Rhythm, most often associated with music, can also be applied to visual art. This can be expressed in multiple ways, through colour, tone and shape, all terms which also appear in musical contexts. Rhythm then, in all its forms, might be described as the expression of the interconnectivity of things, one thing leading onto the next in a systematic arrangement. The idea can be applied to anything visual, but here we will be discussing rhythm in shapes, specifically in figure drawing.
The rhythm of a figure can be thought of as the ‘movement’ through its forms. The middle line describes the general movement of the pose and is a good place to start when looking for the rhythm in a figure. It goes through the whole figure and connects all the forms. A good composer of the human figure will connect these forms together with lines that express harmony and movement. The repetition of the long tapering shape, harmoniously arranged as in this drawing by Bukovic, serves to emphasize the languid beauty in the pose.
Rhythm can be expressed in a more concentrated way through the ‘sewing together’ of small forms. The shapes in this Ilya Repin drawing interconnect from one side of the contour to the other, binding the volumes into a sequence to create a tension between the latent energy of the pose and the interconnectivity of the muscles. It is helpful in finding these relationships to extend the lines of the contour beyond their actual end, observing where they continue elsewhere, lending a sense of coherence to the composition.
In examining rhythm it is important to remember that it is more of a design principle than a technical one and it can be used to varying effect. Having large unbroken rhythms in an image will give feelings of harmony, elegance and beauty. In Valázquez’s Rokeby Venus, these rhythms extend beyond the figure itself and into other areas of the composition.
As in music, however, breaks and disruption in rhythm can be employed to the opposite effect to evoke quite different emotions, such as dischord and discomfort. Egon Schiele uses acute angles and jarring shapes to great effect in his uncompromising self-portraits, and even where a shape is repeated, in the arms for example, its reversed and rotated arrangement increases the sense of distortion and disorder.
By Charlie Pickard edited by Mark White