Origins and Influences of Pointillism

November 12th, 2012

Pointillism is a famous style of painting developed by Georges Seurat and Paul Signac in the 1880s. The style was founded on ideas about how colors mix and how our eyes interpret dots of color when they are close together. Many modern image making technologies use techniques similar to pointillism, so a lesson in art history can help us understand the pictures we see every day.

What is Pointillism? In painting, pointillism is a style or school that uses small dots or brush strokes to create an image. Traditionally, the dots of paint are applied to the canvas in such a way that their colors and luminosities blend visually to create a smooth impression. One of the most famous examples of pointillism is Georges Seurat’s painting “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte – 1884.” The work depicts a park landscape populated by people relaxing in the shade of trees and engaging in other relaxing activities. Seurat’s unique style gives the painting a light, vibrant feeling. Almost everyone has seen this painting, but it’s only one in a long tradition of pointillist works.

History of Pointillism and DivisionismIn the 1880s, Seurat was one of the first to develop pointillism. Paul Signac was another founder of the style, and other prominent artists using the technique included Vincent van Gogh, Henri-Edmond Cross, John Roy, and Henri Delavallee. Pointillism was first called ‘divisionism’ by its practitioners. The name ‘pointillism’ developed only later, and was intended to mock the style. Today ‘pointillism’ is an accepted term for this style, and has no derisive connotations. Some people still use the term ‘divisionism’ to refer to paintings similar to pointillism, but this label is more accurately used to emphasize the technical color theory that is employed in many such paintings. While pointillism uses small dots to create the impression of form and structure, divisionism creates unique color impressions by juxtaposing dots of different colors according to principles of color and vision.

How Does Pointillism Work?In a typical pointillist painting, you might see a colorful landscape that appears to include a wide range of vibrant colors. If you look closely, say at a patch of aquamarine or teal water, you will see that this bright color is really composed of tiny dots of yellow, green, and blue. By altering the combination of dots of primary colors, pointillist painters can create the illusion that they are using many more colors than they are. Using the viewer’s eye and brain to mix the colors can create a brighter impression than mixing pigments that absorb light. So the aquamarine you see is brighter and more vivid than the color that would have resulted if the painter had mixed yellow, green, and blue paint together. The white canvas between dots can enhance this effect.

Stippling – Black and White PointillismThe same technique that is used in color pointillism can be used to create gray scale images. By using dots of only black and white, dynamic gray scale images can be produced. In art, this black and white technique is called stippling. Although it has been used in painting, it is more commonly used as a drawing technique. Halftone printing, the printing technique used in black and white newspaper printing, is a descendant of stippling.

Pointillism TodayPictures in magazines and newspapers are printed in a method similar to pointillism. Small dots of only three or four colors are printed in such a way that they create the illusion of other colors printed on the page. Even photographs are printed this way, giving the appearance of flesh tones and other photographic colors. Additionally, electronic screens like TVs use a similar technique. Screens display dots, or subpixels, of red, blue, and green at different intensities, and our eyes and brains interpret these collections of dots as detailed color images.

Learning about pointillism is interesting from more than just an art history point of view. The masters of pointillism created stunning masterpieces using this technique, but anyone can understand the basic concepts behind it. Children can learn about and practice pointillism in order to get hands-on experience that can help them to understand color mixing and the mechanisms of vision that make it possible. Because so many of our modern technologies rely on similar ideas to create the images we see around us, pointillism is a fascinating subject. Every image in Photoshop and in the newspaper, and even images people create out of Legos, mosaic tiles, and cake sprinkles could be thought of as modern pointillism.

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