Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

Lesson 3: Repetition in the Visual Arts

Tools

The Lesson

Introduction

Repetition in the Visual Arts

Palazzo da Mula at Venice, Claude Monet

Credit: Courtesy of Wikimedia

When we view paintings and other works of art our eyes usually move across the surface of the canvas, hitting on various points, objects, and figures in the picture. Our attention is drawn to particular parts of the image—to certain figures or actions—which propel the narrative captured in the picture or which convey certain information to the viewer. Certainly the artist wants to be sure that the audience pays the most attention to the important elements—such as the focal point—in the image rather than decorative or background elements. In this lesson students will learn about repetition, one of the techniques artists often use to highlight important elements within a painting's composition, and to move a viewer's eye around the canvas, from highpoint to highpoint.

Guiding Questions

  • How do compositional elements guide the viewer's eye around the canvas?
  • What is repetition in the visual arts, and how does it affect works of art?

Learning Objectives

At the end of this lesson students will be able to

  • Identify repetition in the composition of a variety of art works, and how it is used to create a unified composition
  • Explain how the artist's compositional choices guide the viewer's eye to important components of the image
  • Discuss ways in which the compositional structure of a painting affects the tone of the painting, or communicates information or emotional content to the viewer.

Preparation Instructions

  • Review the curriculum unit overview and this lesson plan. Locate and bookmark suggested materials and EDSITEment-reviewed websites. Download and print out documents you will use and duplicate copies as necessary for student viewing.
  • Note: All diagrams, line drawings, and questions for this lesson are available for students to download directly through the Student Launchpad. You can access all of the diagrams for this lesson plan directly through the Student Launchpad.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Practice Makes Perfect? Introducing Repetition in Composition

Visual repetition is one of the devices that artists sometimes use in order to move a viewer's eye across the surface of a canvas. In this activity students will learn to identify examples of visual repetition and to explain how repetition guides the viewer's eye through the visual field of the painting.

Begin with a definition of repetition in the visual arts:

  • Repetition in the visual arts can be thought of as a recurring shape, color, object, motif, or other element within a work of art.

Have students begin by viewing the following painting which is available from the EDSITEment-reviewed web resource The National Gallery of Art:

Have students access the line drawing and diagrams of this image through the Student Launchpad to aid in discussing repetition in this image. Students should immediately recognize that some of the shapes and forms in the painting appear more than once. Ask students to identify some of the repeated forms. They will likely identify the two gondolas—and in particular the cabins located at the aft of the boats—as well as the balconies and some of the windows. But are these the only visual repetitions?

Mention that repetition in the visual arts should be understood to include not only the duplication of identical objects—such as the two boats—but also of elements whose form is in some way similar. That similarity might be the found in the form, the outline, the color, the tone, or even the brightness and saturation of two objects or figures. In this Monet painting, students might note the blue posts which frame the doorway on the far left side of the painting. A similarly colored and shaped set of posts is found to the right of that doorway. The shape and color appear again to the right of the second frame, this time in front of the building next door. Finally, the two mooring posts for the boats, while spaced further apart than the previous posts, compose a similar shape and are rendered using the same color. Walk through this process with the class as a whole to model what they will be looking for in the paintings used in this activity. For a mapping of the repeated frame, as well as a second example of repetition in the Monet, have students access the line drawing and diagrams of this image through the Student Launchpad to aid in discussing the use of repetition in this image.

Have students view the following painting, which is available from the EDSITEment-reviewed web resource The Metropolitan Museum of Art:

Divide the class into groups of three or four students. Once they have had a chance to examine the painting ask students to work together to find examples of repetition in this image. Students should identify the repetition in the shape of the rower and his scull, the bridge, and the cloud that hovers above it. Have students access the line drawing and diagrams of this image through the Student Launchpad to aid in discussing repetition in this painting. Now that students have begun to identify instances of visual repetition they may wonder why artists choose to include these features in their paintings. Visual repetition in some ways acts like an echo. There is frequently one feature (often this is the object that is in the foreground of the painting) that appears as the "original," with additional recurrences seeming to repeat—to echo—the first. You may ask students to think about what happens when they hear an echo. They hear the first sound, they then turn their attention to the echoed "response," and soon begin searching with their ears for additional recurrences. Visual repetition can have the same affect: the recurrences of the visual "echoes" draw a viewer's attention to that point in the image, and soon they are searching with their eyes for additional references. In this way repetition is often used as a tool by artists for guiding the viewer's eye around the canvas. Ask students to describe the path their eyes follow when viewing the Eakins. They may draw their viewing path directly on a printout of the line drawing available from the Student LaunchPad, or number sequentially the objects in the order where their eyes fall. Where did they look first? Where did their attention shift next? Do they notice anything about the path that their eyes followed? When students have finished working with the PDF printout have each group present what they have found, and discuss their findings as a class. Many students probably viewed the image by focusing first on the scull and rower, then moving to the bridge, and then finally alighting on the cloud. Students may note that this series of steps takes the viewer deeper and deeper into the "space" of the painting, beginning with the object that is painted to appear closest to the viewer and ending with the one that is painted to appear furthest away. Thus, the use of repetition in this painting not only pulls the viewer's eye across the surface of the canvas, but also draws the viewer into the painting, pulling the viewer into the imaginary depth of the picture.

Activity 2. Repetition and the Use of Color

In the previous activity students concentrated on the duplication of shape or form in their investigation of repetition in painting. In this activity students will examine the use of repetition through color.

Divide the class into three or four small groups of students. Once they have had a chance to examine their painting, ask students to work together to find examples of color repetition in this image. Assign each group one of the following two images, which are both available from the EDSITEment-reviewed web resource The Smithsonian American Art Museum:

Have students work together to identify instances of color repetition in the painting they have been assigned. In the first painting, students should be able to identify Johnson's repeated use of electric blue throughout the image, as well as the use of red and yellow throughout the composition. In addition to identifying the repetition of these colors throughout the painting, students should work together to identify the ways in which Johnson's use of repeated color helps to guide the viewer's eye around the composition. Have students access the line drawing and diagrams of this image through the Student Launchpad to aid in this discussion. In this image Johnson uses the electric blue to draw the viewer's eye from the foreground of the image, along one side of the street and deep into the Harlem street he has depicted, and then back down the other side of the street to the foreground once again. In the case of the Johnson image, the color blue, which he uses to delineate human figures, cars, and even the edge of the street, is laid down like a nearly unbroken path for the eye to follow.

In the second painting students should be able to identify the three burnt sienna colored pillars or groups of pillars which are depicted as holding up the roof of the mine. Have students access the line drawing and diagrams of this image through the Student Launchpad to aid in discussing repetition in this painting. When students have finished working with the PDF printout have each group present what they have found, and discuss their findings as a class. Like the visual echo effect described in the previous activity, similarly colored components within a painting's composition will draw the viewer's eye from one object to another which resembles it in tone. In the case of the Schwartz painting, the three pillars pull the eye across the scene. In part this is because they are all similarly shaped, however, the painter's color choice also makes a difference. The eye is often drawn to patches of light (or comparatively light) color. The three pillars are among the lightest points within the composition. In addition, the walls, ceiling, and floor of the mine are painted in cool grays and blacks. Even the miners appear cool in color, wearing their dirty blue overalls. The three sets of pillars are given a warm brown tone which stands out in contrast to the cooler background.

Students should work within their groups to answer the following question:

  • How do these similarly colored elements within the composition help to move the viewer's eye across the picture plane?

Once the groups have had a chance to investigate their painting and to answer the questions on the LaunchPad, each group should present its findings to the rest of the class. Next, have students return to their groups and view the following painting, which is also available on the EDSITEment-reviewed web resource The Smithsonian American Art Museum

Have students continue to work together in the same small groups to find examples of color repetition in Crite's painting. Have students access the line drawing and diagrams of this image through the Student Launchpad to aid in discussing repetition in this painting. Students should be able to identify the repetition of the yellow and the blue in the outfits worn by many of the women and girls in the image.

  • How do these similarly colored elements within the composition help to move the viewer's eye around the painting?

Students should concentrate on where the visual echo created by the yellow and blue takes their eye. They may find that the blue and yellow create two crisscrossing lines, which can be seen in the second of the PDF drawings available from the Student LaunchPad. Those crisscrossing lines carry the eye across the canvas, from the bottom corners, and then pointing the eye towards the opposite upper corners. Again, have each group present what they have found, and discuss their findings as a class.

Activity 3. Working together: Form and Color

Often it is not only the repetition of either similar forms or similar color that helps to carry the viewer's attention to each of the compositional elements of a painting, but a combination of the two. In this activity students will examine two paintings in which repetitive form and color play a role in drawing the audience's eye across the picture plane.

Have students view the following painting, which is available on the EDSITEment-reviewed web resource The National Gallery of Art:

Assign half of the class to work on examining this painting for instances of repetition of form, while the other half of the class sets about finding examples of repetition of color. Students should work individually initially. When they have gathered together their observations pair each student who worked on finding color repetition together with another student who worked on repetition of form. Each pair should discuss with the other what they have found. They should then work together to find ways in which repetitive color and form work together to draw the viewer's eye across the surface of the canvas. Have students access the line drawing and diagrams of this image through the Student Launchpad to aid in discussing repetition in this painting. The most striking element in Bellows' painting is the cart loaded with yellow packages in the foreground, and the viewer's eye is immediately drawn to the warmth of its color and to its brightness. The viewer's attention is then drawn to the line of brightly-lit buildings in the background and to the left of the cart. Next, the eye is drawn to the bright spot in the sky between the skyscrapers. Students will note the similarity in the shape of each of these forms, as is highlighted in the PDF drawing that is available from the Student LaunchPad. These are not the only examples in the painting of repeated shapes (or color) within the composition, however, they are the ones to which the viewer's eye is drawn. Students should also note the similarity in the use of color and in the brightness of these three spots. In the case of this painting it is Bellows' use of repetitive shape and color together than draws the audience into the composition of the painting. Like the Eakins painting from the first activity in this lesson, Bellows draws the viewer's attention into the painting, pulling the eye deeper with each step into the illusionary depth of Bellows' street scene. Have students view the following painting, which is available on the EDSITEment-reviewed web resource The Smithsonian American Art Museum:

Assign the half of the class who worked in the last exercise on color to work on examining this painting for instances of repetition of form, while the other half of the class switches to searching for examples of color repetition. Students should work individually initially. When they have gathered together their observations have students work in the same pairs as in the previous exercise. Each pair should discuss with the other what they have found. They should then work together to find ways in which repetitive color and form work together to draw the viewer's eye around the surface of the canvas. Have students access the line drawing and diagrams of this image through the Student Launchpad to aid in discussing repetition in this painting. Students should note the repetition in the facades of the shotgun shacks that line the background of Biggers' image. In addition, their attention might be drawn to the bicycle wheel lying next to the sidewalk in the foreground. This shape is echoed in the windmill above the shacks to the right, the flower pattern in the woman's pink dress, and again in the skeleton of the church's burning roof. The roof and the woman's dress are also linked to each other in the repeated use of the deep pink color found in both elements. Yet, the composition of the painting is divided by Biggers' use of color. The woman in pink stands at a dividing line between the warm-toned left side of the composition and the cool-toned right side of the painting. While the pinks and reds of the left half unite that side of the painting, it also seems to separate it from the cooler right half. This disunity is reunited by the repetition of the wheel form: from the wheel on the ground, to the flower in the woman's dress, to the wind mill above the houses.

Assessment

Divide the class into pairs and assign each pair one of the following images which are all available from The Smithsonian American Art Museum. One member of the pair will examine the image for repetition of color while the other will examine the image for repetition of form. They will then work together to discuss the ways in which repetition of both color and form work to move the viewer's eye around the canvas.

When each pair has finished working on their painting have three to six pairs who have each worked on a different painting share their findings with each other. Each pair should also work together to write a brief explanation of their findings for submission.

Extending The Lesson

You may wish to extend the lesson by assigning a short research project for your students using the internet resources available from these EDSITEment-reviewed web resources: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The National Gallery of Art, The Museum of Modern Art's Art Safari, The Smithsonian American Art Museum, and The Art Institute of Chicago. Have them find one example each of color repetition, form repetition, and a combination of color and form repetition. Students should write at least one paragraph for each image that they find explaining why it is an example of one of these three elements.

The Basics

Grade Level

9-12

Time Required

1-2 class periods

Subject Areas
  • Art and Culture > Medium > Visual Arts
Skills
  • Critical thinking
  • Interpretation
  • Logical reasoning
  • Visual art analysis
Authors
  • Jennifer Foley, NEH (Washington, DC)

Resources

Student Resources
Media