What’s the Point of Pointillism?

PAUL SIGNAC, PORTRAIT OF FÉLIX FÉNÉON, 1890.

Artists such as Georges Seurat and Paul Signac gained stature following the height of the original Impressionist movement and belonged to the Post-Impressionism and Neo-Impressionism groups, respectively, each capturing the hearts of art lovers everywhere. Following the height of the original Impressionist movement, there was a desire among artists to expand on the main ideas of Impressionism—how could they explore the emotional aspect while experimenting with the form?

 

From this came the revolutionary technique known as Pointillism. Pointillism is a painting style where dots of color are layered on a surface. When viewed from a distance, the dots create a blend of colors and shading that make the forms of the painting. It is a laborious technique that requires time and a meticulous eye for dimensions. One of the most famous Pointillism pieces, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island La Grande Jatte, is estimated to include over 220,000 individual dots to make up the 6 ft. 10 in. x 10 ft. 1 in. canvas. What is the benefit of going to such lengths for a single painting? The answer lies in the science behind the technique.

 

A key part of Pointillism is that colors are used in their natural form, meaning no blending to combine pigments happens before the paint is applied. Any depth of shade or combination of colors the eye sees when looking at the painting comes from the layering of the dots. Essentially, the brain is tricked into seeing colors that aren’t there.

Georges Seurat, Un Dimanche Après-Midi À L
Georges Seurat, Un Dimanche Après-Midi À L'île de la Grande Jette, 1884-86 courtesy of Sotheby's

The American Psychology Association explains that our brains have two processing streams: a “what” and a “where.” These two streams observe visuals around us to create images in our brains to explain what’s happening. The “what” stream focuses on color—it combines brightness and pigment to let our brains identify objects. The “where” stream is colorblind. This stream focuses on object location, spatial awareness, and movement.

 

When we look at a Pointillism painting, we uniquely activate both streams. The “what” stream observes the tiny dots on the surface and blends them together for the brain. While a painting may use red, blue, yellow, and green dots to create a skin tone, when we look at it from afar, it appears to be one even peach color. Since color identification and object location are recognized by different parts of the brain, the color stream does not pick up the individual dots. Artists made Pointillism not just visually engaging but psychologically advanced as well.

Henri Matisse, Luxe, Calme et Volupté, 1904 at Musée D
Courtesy of Sotheby's

For artists, this formed a new freedom in color usage. They could further Impressionism by not only giving the impression of an object but the impression of color as well. The endless combinations of color applications allowed artists to create unique color combinations that would not have been available to them otherwise. The pointillists also utilized color pairings that made shifting colors for our brains. This means that when specific colors are layered together, such as orange and purple, it causes the orange to look more pink from certain spots.

 

This psychologically engaging phenomenon of looking at Pointillism paintings is why it has become such a beloved subclass in the Impressionist movement. While people love observing the individual dots on the artwork, like Cameron in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, the real magic happens when you take a step back. The next time you find yourself face to face with a Pointillism piece, make sure you give yourself time to see as many color combinations as possible—you very well may see a color you never knew existed.


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