Composition Ideas To Make Your Art Stronger: Unity vs. Variety

Collage is a great medium for artists who want to explore the wonderful world of abstract composition. Since you can try a lot of visual ideas without committing, it can really free up your imagination and sense of play. And there is so much diversity in the materials that you can use. Really, artists use almost anything, but in book collage it can be titles, text, images, diagrams, blocks of color, shapes, fabric, stitching. Its exciting. But it can also be overwhelming. Found materials, especially old materials, have a lot of built in personality and character. They can tend to fight each other on the page. In art fundamentals they talk about balancing variety and unity. I find it a really useful framework for looking at your work.

So variety, difference, diversity— these create energy in your work. The eye leaps among very different colors, shapes, sizes, materials, and we get this charge. But we also very naturally want to pull it together into some kind of order. We don’t want chaos. We want to see connectedness.

Robert Rauschenberg’s work is an ideal place to study the balancing of these opposing forces. He was a great lover of unusual materials and is a master of wildly diverse compositions.

Photograph, 1959,  Robert Rauschenberg


How does Rauschenberg get to this feeling of wildness and yet unity in the above piece?

First, there is a sense of structure, a grid perhaps, that underlies the image. A recognizable structure, even if only loosely followed, helps to create unity. Rauschenberg often works in thirds, dividing the canvas into three rows or columns. It’s a structure I particularly like.

Second, he has quiet spaces where the eye can rest. Areas of strong diversity/activity are balanced by calm, neutral areas where there is less going on. I would also say its part of unifying to simplify your compositions. That 3rd column could very well have been a ton more collage elements that he wisely decided to just paint over.

Third, he uses similarity. Very different elements can be brought into relationship by making them more similar. The middle column of this painting is packed with differences: photographs, a tie, the letter S, some black stars, a plank of wood— these are all brought together through values of brown. Similarities of hue and value are strong ways to unify. The eye builds an association almost immediately. Also shape. Similarity of shape between the reflection of the city skyline and the light bluish paint drips creates a bridge between these two elements. The drips extending to the bottom of the canvas, brings in the tie (similar hue, proximity) and  the stars (overlap, proximity).

Fourth, notice the use of repetition. If there were only the one black “S”,  it would not bind as well to the painting. But then we notice a second, red “S”, different but similar, which establishes a well connected relative (so to speak). The repetition of blocks of white create a spacial connection between isolated areas of the painting. Your eye can travel white to white to white and encircle the canvas. I really do start to think of these elements as people at a raucous garden party with many subterranean connections— maybe I have been watching too much Downton Abbey. But a lot of the fun of that show is how different and well drawn the characters are.  Variety makes things interesting, and exciting.

I want to note something I just love in this painting: the two white squares in the lower left corner. They are sepia toned photographs of mostly sky. Being perfect squares they have a severity and stability that is a delicious contrast to all the more organic shapes. They reinforce the strong, straight boundary between columns two and three and give the painting a nice sense of strength. So subtle and so FUN!

Next post I want to discuss another aspect of visual unity that this picture has in spades:  a masterful sense of hierarchy. This is one of the most important elements of design, that is, to have different levels of dominance in your composition.  If everything is loud, you just get noise. Adjusting the volume of your elements begins to give your composition an overall shape, and harmony.

Meanwhile, how do you handle Variety and Unity in your own work?  Do you use a structure? Do you prefer more Unity or more Variety, and why? Leave a comment below (and lets see if I actually have that working!).

Here are a few more Rauschenbergs to enjoy until we meet again…

Happy Artmaking,


Retroactive II, 1963, Robert Rauschenberg
First Jump Landing, 1961 Robert Rauschenberg

26 thoughts on “Composition Ideas To Make Your Art Stronger: Unity vs. Variety

  1. Thanks MKelinda, for the nice view at this work. In the days RR started, he was provocative. He met quite some criticism (see f.i. Olivia Laing in The Guardian Nov 25, 2016) and one might encounter descriptions that his work was chaotic and imbalanced. Times change as do our view. What I particularly like about RR is is crossing of boundaries. Several mediums (collage, assemblage, painting) may be combined (…) in one work. For me, these hold great tension, and I belief, this arises from our subconsciousnous, that there is a láck of balance, even if (unseen) it is controlled by the artist. For assemblage, I wrote “Assemblages: the entrails explained”, that on some points touch on the elements of Collage like those shown here. (Axon Journal Issue 9, as Drager Meurtant). Sure interested to learn more from your writing. regards, Drager


    1. Hi Pat! Yeah, after I wrote this I have been binging on Rauschenberg. So many great examples of these ideas and so much to talk about with Unifying. I am just thinking of how Michael Shemchuk does it… maybe you can write me a guest post since you attended his recent class 🙂


  2. Hello Melinda, greetings from Jakarta. I’ve been doing collage works for some years now, and i find this writing of yours through your facebook page. It’s really nice to read very carefully thorough and detailed explanation without being too wordy, and i think we really need to read these kind of appreciation on such works. Even though i don’t really keen on Rauschenberg’s style but i love how you analyse and make more sense on them. We need to learn more from wider range of experts then unlimit the possibility of our works. Looking forward on your postings and works too! 🙂


  3. Beautifully expressed. So many good points to consider. Composition is what I love most about abstract collage / mixed media because it feels like a window into the artist’s mind of choices made. I value unity as a way to create conversations happening in a piece of work.


    1. Hi Kerith! So you favor Unity? Its a good tendency, that I struggle to have. I get enamored with the excitement of lots of differences… and then I have a mess 🙂 Its probably easier to make a unified composition more exciting than to make a wild mess more unified.


  4. I’m in Oakland doing a month long house exchange for my house and studio in Santa Fe, New Mexico. I’m visiting my daughter and grand daughter and missing my materials and art making space. Your post made me so happy. It was beautifully written and the work magnified all your points. Makes me think I’ll try to find a simple way to do some collage work here. Art fills the heart.


    1. Yes, and while you are in the bay area, go see some Rauschenberg at SFMOMA. The real thing is unbelievable to just look at all the decisions. And all the daring. He could be incredibly fearless, which is so hard. And when you are back in Santa Fe, come take a workshop and we will play together!


  5. Melinda….This is one of the most useful, clear, generous and intelligent blog posts on composition I have seen. It is extremely helpful to have you use an example, Rauschenberg’s collage, to demonstrate your intellectual/design comments. I find composition the most difficult aspect to achieve in a collage/mixed media piece. I would love to see you use one of your own pieces as scaffolding for a post on elements of composition. Thank you and I look forward to additional posts on this subject.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I understand that Fay. Keep in mind these are early pieces where he is just collecting junk off the street and making art with it. In the sixties, not a time known for its sense of orderliness. His later work, particularly with fabrics, can be super streamlined and elegant. give it a google.


  6. Such a useful consideration of this piece of art, Melinda. Using elements and principals of design to critique and learn from masterworks helps us know how to improve our own work. Thanks for this post.

    Liked by 1 person

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