We are wired to spot patterns. Our deep-rooted abilities to recognise similarities and repetitions make artwork with patterns very appealing.
Our brains love nothing more than filling in the gaps and making connections so that we can learn. It is believed that we have evolved to create patterns to help our understanding of the world and make sense of chaos. We do it all the time without even registering it – seeing shapes in the clouds and finding pictures in the knots of wood on floorboards.
Some of the earliest examples of patterns used by humans can be seen in ancient buildings like the ancient Greek Parthenon with its many repeated geometric shapes and symmetrical structure. The pattern used for this is known as the 'golden ratio' or 'perfect number'. The golden ratio has been used in everything from buildings to the dimensions of the first iPod – it even made a photograph of Manchester town centre go viral last year. One of the most famous paintings that is laid out with the golden ratio is Leonardo da Vinci's 'Mona Lisa'. In simple terms the golden ratio is a geometric equation within a design that brings an aesthetically pleasing result.
Calculation of Face-ism index on two crops of the Mona Lisa
One of the most famous movements dedicated to patterns is pointillism, a strand of neo-impressionism. Pointillism is all about creating an image composed entirely of small dots.
The pointillists layered dot upon dot of colour to create perspectives and shapes in the scene they artist is painting. Up close, the works of art look like hundred of dots, but stood back the whole picture is visible. Pointillism relies on our mind's eye seeing the shades and creating the patterns that allow us to see the whole image.
Morning, Interior by Maximilien Luce
Another neo-impressionist movement that was around at a similar time to pointillism was divisionism. Although these two styles may look very similar there is an important difference between the two.
Saint-Rémy - Road with Cypress and Star by Vincent van Gogh
Divisionism artists use larger cube-like brush strokes. Divisionists also apply blocks of pure colour directly from the tube. Traditionally colours are always mixed on a palette before being applied to the canvas. Divisionists use rectangular dots of single – often primary – colours that force the viewer to mix the tones themselves optically with our unavoidable knack for creating patterns and stitching things together.
Snakeshead printed cotton designed by William Morris
The arts and crafts movement of the 1800s in Britain was one of the most influential periods on modern design. Led by famous artists like William Morris, the movement celebrated the connection between craftsmanship and nature, creating some of the most loved and well-known patterns that we can still see today in places like the V&A and the famous department store, Liberty. The arts and crafts movement brings a repeated order and structure to nature, which gives it a new dimension of beauty and a satisfying regularity.
Cataract 3, 1967, PVA on canvas by Bridget Riley
One of the most famous art movements that really brings patterns in art to fame is op arts or optical arts. This visual and abstract art movement from the 1960s was based on creating optical illusions with patterns in shapes and colours. Famous op artists like Victor Vasarely created patterns that alter our perceptions of background and foreground and play on our visual functions. Op art often suggests movement in the work or the patterns vibrating on the canvas.
Artists like Bridget Riley started to add colour to their op art work in 1965 and this created even more visual illusions in their patterns. The lines and shapes of colours op art would often create after-images where the viewer would see different shades on the canvas due to the way the retina receives and processes light.
Sarah I. Avni's Flower of Life I. is an acrylic on canvas displaying the patterns of creation found in many religions and ancient cultures. The history of this particular pattern makes very interesting reading and a very satisfying work of art.
Butterfly by Janet Payne is a great example of the movement that can sometimes appear when viewing patterns of lines and shapes.
Dotticelli Venus Digital Spot Painting by Czar Catstick brings a modern twist to one of the most recognised female faces in the history of art. Although each circle is perfectly symmetrical, they are different sizes to create the impression of different shapes.
Paula Horsley plays about with our perception of colour in Abstract Deer 17. The resin blocks of colours are topped with painted dots of contrasting tones to give the image more depth. There are many different styles of dots to look at for pattern lovers.
Fragmented Array by Stephen Conroy plays about with our perception of depth. This bright array of different colour rectangles draws the eye in and introduces and background and a foreground.
Take a look at our online gallery to see what patterns please your eye!
Illustration of calculation of Face-ism index on two crops of the Mona Lisa/ Cmglee/ Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons
Morning, Interior by Maximilien Luce/ Metropolitan Museum of Art/ Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons
Saint-Rémy - Road with Cypress and Star by Vincent van Gogh/ Kröller-Müller Museum/ Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons
Snakeshead printed cotton designed by William Morris/ Planet Art CD of royalty-free PD images William Morris: Selected Works/ Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons
Cataract 3, 1967, PVA on canvas/ Bridget Riley/ Cactus.man/ Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons