Oil Painting Lessons - Visual Rhythm

When a system of marks are placed next to one another in a repetitious pattern, it creates a visual "rhythm". This keeps the eye moving around the painting and can help add excitement or playfulness to the finished painting.

The basic idea of this exercise is to recreate a complex still life in solid shapes and patterns with little or no blending creating more confidence in effective choices.  I always tell my students if it looks like the shapes they painted on their canvas could have been cut out of construction paper, then they're doing it right.


Visual Rhythm in a Complex Still Life Painting

Henri Matisse  "Red Interior, Still Life on a Blue Table"(1947) An excellent example of a simplified complex still life
Henri Matisse "Red Interior, Still Life on a Blue Table"(1947) An excellent example of a simplified complex still life

What You'll Need

A complex still life - 4-5 objects that each have a different texture or pattern. Set this on a table that is at least eye-level and lit to create contrast/shadows and highlights.

Painting Set-up for Oil or Acrylic. This can be an exercise in oil pastel if you are working with children or teaching an art class for teens.

Palette knife

Charcoal

Sketchbook


Complex Still Life Student Examples

Photo of Complex Still Life with many shapes, textures and repeated patterns.
Photo of Complex Still Life with many shapes, textures and repeated patterns.
Student Painting of a complex still life - reducing it down to it's basic shapes.
Student Painting of a complex still life - reducing it down to it's basic shapes.
Student's first try at complex still life  - this is too blended to see any variation between objects.
Student's first try at complex still life - this is too blended to see any variation between objects.
Revised student painting...much better variations - including several different patterns - much more life and rhythm to keep the eye interested.
Revised student painting...much better variations - including several different patterns - much more life and rhythm to keep the eye interested.
Start of a student still life.  It appears its going to have too much information...Stick to shapes that can be "cut out" if using paper and scissors.
Start of a student still life. It appears its going to have too much information...Stick to shapes that can be "cut out" if using paper and scissors.
Good start to reducing complex patterns. This is a very simplified and an elegant beginning.
Good start to reducing complex patterns. This is a very simplified and an elegant beginning.
Student in action.
Student in action.
Successful completed painting of a reduced complex still life.  A variety of detail and pattern captured.  Each item is unique and enjoyable to look at.
Successful completed painting of a reduced complex still life. A variety of detail and pattern captured. Each item is unique and enjoyable to look at.

How to simplify your complex still life

Begin by observing the still life. Look at major shapes and textures that already exist. Observe shadows and highlights in the still life.

Create thumbnail sketches of several compositions. Try to fit in at least 3 objects into your composition. Choose the most interesting one to transfer to canvas.

Lightly sketch your composition onto your canvas (you can wash your canvas with one color in acrylic or oil prior to starting - do not use an oil underwash if you plan on painting in acrylics).

Color block in the major shapes. For beginning students I have them only use one color on a monochromatic value scale. For more advanced students, they can use relevant colors.

Create a system of patterns. If you have uncountable objects, such as a bouquet of flowers, create some type of system that represents those flowers. Perhaps polka dots, concentric circles, the same type of "flowery" shape repeated. Whatever you choose - stick with it so that the viewer will understand what you are trying to achieve.

Pay attention to your shadows. If you are painting fabric and there are shadows in it, consider including them in your painting. Make certain that if you don't include these details you are making a choice that is best for your composition - not just skipping out on doing the work.

Stripes are interesting to use, whether vertical or horizontal- they help carry the viewers eyes around the canvas.

White or black space. With all of the patterns and rhythm you will be creating, the viewer will need room to rest. Make certain there is a "resting area" in your painting. These areas are usually solid black or white, yet can have texture added via palette knife.

Outlines are effective if you want to get more color on your canvas or if you need more resting areas. Popular colors to use for outlining are white and black. Though, portrait painters often use burnt sienna.

The less shapes within an object, the more reliant it is on outlines. The more information inside the shapes, the less it needs an outline, and the more dependent it becomes on the background to contain it in a composition.

If an object is "countable", such as large leaves - count them and represent them. If an object is "uncountable" then represent its presence in a pattern or style of your choosing.

Each object should have it's own unique texture to differentiate it from it's neighboring object.

How To Paint - Syllabus 1 - Beginning Level

If you have enjoyed this exercise, please visit my other hubs. I have been teaching painting at ArtSpace in Chiang Mai, Thailand for the past 6 years and am currently putting up my Beginning Painting Syllabus. I always enjoy feedback. If you try any of these exercises or use them in your own classrooms, please let me know how the paintings turn out. Thanks!

Please visit my other articles:

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Comments 5 comments

lovelypaper profile image

lovelypaper 6 years ago from Virginia

Thank you for a great hub! I too love to paint. I'm no Van Gogh but I love to express myself through painting.


Laura Spector profile image

Laura Spector 6 years ago from Chiang Mai, Thailand Author

Hi Lovelypaper, You are very welcome! I often tell my painting students "we don't need another Van Gogh or Picasso. We need to hear what new people have to say". That said, I'm glad to hear you're painting and expressing yourself! The world could use some more painters. Cheers!


RTalloni profile image

RTalloni 6 years ago from the short journey

Well, I guess I'll be visiting your other hubs. :

We have friends who just moved back from Chiang Mai. Oh the wonderful food they can now make!


Laura Spector profile image

Laura Spector 6 years ago from Chiang Mai, Thailand Author

Hi RTalloni,

Thanks for stopping by. Yes, the food is exquisite! You should come over for a visit and cooking classes!


anderson_weli profile image

anderson_weli 5 years ago

These paintings in restaurants will be a good choice.

Thank you for a great hub! I love painting.

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