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Unity is a principle in art that refers to a set of compositional strategies used by an artist to make the parts of a painting or another work of art hang together as a whole through visual relatedness. Unity doesn't necessarily apply to an entire work of art, it can also apply to an element or elements of a piece of work that could also contain other forms of expression. But unity always expresses a shared commonality within a painting or sculpture or textile.
Unity by Another Name
The principles of art have been enumerated by different artists, art historians, and art critics in all sorts of way. Although often called something else, unity is one that appears as a constant in those lists, often as a polar opposite to contrast or variety. Unity of color and shape is what the art theorist is getting at under the (relatively) synonymous labels of uniformity, coherence, harmony, and similarity, expressed as characteristics of the elements of color, shape, and texture.
In addition, at a structural level, unity can be seen in the symmetry or repetition or approximation of multiple shapes within a piece. Examples of structural unity include a quilt with four quarters or regions that repeat, or a Tibetan mandala that echoes in repeated shapes that are nested within one another.
Arousing the Mind
Unity can be thought of in terms of Gestalt psychology as a factor that arouses the mind by the redundancy of information. Elements in a painting that would be considered examples of unity might be colors that are close to one another in terms of hue or chroma, or recurring shapes, or textures that mimic one another. The shapes can be clones or approximations and textures can be identical, or echoes of one another-think of a piece of clothing that unites two types of corduroys.
It is true that extreme unity makes a composition boring: a checkerboard is the ultimate in unity, and not particularly interesting visually. While often associated with beauty and harmony, unity can also be sinister, when it communicates static or stultifying social norms. Grant Wood's "American Gothic" is definitely an example of the unity of the sinister kind: the repeated pattern of the pitchfork with the paned stained glass of the church behind the couple is a none-too-subtle message communicated by the unity of the form.
Unity is a tool in the kit of the artist, and can be folded in as subtle color symmetries, or involving complementary design elements. It can work to please the mind and tie together the disparate forms in a painting, whether abstract or realistic.
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