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Repetition in Nature
Repetition in nature is a common sight, from schools of fish to forests of trees, patterns of leaves to spores on a mushroom. The important thing to notice with natural repetition is the presence of variation.

The examples of natural repetition in the images below also exhibit variation.

Due to constant exposure, our hard wired response is to always expect repetition to be accompanied by variation. When the variation is missing, repetition becomes monotonous.


Principles of Design




The repeating shapes, without variation, in the image below, can be taken in with one glance. The brain comprehends one and immediately knows the rest are identical.

When variation is introduced, sub conscience mental activity is required to absorb the repeating elements. This relieves monotony and adds interest even when the variation is subtle. It causes the viewer to subconsciously engage with the work.



Repetition without variation becomes pattern and moves more into the realm of what was considered decorative art. That said, many of the pop artists incorporated pattern into fine art, a trend that has continued into the contemporary art practice of today. (1)

a small dark shape balances a light large shape

Repetition without variation appears cold and mechanical.

Repetition with variation is more engaging with a natural more human quality.



Paul Klees painting, “Heroic Strokes of the Bow”, features a progression of repeating arcs and lines that criss-cross their way down the painting. Variation in length, thickness and angle  echo the movement of a violin bow as it rises and falls through a piece of music.  A series of dots, squares, circles and dashes are woven through the movement of the repeating arcs and lines suggesting a percussive accompaniment to the rhythm of the bow.

Paul Klee [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
alt="Attribution : By Could not be extracted automatically; most are anonymous or pseudonymous. Scanned by the Seattle Public Library. ([1] (see filename for exact location)) [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons"

Paul Klee (1879 – 1940) “Heroic Strokes of the Bow” (1938)


Breaking the Rhythm

Can Factory Workers 1909

Early experiments in industrial psychology found that injuries to operators of repetitive machinery (punches, drill machines etc.) could be reduced by rotating operators after a certain length of time.  ‘Apparently the human organism finds repetitive motion boring if experienced for too long and resists by breaking the rhythm.'(2)


The photograph below demonstrates the importance of variation in repeating elements. If all the windows were the same the image would be just a monotonous facade, but because no two windows are the same there is a satisfaction in scanning the surface and comprehending the changes

Building Facade with Repitation and Variation -  © John Lovett

Repetition with Variation

If you are using repeating elements as an area of relief in a design, variation is not necessary. If the repeating elements are to add to the interest of a design or painting, variation is important.

(1) Look at the work of Andy Warhol, Roy Lictenstein, Jasper Knight & Stephen Park

(2) Feldman E B 1971, Varieties of Visual Experience; Art as Image and Idea, Harry N. Abrams, Inc., New York, p. 341

Author: John Lovett

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