Illustration Teardowns: Rhythm & Motif

Let’s explore the design principle of rhythm and repetition, or motif, applied to illustration…

Jumping Ship—Illustration by Rob Levin

Warning: This article contains many emojis 😛😛😛

In the spirit of UX Teardowns, I’ll be looking at illustrators that catch my eye, and try to analyze what makes their work so compelling. Please note that all illustrations hereinafter, unless stated otherwise, are the express work of the artist I’m reviewing; I do not take any credit for their works! Also, I will try to be careful to post links back to the artist’s site — so if you click their image it will link through.

Illustrations can range from very organic to very graphical to a combinations of both. All are valid, and it’s really up to you, your customer, and your product or company’s brand identity, etc., what ratio of organic-to-graphical to incorporate into an illustration. Further, if you have a particularly strong sense of style that favors one over the other, you may of course choose to remain bullish in that stylistic choice. All fine ಠ‿ಠ. But, if you find yourself doing illustrations for both your muse, and clients (or creative directors, AD’s, etc.), you may find it helpful to have the ability to incorporate design principles in your illustration as needed.

What are Rhythm & Motif?

Alongside the discussion of the design principles of motif (repetitive use of a design element), rhythm, and repetition, you will also often see, movement (shapes, forms, or lines that provide a sense of, well, movement), and patterns (2 or more shapes, forms, or lines that are arranged in a certain way, and then repeated regularly).

But what we’re really going to look at today is rhythm. What exactly is rhythm? For details, I’ll defer to a nice article on Repetition, Pattern, and Rhythm at sophia.org which states:

Rhythm is like pattern, in that the same elements (i.e.shape, line) are repeated; however, with rhythm there are slight variations in the pattern.

Types of Rhythm

Here’s another good article on rhythm that describes the following 5 types:

  • Regular
  • Flowing
  • Progressive
  • Alternating
  • Random

Wow, 5 types of rhythm…really?! Thankfully, the words themselves describe the type quite intuitively:

  • Regular is closest to being like a pattern
  • Flowing think of a river or wave or an S-curve
  • Progressive think of cards or a staircase that fans out, or a set of telephone polls getting smaller into the distance
  • Alternating might be two opposing lines with arrows on the ends in different directions, or The Dance by Henri Matisse
  • Random can be thought of as unplanned and without order. I suppose Jackson Pollock is an ideal example of random rhythm. Also related to random rhythm is the notion of mosaic balance.

Let’s start looking at illustrations that exemplify these rhythmic principles…

Lisk Feng—If we say that the hats are a sort of motif in this illustration, we could also say they provide a certain rhythm to it as well. I’d say the rhythm they provide is both progressive and random (see Types of Rhythm below).
Lisk Feng—The flowers, leaves, and general foliage provide a flowing if undulating rhythm, but there are also line motifs, shape motifs, and even typographical motifs, all providing rhythm in various ways.
Ariel Davis—An amazing example of all the rhythm types in one piece! The outer lines of the bumpy shapes are “flowing”. The trees are “progressive” as they recede towards the vanishing point. The hill shadows are “random” in shape yet unified in color. The lines are “flowing” and even semi-regular, but, the criss-cross aspect of them could be taken as “alternating”. Ok, that’s my take, what rhythms do you see??
Ariel Davis—Another illustration high in rhythmic appeal and also conceptually quite interesting.
Ariel Davis —Motifs seem to be thought of early in this illustrator’s process as the rhythms appear to work effortlessly.
Tom Haugomat shows that it’s absolutely possible to combine organic and graphical. The organic elements are there: figures, foliage, and other landscape elements, but, if you look at the piece carefully, you see the large triangular motif for the hills and cloud, the 4 canoes, the tree motifs, the C-curves repeated in the clouds, the pen tool looking curves in the water and foreground red highlight, the horizontal water highlights, and other motifs too. That’s a lot of rhythm in an otherwise nature inspired work!
Tom Haugomat—it might be easier to identify his use of rhythm in this sketch then the first image shown—the cloud shapes, the little star dots, again the progressive rhythm of the triangular hills, the branches, the alternating blue and white blue horizontal marks on the water. It looks so effortless, but is surely intentional and thoughtfully executed.

Concluding Thoughts

So why should you introduce rhythm in to your illustrations? Well, it’s up to you really. Perhaps you’re going all representational or organic and feel like worrying about rhythm might make your piece somehow artificial. But, if you look at a lot of successful illustration and even fine art, you’ll see that it was definitely taken in to consideration in the compositional planning stages. I’ll challenge you to go look at your favorites and see if/where that’s true ◕‿↼

Rob Levin does technical things by day and illustration by night. You can view his work at https://www.instagram.com/roblevintennis and https://www.behance.net/roblevin

Previous in series in series: 5 Amazing Posca Artists. Next in series: Focal Point. Also, you may like one of my other illustration teardowns.