Using Rhythm and Pattern in Art and Illustration

At their roots, both pattern and rhythm rely on repetition — repetition of shape, color, concept, etc. Repetition sets up expectations for the viewer that the artist can then use to convey calm or chaos, and everything in between.

Let’s explore some of the ways we can use this rhythm and pattern in art to our advantage.

Repetition using a building's windows and parking meters


A deceptively simple way to add texture and depth to a drawing or painting is to include a pattern. The pattern may be complex and detailed, or just a swatch of stripes or dots. Sometimes many patterns can be brought together into a single image. When done well, these patterns can help round out a flatter form, or perhaps subtly insert a conceptual theme into the image.

Daffodil pattern
Here we can use it to blend everything together — nothing stands out, and the picture plane becomes a texture rather than a narrative image.

A room filled with stripes
Here, too. See how the stripe patterns wrap around the forms.

A room filled with all different patterns
Even here, with the variety of pattern, there is so much of it that we don’t see any one part as more prominent than any other.


A close cousin to pattern is rhythm. If we view the image like a musical score, as we read across the picture, each element strikes a certain note and tone. The image’s elements are gathered into the picture, but it takes repetition of color, shape, texture, etc., to create the rhythm to make it all work together.

A log cabin in a uniform woods
Watch how altering the trees changes how we read the picture. First they are spaced evenly, like they were planted for timber. There is a lot of control and order here — it suggests formality, and someone or something exerting control over the landscape. It is like a march.

Aspens beside a pond
But now see how the syncopated clusters of trees feels like a more natural organization. The beaver has been here among the aspens, and his tree-felling activities has inserted a rest in this organic rhythm before it picks up again. These trees are more improvisational and jazz-like.

Capturing the viewer’s attention

With both pattern and rhythm, variations and anomalies leap out at us. This works because the initial repetition sets up expectations, but then we subvert that expectation, and the altered elements draw our attention.

A dog sits on a couch in a room with a painting, and big pillow, and a window
The regular shape of the square — at the window, on the pillow, with the picture frame — gives the image a subtle structure.

The same room, but the picture is tilted, revealing a wall-safe
But tilt the picture frame just a bit, and our eye is drawn to it, trying to “fix” the problem area in the image.

The room again, at night, and a burglar enters through the open window
Another way to alter the square is to put something inside of it. This time our eye goes to the window.

The dog saves the day
Anything that varies from what the image sets us up to expect is going to call for our attention.

All together now

A row of crows on a wire, with an interloping peacock among them
Mixing it up a bit, we can see how something patterned in a context of solid shapes and colors calls attention to itself.

A crowd scene, where at regular intervals, one of the crowd stands out for one reason or another
Or we can find rhythm within a pattern.

A child collects clusters of objects from the beach
Or a pattern within rhythm.

What sorts of rhythms have you used in your illustrations? How do you use pattern in your paintings?

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