This inspiring quote was written by Diane Arbus from William Neill’s book, “By Nature’s Design”, an inspiring look at the wonder and technical examples of patterns in nature.
In the diamond quarter of Amsterdam, where hearts are cut every day, I sat on a bench during the violet hour, watching the sun drain out of the sky and a half-moon rise like an Inca god. A woman in a blue scarf, hurrying home with a net shopping bag full of produce, swerved awkwardly to avoid something in the road. A moment later, she swerved again, and it wasn’t until the third swerve a few steps on that I saw the pattern in her gait. Perhaps caused by a hip injury?
Just then I realized that a necklace of lights had been forming across the throat of the brick buildings along the canal. At night, Amsterdam opens its veins and pours forth the neon milk of cities. We humans are obsessed with lights. Not random lights, but carefully arranged ones. Perhaps it is our way of hurling the constellations back at the sky.
We crave pattern. We find it all around us in sand dunes and pine cones, we image it when we look at clouds and starry nights, we create it and leave it everywhere like footprints or scat. Our buildings, our symphonies, our fabrics, our societies – all declare patterns. Even our actions. Habits, rules, rituals, daily routines, taboos, codes of honor, sports, traditions – we have many names for patterns of conduct. They reassure us that life is stable, orderly, and predictable.
So do similes or metaphors, because seemingly unrelated things may be caught in their pincers, and then the subtle patterns that unite them shine clear. This is sometimes how the mind comforts itself, and often how the mind crosses from one unknown continent of perception or meaning to another, by using the land-bridge of metaphor. In conversation, we meander like a river. Rocking with grief, a mourning woman keens like a wind-bent willow. The river sings. Unanswered letters dune on a cluttered desk. Families branch. Music curves, spirals and flows. The spidery mind spins a fragile, sticky web between like things, gluing them together for future use. In part, patterns charm us, but they also coax and solicit us. We’re obsessed with solving puzzles; we will stand for hours before a work of abstract art, waiting in vain for it to reveal itself.
Once is an instance. Twice may be an accident. But three times or more makes a pattern. We crave something familiar in a chaotic world. Thought has its precincts, where the cops of law and order patrol, looking for anything out of place. Without a pattern, we feel helpless, and life may seem as scary as an open-backed cellar staircase with no railings to guide us. We rely on patterns, and we also cherish and admire them. Few things are as beautiful to look at as a ripple, a spiral, or a rosette. They are visually succulent. The mind savors them. It is a kind of comfort food. Feast here on some of the wonders in nature’s pantry.
Once is an instance. Twice may be an accident.
But three times or more makes a pattern.
Patterns which repeat create rhythm. A rhythm in twos is a basic march. One-two one-two. In art, this is represented by two subjects – two areas of focus. The movement of our eyes is the flow between the beats.
Add a third beat and you have a waltz. One two three, one two three. Three is a magical number. It represents the triangle and other symbols of superstition, tradition and mathematics. We feel a familiarity and comfort in threes.
Another familiar pattern, one used in music more than any other is the 4/4 time: one-two-three-four, one-two-three-four. Whether in rock-n-roll or classical music, the concept of 4/4 time has several rhythms, all found in nature. Easiest to find is equal emphasis on each beat. Look for emphasis on the one and three beat; then the emphasis on the one beat with a softer two-three-four. Or a mix of emphasis on the first two or the last two beats.
A series of repeating elements is the drum roll of graphic design. The importance of the single element is given over to the masses. This can be represented in geometric shapes such as lines, circles, spheres, ripples, meanders and more. Filling the frame with the repeating elements with no distracting points makes for a powerful orchestra. Imagine a frame filled with nothing but the same type of flower, or a flock of birds, or a forest.
In the following series of photographs, we start out with a beat of two, then we add three to make a waltz, and then four for some basic rock and roll. Add a full orchestra in the last picture and you have a marching band of leaves.
When the rhythm becomes totally unrecognizable and definition of shape and line merge, you have an abstract. The pattern is unpredictable, but there is still a sensation of pattern. Within abstracts you may have recognizable elements, such as with reflections. You may see trees, mountains, or boats in the water.
Reflections can be powerful images in their own right. One professional photographer who specializes in reflections hangs her images upside down. Thus the reflection changes into an impressionistic view of the scene.
Combinations of Patterns
Adding a different element to a pattern stops the eye. Combining a complementary pattern with your pattern makes for a strong sense of rhythm and a powerful image. Lines upon lines, leaves upon leaves, branches upon branches. Combining contrasting patterns can be exciting and dramatic. Lines upon branching. Lines upon circles. Try a variety of combinations.
Be careful that the variety of the combinations does not overwhelm your image. Too many combinations can become distracting and uncomfortable to look at. We can’t find the main interest or story and aren’t interested in the picture. Remember: simplify, simplify, simplify.