rhythm—comprised of smooth curving lines—and a progressive rhythm—the lines becoming both smaller and less defined as they move up the canvas. Additionally, the various colors that characterize those same lines become duller, or less rich, as they move up the canvas, progressively blending until they essentially become one tone. Where Suspended could in some sense be defined as a painting about slow transitions, the result here is one of contrasts, a juxtaposition of movement; the top portion of Concurrence­, filling the role of the static backdrop while the lower portion of the painting, fills the role of dynamic character—continuously moving across the canvas while simultaneously disappearing into the distance.  Again, the concept behind the title is in some respects fulfilled by the visual rhythm; two unrelated visually rhythmic instantiations—one dynamic, one static—occurring side by side, conceptually disparate yet bound together by the canvas.

Concurrence (2017)

From one perspective, visual rhythm exists to arrange the negative space; it gives form to the atmosphere that surrounds the subject matter and can intensify the emotion that is trying to break through the canvas. From another perspective, visual rhythm can define, to a greater or lesser extent, the divisions of the canvas; the texture created by contrasting rhythms, as much as by contrasting colors and shapes outlining the different sections that combine to create the whole composition. Perhaps more important than either of the preceding perspectives, visual rhythm creates varying degrees of movement. Movement conveys not a snapshot or an instant of time, but rather a moment in time—a brief period that has a beginning and an end. Visual rhythm, as much as negative space, then allows me to create and capture these moments, which exist at the conceptual heart of all of my paintings.