Unity means that there is an agreement that exists among the elements within a design. These elements look as though they belong together, as though some visual connection beyond mere chance has caused them to come together. Another term for for the same idea is Harmony. If the various elements are not harmonious, if they appear separate or unrelated, the pattern falls apart and lacks unity.
Unity of design is planned and controlled by the artist, but sometimes it stems naturally from the elements chosen. But more often it reflects the skill of the designer to create a unified pattern from varied elements. An important aspect of visual unity is that the whole must be predominant over the parts: You must first see the whole pattern before you notice the individual elements. Each item may have a meaning and certainly add to the total effect, but if the viewer sees merely a collection of bits and pieces, then visual unity does not exist.
Below are three ways to create Unity in a work:
An easy way to gain unity-to make separate elements look as if they belong together-is by proximity, simply putting the elements close together. The four elements in A appear isolated, as floating bits with no relationship to each other. By putting them close together, as in B, we begin to see them as a total, related pattern. Proximity is a common unifying factor. Through proximity we recognize constellations in the skies and, in fact, are able to read. Change the proximity scheme that makes letters into words and reading becomes next to impossible.
Proximity is the simplest way to achieve unity, and many artworks employ this technique. Without proximity (with largely isolated elements), the artist must put greater stress on other methods to unify an image.
A valuable and widely used device for achieving visual unity is repetition. As the term implies, something simply repeats in various parts of the design to relate the parts to each other. The element that repeats may be almost anything: a color, a shape, a texture, a direction, or an angle. In the painting by Sophie Taeuber-Arp (A), the composition is based on one shape: a circle with two circular “bites” removed. This shape is repeated in different sizes and positions. The result is a composition that is unified but not predictable. Tom Friedman’s sculpture (B) also shows unity by repetition. The obvious aspect is the repetition of the cut pencil fragments. The unity created by these many repeated parts is strengthened by the continuous line and cohesive mass of the assembled form.
B. Tom Friedman. Untitled. 1995.
A third way to achieve unity is by continuation, a more subtle device than proximity or repetition, which are fairly obvious. Continuation, naturally, means that something “continues”usually a line, an edge, or a direction from one form to another. The viewer’s eye is carried smoothly from one element to the next. The design in A is unified by the closeness and the character of the elements. In B, though, the shapes seem even more of a unit because they are arranged in such a way that one’s vision flows easily from one element to the next. The shapes no longer float casually. They are now organized into a definite, set pattern.