Pattern in art

Pattern in Art: Types and Examples

Pattern in art is one of the fundamental principles of design that artists can use to create visually appealing and meaningful works. From traditional patterns used in textiles and pottery, to abstract shapes used in contemporary works, pattern has long been an integral part of the artist’s toolbox.

This article will provide an overview of pattern in art, looking at its definition and examples of pattern in art. We’ll also look at the types of pattern available to artists and the importance of this principle.

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What are patterns in art

Pattern is defined as a repeated set of shapes, forms, lines or colours that create a harmonious visual effect. The combination of these visual elements creates a motif, design element or image. This is then repeated across a surface to create unity and harmony in a design. Artists use pattern as a design principle to create a sense of order, balance and structure in a composition. Patterns are often used for decorative purposes, but they can also be used to convey emotion or subtle messages.

Examples of pattern in art

Gorgon’s face: Terracotta Kylix: Ancient Greek Plate

Pattern is found throughout art history in various forms and media, including painting, printmaking, sculpture and textiles. Some of the most famous historic examples of pattern in art include the stained glass windows of medieval churches, Islamic geometric patterns, Aboriginal dot paintings, the patterns that adorn Ancient Greek pottery and William Morris’ print designs.

Dado panel from Mamluk Egypt

Many artists throughout history have used pattern in their artworks to tie elements together and make them appear more unified. Irregular patterns can appear more organic and less obvious than regular patterns. Here we’ll explore some examples of famous artists and how they used pattern, whether it’s obvious or more subtle.

Lewis Foreman Day

Lewis Foreman Day: The Anatomy of Pattern Plate

Foreman Day was a surface pattern designer who started his career as a stained glass painter. He then began working with different media, designing patterns for wallpapers and textiles. He published a number of books on pattern, one of his most famous books was entitled ‘Anatomy of Pattern’, which is considered to be a culturally important piece of literature. The book is free to read online. If you’re interested in deep diving into the world of pattern design, it contains advice about how to approach pattern design that is remains relevant today.

M.C. Escher

M.C Escher: Metamorphosis II

Escher was famed for creating patterns, tessellations and optical illusions that he would integrate as part of larger works. Often working in black and white, with elements of the surreal, Escher used shape and line to create the patterns and illusions. In the piece Metamorphosis, the general shapes in the design repeat to create a pattern. However, the lines filling the shapes show insects morphing into birds, then fish transforming across the piece. This is an example of a progressive irregular pattern, where the design motif changes. Escher created this effect to explore the theme of change.

William Morris

William Morris: The Strawberry Thief

Starting his career as a pre-Raphaelite artist, William Morris then turned his hand to design, architecture, printmaking and much more. His most famous works were the decorative wallpapers he created in the 19th century. With intricate floral and foliate designs that are still popular today. Often referred to as ‘Morris prints’, these highly detailed and colourful patterns were created by repeating simple motifs, such as flowers and leaves. Morris used these to evoke a sense of nature and the outdoors, bringing it into our homes.

Gustav Klimt

Gustav Klimt: The Kiss

Klimt was the Austrian symbolist artist who pioneered the use of gold in painting. Many of his works featured detailed patterns, often with repeating circles or squares woven together to create an overall pattern effect. ‘The Kiss’ is a great example of this, where elements such as flowers and leaves are used throughout, and the overall effect is one of balance. Klimt often mixes flowing lines with geometric elements, which adorn dresses and textiles.

Vincent van Gogh

Vincent van Gogh: Branches with Almond Blossom

Works from van Gogh display pattern, however pattern appears much more organic and irregular compared to artists such as William Morris. The branches appear like fractals in this painting of almond blossom and the repeating flowers create a pattern design. Vincent van Gogh also used texture to emphasise the pattern, by using curving lines along the branches to symbolise light and shadow.

Alphonse Mucha

art nouveau
Alphonse Mucha: Zodiac

Mucha was an artist from the Art Nouveau movement, that worked primarily with the lithography printing medium. The patterns in his lithograph ‘Zodiac’ feature a repeating motif of stars and circles. Mucha used this to create the effect of a hazy starlit sky, with each star being slightly different in size. He also used borders and images of leaves and flowers within his lithographs to enhance the visual effect. This creates an almost dreamlike quality. Pattern can be seen in the jewels on the headdress, the flowing lines of the woman’s hair and the knot designs in the border. Mucha contrasts the repeating patterns with portraits, which break up the design and create focal points.

John Singer Sargent

John Singer Sargent: Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth

Singer Sargent completed many portrait paintings over the course of his lifetime. He might not be an artist usually associated with painting patterns. However, the patterns in the fabrics of clothes, chairs and other art pieces surround the sitters, adds to the uniqueness of the individual pieces. This portrait of Ellen Terry, painted in a realistic style, shows a dress covered in pattern. Even the criss cross of the ribbon on the hair creates repetition and pattern.

Types of pattern

Van Gogh: Starry Night over the Rhone

Patterns can be divided into two broad categories: geometric and organic. Geometric patterns are often symmetrical and can be found in many traditional art forms, including Navajo weaving and Islamic architecture. Organic patterns are less structured and tend to be more flowing or irregular in shape. Examples of organic patterns include natural shapes such as stars, leaves, flowers, fabric or clouds. Van Gogh creates patterns of stars and reflections in ‘Starry Night Over the Rhone’.

Wassily Kandinsky: Color Study: Squares with Concentric Circles

Geometric patterns are made from geometric shapes, that are defined in mathematics. These include circles, triangles, squares, hexagons and rhombuses.

Artists also categorise pattern in two more ways: natural and man-made. Artworks consist of only man-made patterns, even if these patterns are inspired by the repetition and symmetry the artist has seen in nature. The artist has arranged colour, line and form on the paper to create a particular composition, that provides meaning and context for the viewer.

Sunflower pattern in nature

Natural patterns are just patterns we find in nature. An example of a natural pattern could be in the spirals of a sunflower head. Natural formations come in different scales, the more you focus on the details of a leaf, or plant the more you seen repetition in colours, shapes and lines. These fractals can be seen in succulents, snowflakes, leaf veins, rivers and tree branches. Artists have been inspired by patterns in nature for thousands of years, and continue to explore them in their work.

Ways of arranging patterns

Aside from the types of shapes and forms we see in patterns, the way a motif, image or design element is arranged to create that pattern will impact the overall composition and aesthetic of the piece.

Regular patterns

William Morris: Snakeshead printed textile

Regular patterns are those which are repeated in a consistent manner over the surface. An example of this could be a checkerboard pattern made up of alternating black and white squares, or a quilt pattern created with equal sized shapes arranged in rows and columns. Regular patterns have symmetry, even spacing and uniform design motifs that appear sequential.

M C Escher Space in Art
M.C. Escher: Relativity lattice

Symmetrical patterns relate to regular patterns, they are where the design element is arranged to create a mirrored effect which creates equal visual weight in different parts of the artwork. The design elements can appear reflected in any axis of the surface. The symmetry could also be radial, whereby elements are repeated around a centrepoint. Escher used this type of radial symmetry in his piece ‘Relativity Lattice’. The regular symmetry is seen in the radial reflection of the staircase, although not in the other elements.

Symmetric pattern is often used for decorative purposes and generally creates a sense of order or balance in a composition. These patterns have been used in art for thousands of years, with evidence seen in designs in Ancient Greek pottery.

Irregular patterns

Asymmetrical balance
Vincent van Gogh: Irises

Irregular patterns also called progressive patterns are patterns in which the motif changes, or repeats in a non-uniform way. The pattern has distinguishable recurring elements and motifs, however, these motifs may lack symmetry or systematic arrangement.

Asymmetric patterns are less structured and don’t have a mirror effect, but instead create an organic or flowing feel. These patterns are more dynamic in appearance when compared to regular pattern, whereas regular patterns appear more unified and balanced.

Elements of art: pattern

The elements of art are the visual components of a design, these are line, shape, texture, value, form, colour and space. These are the building blocks that are used to create unique patterns. Artists will alter shapes, colours and spacing to create various different motifs and repetitions.

Art Principles: pattern

Pattern is just one of the many principles of art that artists use to create visually appealing works. Other principles of art include balance, repetition, contrast, variety, rhythm, emphasis and unity. By understanding how these principles work together, artists can create compelling compositions that capture the viewer’s attention and also evoke powerful emotions.

Contrast in pattern

M.C. Escher: Reptiles

Patterns can be integrated into artworks to provide unity, the consistency of the pattern may contrast with the organic nature of the rest of the composition. An example of this is in Escher’s artwork ‘Reptiles’, where the organic shapes of the animals transform into a tessellation, then back to a reptile again.

Another way to create contrast with pattern is to break the regularity of a pattern design. Regular patterns can appear repetitive and monotonous. A break in this pattern will provide a focal point and create emphasis in an artwork.

Repetition in pattern

Patterns are inherently repetitive, it is the repetition of elements that creates a pattern. This forms the way in which motifs are arranged. Artists may use repeating elements to create a visually pleasing design or to communicate a theme in their artwork.

Importance of pattern in art

Pattern is an important principle that all artists should be familiar with as it enables them to produce dynamic and engaging works. From subtle background patterns to bold, graphic designs, pattern can help create a sense of movement, depth and balance in an artwork. By understanding how to use pattern effectively, artists can take their work to the next level and create truly unique pieces.