Movement in art

Movement in Art: How Artists Convey Motion

Visual movement in art relates to the way that artists create the impression of motion, gesture and energy in a work. By learning how to create movement in art, you can make your artworks appear more dynamic, realistic and full of life.

In this guide, we cover what movement is, how it relates to other principles in art and analyse how renowned artists have created the appearance of movement in their famous artworks.

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What is the principle of movement in art?

Movement in art refers to the way that an artist conveys action and energy within their work. The principle of movement involves utilising elements such as line, shape, colour, texture, space, and value to create a visual representation of physical motion. It can be used to capture the action of a moment. Movement brings life to an otherwise static image. It can also give context and provide a narrative of figures and objects depicted.

There are many different ways to depict motion in art. Some examples include the repetition of shapes, leading, jagged lines or blurred figures. The movement in a piece may be present in the painting as a whole, in a particular section. It may only be present in one subject or object. Take the example of a cyclist zipping through country lanes on a mild, quiet winter’s day. The figure of the cyclist in the painting may appear blurred slightly, with their bike leaning to turn a corner, captured in motion. Whereas the surrounding trees could be painted to appear static and still.

Movement in art examples

In painting, capturing movement can be achieved through techniques such as blurring or smudging colours on the canvas to indicate speed and direction. Artists may also use textured and gestural brushstrokes to convey motion and energy in the scene. Other examples of movement include integrating posed figures, and adding details such as rippling water or billowing clouds which imply movement.

Camille Pissarro: The Boulevard Montmartre at Night

In Camille Pissarro’s, The Boulevard Montmartre at Night, he creates a sense of business and motion in the Parisian street. The lines of cars and headlights create a sense of rhythm, leading the viewer’s eye in. Then the repetition of blurry silhouetted figures against the illuminated wet streets creates a bustling atmosphere. In this example, the principles of rhythm and repetition are used to create movement. There is also the impression of physical movement seen in the slightly blurred figures and cars which seem to be in motion.

Edgar Degas: L’Etoile

Edgar Degas’ is a great example of how the gesture of a subject can imply movement. The person is balanced on one foot, caught in a freeze frame within the flow of the dance.

Types of movement in art

The impression of physical movement

Artists can employ particular techniques to create the impression of physical movement. Lines, shapes or texture can suggest the direction of a subject.

Vincent van Gogh: The Mulberry Tree

Using the example of how texture can create the impression of physical movement, van Gogh uses short impasto brushwork to represent the swirling branches of the tree. This creates a sense of atmosphere for the viewer, who can infer the direction of the wind. It appears as if the tree is being moved by the force of the elements.

J.M.W. Turner: The Fighting Temeraire tugged to her last berth to be broken up

Another example of an artist who creates the impression of physical movements with line and shape is J.M.W. Turner. In his painting ‘The Fighting Temeraire’, the steam coming from the boat tugging the Temeraire is billowing behind. This gives the impression of the steamboat moving towards the viewer, with the air resistance creating a trail of steam. This gives the viewer the context about the direction in which the boats are travelling and provides the sense of motion.

Implied movement

The gesture of a figure or object can be used to imply movement, without needing to show the entire action of a scene.

In figure drawing for example, gesture is used to create the suggestion of a pose that has been captured within a moment in time. This gesture implies physical energy and captures the subject in a particular moment before they change pose.

John Singer Sargent: La Carmencita

The suggestion of movement can also be seen in the paintings of Singer Sargent. In ‘La Carmencita’, the body position and angle of the arms conveys the sense that a step has just been taken. The curved lines of the arms capture the power behind her movements. The dark, loose brushwork emanating from the figure creates a sense of rhythm around the dancer. Then the blurred edges and broken lines coming from the fabric of her sleeves adds to the movement of, not just the figure, but the ripples of the dress.

Movement in the viewing rhythm

Asymmetrical balance
Vincent van Gogh: Irises

Repetition can create a sense of movement, with consecutive shapes that are related to one another. You may see this type of movement in abstract or surreal works, optical illusions or artworks that can be described as non-representational. This repetition creates tempo, as viewers look at connected elements in succession. The repetition of colours and shapes in van Gogh’s Irises creates a fast paced viewing rhythm that makes it feel as if the flowers are swaying in the breeze.

Gesture and movement in figure drawing

gesture drawing

Gesture drawing is a form of figure drawing that focuses on capturing the movement and expression of the subject. Artists use quick strokes to capture the pose, muscle tension, and body language of their subjects. This type of drawing requires artists to work quickly in order to convey movement and energy with minimal details.

When relating gesture to the principle of movement, the gesture of a figure can be described as implied movement. It captures a freeze frame of a figure in motion. So due to the way in which body positioning changes when in action, the viewer can imagine where they will move next. The angle of the figure, whether the figure is in the air, the balance and equilibrium of the pose can imply movement.

For example, a running figure will have a more dynamic pose than a walking figure. The legs will be further apart and the person will have a balanced forward posture. When creating a gesture drawing, the artist should analyse the reference and pose of the subject carefully, to portray the movement of the figure accurately.

Movement and elements of art

The principle of movement can also be incorporated into artworks by combining different elements. For example, an artist may use a combination of colour, line, shape, texture, space, form and value to create a dynamic composition that conveys movement. For instance, to create the appearance of physical movement in a figure, an artist may use blur the legs of the figure, by using lighter values, or shapes with softer edges.

Claude Monet: Tulip fields in Holland

You can see the motion blur of the windmill in this painting by Monet. Artists can use other methods like creating the appearance of motion blur, distortion, scattered shapes or trails to emulate movement.

In an illustration, the artist may draw lines coming from behind a running figure to symbolise their direction and speed. This example can be seen in comic book art styles, however this isn’t often seen in realism drawing. As you can see, the way the artist chooses to represent movement can be a stylistic choice and dependent on the medium they are using.

Principles of art: movement

The principles of art are fundamental ways for artists to analyse and tangibly approach a piece. By categorising these different principles, artists can effectively describe an artwork in more concrete terms. This allows them to decode essential information about the creator’s intent, and the context of the artwork.

Movement is just one principle of art and design, the others are balance, contrast, emphasis, pattern, rhythm, unity and variety. Movement is an essential part of art that helps to create a sense of energy and dynamism. By using the principles of art, artists are able to communicate their message more effectively and create more captivating works.

Rhythm and Movement

Rhythm and movement are two intertwined principles of art that give the viewer a sense of energy and dynamism. Similar to repetition or pattern, rhythm is created by a steady flow of similar elements, or contrast of dissimilar elements. It is used to create an organised viewing path or hierarchy. This is where certain elements draw the viewer’s attention more than others. Movement, on the other hand, is used to imply action within an image. This can be used to create a narrative and give context.

Winslow Homer: Sunlight on the Coast

When both rhythm and movement are effectively employed in artwork, they can draw the viewer in, capture their attention and communicate its message clearly. Rhythm uses elements of art to create a tempo and hierarchy, while movement suggests action within the image. For example, using repeating jagged lines can indicate a stormy or turbulent sea. This creates movement and a sense of the waves rolling and crashing. The repetitive illusion of the shapes in the waves will lead the viewer’s eye around in a rhythmic way.

The importance of movement in art

The principle of movement can be used to convey emotion, energy, and dynamics, create focal points and lead the viewer’s eye around.

Movement can be used to suggest action and create a sense of narrative in artwork. When used effectively, movement can capture the viewer’s attention and create an engaging piece that communicates its message clearly.