Tag Archives: Poetry

Design Principle – Repetition

Giant Macramé

Looking out the window at CAFAM

In the past months I have written about the Elements of Design. Now I am starting on the Principles of Design – which may act on all the Elements to create meaning.

For a very nice summary of both the Principles and Elements, I rather like Annie Borges’  two posters. I especially like how her definitions show relationships between Principles. Actually discussing them separately is tough, just as it is hard to discuss Elements in isolation (eg line creates shape).

Repetition is the first I want to tackle, mostly because it is very easy to see and use. Repetition creates texture, rhythm or emphasis. Repetition can alter something completely, and works closely with Symmetry and Balance.


Think of Repetition in music – the way the chorus repeats, the return to the melody line after a bridge, repetition of lyrics (“She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah…”) that engender enjoyment and participation. Of course repetition can go too far and become silly or boring (“Friday, Friday, Friday….” …etc…)

Poetry – repetition gives rhythm and unity. It helps build the emotion – especially when it is read aloud.

For example in her poems Maya Angelou often repeats phrases in a kind of chorus. I especially love “Still I Rise” for that. Sometimes it is more subtle, within the vowel sounds.

Repetition in Nature

Consider honeycomb, feathers, leaves and fur. Consider atoms. Consider galaxies. Consider genes.

The repetitive work of bees

Repetitions of the same building blocks to create recognizable forms.

Visual Repetition

Rather apropos of this topic, I visited the Craft and Folk Art Museum on Sunday. All three of the current exhibits, as well as the window display of oversized macramé, specifically referenced Repetition as an important aspect of the works.

19,275 Stamps

Part of Shirley Familian’s exhibit

First I was thrilled by Shirley Familian’s Stamp Art, where she uses multiple postage stamps to create repeating patterns. The images on the stamps themselves become subsumed by the overall pattern, but still invite close examination. I read that she catalogs and counts all the stamps that she uses. Some of her work resembles mandalas, while others are witty because of the underlying object.

Lipstick on Your Collar by Shirley Familian

Lipstick on Your Collar by Shirley Familian

Upstairs the exhibit Displacements: The Craft Practices of Golnar Adili and Samira Yamin intentionally explores “repetitious gestures” and “the repetitive labor that both artists employ”. They use pinning and stitches taken from art quilting with photographic images to build very thoughtful works. One of their interests is Ayeneh Kari – or Persian Mirror work – using multiple tiny mirrors in the decoration of Iranian buildings. Mirrors symbolize hope in the Iranian culture.

Finally a retrospective of mixed media artist Timothy Washington’s body of work showed repetition in his use of motif, material and forms, as well as recurring themes about the body and race.

In all of these exhibits Repetition was more than just a tool for expression, but one of the most integral parts of the works.

Using Repetition

A single shape may be repeated to create a texture or pattern. A whole image may be repeated to create a Warhol. Repeated images or elements in a design become a motif. Another way to include repetition is to have multiples of the same shape but in different scales.

In a composition, balance is often created with repetition of color, especially in a triangle.

Pieter Breugel – The Peasant Wedding. c 1568

Knitting and crochet create a whole design by sequential repetition of stitches. I find the repetitive movement of crochet and loom knitting to be soothing and meditative.

Repeating lines create shadow and density. Engravings depend on repeated lines.

Repetition as Action – Practice

In most creative endeavors, the repetition of practice helps us improve our ability to express our creative thinking. Most things get easier with practice, and we hope get better too.

As with so many of the Elements of Design, and now the Principles, once you start looking for them, they appear everywhere.

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Aristotle’s Emphatic Dramatic Values

Nail Fence

When I was in college we learned about art criticism using these five emphatic dramatic values, interpreted from Aristotle’s writing in his Poetics, where he discussed poetry, theater, and music. He wrote of six values, including one called  “melos” or melody relating to the Chorus that was so important a part of Ancient Greek Theater.

His belief was that art works contained all of the values in different degrees of balance, but that especially for Tragedy Plot was most important followed by Character. He placed Spectacle at the end of the list. Rather than assign a judgement to the relative importance of each Value, I prefer to use them as tools that help me to understand a work as a whole, including defining genre. It is how the Values interact that ends up defining the worth of an undertaking or project.

In looking at each of these values, rather like the Elements of Design, it’s useful to consider the Principles of Design in reference to them –  Balance, Unity, Progression, Symmetry, Contrast, Harmony, Dominance, Repetition. Each can apply within a value, as well as how the values relate to each other.

In no particular order the Values are:

  • Spectacle
  • Plot
  • Language
  • Character
  • Theme

Dramatic values poster

The Values are so interesting to use for dissecting and understanding all kinds of works of art – and they work especially well when examining or critquing film.

Under the banner of spectacle – the visceral enjoyment of action, the art direction, the emotional sweep of music.

The plot or story – how the narrative engages us, perhaps surprises. Twists and turns, or a logical progression.

Language – how words are used. Simple or rich and melodic. The importance of dialect. How language reflects time as well as place. Poets focus on this value. Shakespeare emphasized language, by intentionally using Iambic Pentameter. 

Character – the participants of the story, their motives, their history, their interactions. How we identify with them, or not. Portrait painters investigate character.

Theme – the meaning and importance of a piece. The moral of the story, or the absence of a moral.

The Values as Inspiration

As an artist moving forward with intentional design, it is just as important to be aware of the Values as it is to be aware of the Elements of Design. Much of this is obvious in considering screenwriting – but there are equivalents in all kinds of artistic endeavor. For example, consider the “Grammar of Ornament” by Owen Jones –  elucidating the language of visual design.

Sometimes the values are easier to see in failure. I’m sure we are all familiar with a movie that is all spectacle (eg special fx) without much substance or story, or books where the author is so involved with his own use of esoteric language that the characters are unknowable.

Personally I don’t enjoy atonal music. It seems to me it all about using the stripped back language of music, with mathematical precision as the overriding theme, at the expense of the spectacle of an emotional range or any story. It doesn’t take me anywhere, but I know other people love it.

Sometimes a piece isn’t working out, but we can’t put our finger on what’s wrong. Examining the Emphatic Values might winkle out the problem.

In planning your project, you can list the Values and plan how you will realize each, as well as determine the emphasis of each one.

  • How will you incorporate or show each Value?
  • How will this affect the other four values?
  • Will this make the piece feel unbalanced?
  • Is it worth it for the pay off for the audience/reader anyway?

Here’s an exercise:

Take a simple, familiar personal story, such as a family memory or recent event. Maybe it’s the same old story that your Uncle trots out at every Thanksgiving dinner that starts with “Remember when…” Maybe it’s a story that you haven’t thought to retell – how you met your beloved, or how you chose your pet, or the time when something different happened at a familiar place.

What happened? Consider how it might be told with each of the Values emphasized, and played with. If you normally tell it in straightforward prose, try turning it into poetry, or a series of single emotive words. Draw it, collage it. What if it were told like an action sequence in a movie? what if the setting were described or illustrated in great detail? What if it were seen as illuminating the character of each participant in turn? If you were to set each moment to music, what would you choose? Now choose something entirely different. Instead of telling the story, show how the story illuminates your family values or philosophy.

It’s not a short exercise, is it? But it could be a valuable one. You might come out with any number of different art or written pieces just from one event. You might gain new insights to your own reactions, or to how other people might be experiencing the same event.

Let me know in the comments if any of you choose to take this on. I’d love to see the results. Remember to follow me on Twitter!