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The Visual Elements - Pattern

Pattern in art is made by repeating or echoing the visual elements of an artwork.

PAUL KLEE (1879-1940) Dream City, 1921 (warercolor and oil)

PAUL KLEE (1879-1940)
Dream City, 1921 (warercolor and oil)

The Visual Element of Pattern is constructed by repeating or echoing the elements of an artwork to communicate a sense of balance, harmony, contrast, rhythm or movement. There are two basic types of pattern in art: Natural Pattern and Man-Made Pattern. Both natural and man-made patterns can be regular or irregular, organic or geometric, structural or decorative, positive or negative and repeating or random.

Natural Pattern: Pattern in art is often based on the inspiration we get from observing the natural patterns that occur in nature. We can see these in the shape of a leaf and the branches of a tree, the structure of a crystal, the spiral of a shell, the symmetry of a snowflake and the camouflage and signalling patterns on animals, fish and insects.

Man-Made Pattern: Pattern in art is used for both structural and decorative purposes. For example, an artist may plan the basic structure of an artwork by creating a compositional pattern of lines and shapes. Within that composition he/she may develop its visual elements to create a more decorative pattern of color, tone and texture across the work.

Our selection of artworks illustrated below have been chosen because they all use pattern in an inspirational manner. We have analyzed each of these to demonstrate how great artists use this visual element as a creative force in their work.

Natural Pattern

RORY MCEWEN (1932-1982) Kensington Gardens 1, 1979 (watercolor on vellum)

RORY MCEWEN (1932-1982)
Kensington Gardens 1, 1979 (watercolor on vellum)

'To see a world in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.'

Rory McEwen was a brilliant botanical artist but to simply describe him as such is an inadequate description of what he actually does. His work transcends mere illustration and raises our perceptive awareness to a level where we experience the intensity of his unique vision. Like the verse from William Blake, he slows us down and shows us the exquisite beauty that we miss by not really looking at what we see. His remarkable skill in observing a single leaf reveals an infinite world of mystery in the commonplace.

The first thing you see in McEwen's leaf is the natural pattern of its veins. As you are drawn more into the detail of the image, this pattern takes on a fractal nature where you notice the same natural formation on different scales. For example, in the delicate growth pattern of the veins you can see the structural form of the branches of a tree. You can then expand your vision to a geological scale where the image becomes an aerial view as the veins turn into rivers and tributaries cutting their way through a landscape to the coastline. A more melancholic metaphor could relate the anatomy of the dying leaf to a Vanitas theme of mortality, as its veins hemorrhage a vascular red into the chlorophyll green of its decomposing skin. If we looked at our world through the same mindful spectacles as Rory McEwen, our sense of sight and the art we produce would be the richer for it.

Man-Made Pattern

WILLIAM MORRIS (1834-1896) Sketch for Acanthus Wallpaper Pattern, 1874 (pencil and watercolor) Pencil and Watercolor Sketch for Acanthus Wallpaper Pattern, 1874-75

WILLIAM MORRIS (1834-1896)
Pencil and Watercolor Sketch for Acanthus Wallpaper Pattern, 1874-75

William Morris was one of the greatest pattern designers whose works are still commercially available today. He was a major figure of the Arts and Crafts Movement, a group of artists, architects, designers, craftsmen and writers who reacted against the wretched consequences of 19th century industrialization. They valued hand crafted objects over those made by machine, emphasizing the importance of individual expression. They believed in the superiority of the craftsman and his dignified way of life over the inferiority of industrial production and the degrading conditions that factory workers were forced to endure.

William Morris outlined his philosophy on art and design in a lecture of 1894 where he advocated, 'first, diligent study of Nature and secondly, study of the work of the ages of Art' [2]. In accordance with these principles he took his inspiration from the art of the Middle Ages; from a time where artists and craftsmen worked together as equals. The acanthus leaf was a natural motif that Morris borrowed from 'the ages of Art'. The Ancient Greeks were the first to use the acanthus as carved decoration in Corinthian capitals and it has been frequently revived as a decorative ornament in Byzantine, Romanesque, Gothic and Renaissance arts, crafts and architecture.

In his watercolor study above, Morris uses the twisting forms of the acanthus leaf to create a repeat pattern unit for a wallpaper design. He cleverly arranges its organic shapes to hide the geometric structure of its pattern in order to produce a natural wall of leafy forms. The idea was to introduce Nature, as the expression of God's design, into the home as an antidote to the graceless production of the Industrial Revolution.

Pattern as Landscape


PIET MONDRIAN (1872-1944)
Farm Near Duivendrecht, 1907 (oil on canvas)

Piet Mondrian spent his working life refining and reducing the patterns that he observed in nature, ultimately developing a pure abstract language of rectangular forms (Neo-Plasticism). The process of development that Mondrian followed is the most coherent journey from naturalistic representation to pure abstraction in the history of modern art. Cubism was the main route to abstraction for most artists but it was a bit untidy for Mondrian's measured mind. Therefore he adapted his approach to composition to incorporate a grid-like arrangement, which not only offered him more control over the spatial organization of his work but also referenced the natural horizontals and verticals of his native Dutch landscape. The influence of the grid underpinned the composition of his paintings and gave him a point of reference from which to observe the effects of reconfiguring the elements of a work over a series of images.

The 'Farm Near Duivendrecht' is one of the early stops on Mondrian's artistic journey. Although this is still a representational work, you can see the forces of abstraction beginning to flex their muscles. Mondrian adapts the natural patterns of the branches on the trees to enhance their aesthetic appeal and uses the tree trunks and their reflections to form a structural backbone for the composition. The pattern of the branches, which would naturally have a random distribution, is restructured to form a balanced interplay between their shapes and the spaces between them. Mondrian's impulse to balance opposing elements like horizontals and verticals or positive and negative forms is a key to understanding his work. He does it again by balancing the image with its reflection, an interplay between land and water, where the verticals of the trees cross the horizontal divide of the river. In this interaction you can begin to see the emergence of the 'grid' in Mondrian's work (click on the flip icon to view).

DAVID HOCKNEY (1937-) The Road Across The Wolds, 1997 (oil on canvas)

The Road Across The Wolds, 1997 (oil on canvas)

David Hockney was encouraged to paint the Yorkshire landscape by his friend, Jonathan Silver, and 'The Road Across The Wolds' was his first painting in what has become the major theme of his work in recent years. It shows a view that Hockney would have known since his childhood and it is a route that he would have driven when visiting Jonathan Silver.

Hockney flattens the perspective of the painting to allow you to see more of the fields, hills and valleys of the East Yorkshire Wolds. The scene is a patchwork pattern of sunlit shapes and colors that invites you on a journey through its undulating landscape. The artist leaves a tiny strip of sky at the top of the picture which helps you to experience the scale of its panorama, a scale that would certainly be diminished if he had omitted the horizon, lowered the eye level or used a conventional perspective. Hockney also reduces the effects of aerial perspective by standardizing the size of his brushstrokes and strengthening the hues of the distant fields in order to increase the radiance of their color.

Pattern As Environmentalism

ANDREW GOLDSWORTHY (1956-) Rowan Leaves Laid Around Hole, October 25th 1987 (photograph)

Rowan Leaves Laid Around Hole, Yorkshire Sculpture Park, 25 October 1987 (photograph)

“Just at present you only see the tree by the light of the lamp. I wonder when you would ever see the lamp by the light of the tree.” [3]

Andrew Goldsworthy subverts our experience of nature to make us look at it afresh. Goldsworthy is an environmental artist who uses the raw materials of the landscape (leafs and petals, twigs and thorns, snow and ice, mud and rocks) and sympathetically manipulates them to create an unexpected sense of order within the unrestricted growth of the natural environment. His sculptures are hidden in plain sight and if you encounter one while on a stroll through the woods, it feels as if some alien intelligence has been at work - and to some extent it has, as something new has been brought into being by the consciousness of the artist in collaboration with the spirit of nature. Goldsworthy is aware of the ephemeral qualities of his work, so he documents his activity with exquisite photographs in a series of inspirational books. 'Rowan Leaves Laid Around Hole' uses the changing pigmentation of autumn leaves to create a circular pattern of colors. It radiates energy in a sunburst of vibrant yellows, through flaming reds to a deep purple that subtly blends into the browns and blacks of the earth. At its center lies the invisible source of its power - a black hole beyond the black of any pigmentation. There is something of the cosmic in the art of Andrew Goldsworthy.

FRIEDENSREICH HUNTERWASSER (1928 - 2000) Irinaland Over The Balkans, 1969 (mixed media)

Irinaland Over The Balkans, 1969 (mixed media)

Friedensreich Hunterwasser was an uncompromising artist and architect whose unique imagery stems from his animistic view of the world. Animism is an ancient belief in the spiritual bond between all natural forms and elements: humans, animals, plants, earth, air, fire and water. Hunterwasser was a dyed in the wool environmentalist who communicated his 'green' philosophy in his every thought and action, even to the extent where he prepared his own paints and media to ensure their eco-friendly credentials.

Hunterwasser declared that 'The straight line is something cowardly drawn with a rule, without thought or feeling; it is a line which does not exist in nature.' [4]. Consequently his paintings are ingrained with contours that define their space in the manner of natural wood grain or onion ring patterns. 'Irinaland Over The Balkans' combines his ideology and artistry in one organic image. The face of Irina Maleewa, a Bulgarian actress who had a relationship with Hunterwasser, blends with the Balkan landscape to suggest their animistic bond. All the elements of the painting live and breathe though a circulatory system of line and color which pulses with expressive energy around and between each component of the composition.

Pattern as Contrast

M.C. ESCHER (1898-1972) Day and Night, 1938 (woodcut)

M.C. ESCHER (1898-1972)
Day and Night, 1938 (woodcut)

Day and Night' by M. C. Escher is an elegantly crafted optical illusion that only unravels once we start to explore the geometry of its composition. A deceptive use of perspective in combination with a distracting use of pattern trick us into believing this impossible image. Escher uses a conventional perspective for the ground plane which stretches to the high eye level on the distant horizon. This high eye level places the viewer in an elevated position looking down on the landscape. He then superimposes the graduating pattern of the flying geese onto the picture plane which joins seamlessly with the field at the bottom of the ground plain. It is the misdirection of this seamless joint that convinces us we are looking at one image rather than two (a pattern overlapping a landscape). Escher also introduces contrasting patterns to direct our attention away from the structural  design of the image. The contrasts of positive and negative, black and white, day and night in combination with the high eye level pull our attention to the upper half of the work and initiate a left-right dialogue between both sides of this mirror image. It is interesting to analyze Escher's illusion in 'Day and Night' but it is more fun to be tricked into believing it.

RICHARD ESTES (b1932) Telephone Booths, 1968 (oil on canvas)

Telephone Booths, 1968 (oil on canvas)

Telephone Booths' by Richard Estes is a highly detailed painting based on a series of photographs taken outside Macy's at Herald Square in Manhattan. It contrasts the formal pattern of a row of rectangular phone booths with the informal surface of their polished steel and glass reflections. The rhythm of reflection and transparency, monochrome and color, light and dark, generates a flicker of pattern across the surface of the image to represent the clamor and confusion of New York City. This is further amplified by the shadow that softens the detail of the lower half of the painting thereby increasing the contrast and impact of the upper half. The figures in the booths are partially obscured by the doors and diffused by reflected light to integrate their anonymous forms with the abstract design of the composition. Although this is a photorealistic figurative image, the overall effect is of a kaleidoscopic abstraction of city life.

Pattern as Repetition

BRITISH SCHOOL (Jacobean Era) The Cholmondeley Ladies, c.1600-10 (oil on wood panel)

The Cholmondeley Ladies, c.1600-10 (oil on wood panel)

The Cholmondeley Ladies' (pronounced Chumley) is a double society portrait of sisters, probably twins, who are sitting upright in bed presenting their newborn babies to the world. It is a painting from the Jacobean Era (1567–1625) that is both delightful and slightly absurd.

If this was a single portrait you would focus on the natural relationship between the mother and her child. However, the repetition of the image changes the way that we perceive the work. We interpret its unusual configuration with a heightened degree of curiosity as we search for clues to solve the mystery of its strange symmetry. At first glance the figures look identical but on closer inspection you notice numerous differences between them. Patterns of embroidery and lacework are unique to each figure. Different necklaces are used to separate the sisters while different colors of eyes distinguish each mother and child.

The artist, who is unknown, anticipated our confusion and helps us with a painted inscription (now fading) on the bottom left hand corner which reads, ‘Two Ladies of the Cholmondeley Family, Who were born the same day, Married the same day, And brought to Bed (gave birth) the same day’.

ANDY WARHOL (1928-1987) Marilyn, 1967 (a portfolio of ten silkscreens)

ANDY WARHOL (1928-1987)
Marilyn, 1967 (a portfolio of ten silkscreen prints)

If we jump forward three and a half centuries from 'The Cholmondeley Ladies' we can see that Andy Warhol has redeployed repetition as a device to alter our perception of a different type of society portrait - a portrait of celebrity. Warhol used an assembly line of silk-screened images of Marilyn Monroe as a metaphor for the loss of 'self' in the vicarious world of celebrity. Marilyn no longer has her unique identity as an individual; she has been rebranded as an adaptable commodity to meet the voracious appetite of the consumer culture.

Pattern as Decoration

RENÉ MAGRITTE (1898-1967) L'Avenir des Statues (The Future of Statues), 1932 (oil on plaster head)

RENÉ MAGRITTE (1898-1967)
L'Avenir des Statues (The Future of Statues), 1932 (oil on plaster head)

René Magritte decorated a reproduction of Napoleon Bonaparte's death mask with a surreal pattern of blue sky and white clouds. This poetic decoration lifts the object from the mundane through the mysterious to the metaphysical by cross-referencing the realms of politics and power, death and dreams, with heaven or the hereafter. Magritte's personal approach to Surrealism leaves us contemplating the irrational in a subconscious maze of meaning between the juxtaposition of images and ideas that he uses in his art.

GUSTAV KLIMT (1862-1918) Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer 1, 1907 (oil on panel)

GUSTAV KLIMT (1862-1918)
Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer 1, 1907 (oil and gold leaf on panel)

Gustav Klimt's first painting of Adele Bloch-Bauer, the wife of a Viennese sugar merchant, held the record in 2006 as the most expensive painting in the world. It is a unique image for its time and the supreme example of his 'Golden Period'. There are various influences that have been combined to create this extravagant work: a complex fusion of delicate Pre-Raphaelite beauty, Jugendstil (Art Nouveau) and Japanese patterns, gold ornamentation inspired by Byzantine mosaics and Mycenaean motifs, and the figurative conventions of Egyptian art.

Adele is dressed in a flowing gown and seated on a chair. Her visible flesh is painted naturalistically while her gown, chair and background are outlined as separate flat areas, each decorated with gold leaf in a dazzling array of exquisite patterns. The chair and robes of the gown display a bejewelled array of gold and colored ovals, squares, triangles and spirals that reference Japanese, Jugendstil and Mycenaean designs whereas the background is a mottled patina of gold leaf with the odd floating square to register its depth. The dress in Adele's costume reflects a strong Egyptian influence as its bodily form is flattened and patterned with eyes. Many sources also suggest that Klimt's use of eyes as a decorative pattern on her body is evidence of a greater intimacy in the relationship between the artist and his model.

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