This post will be all about the interesting style known as pointillism. Whilst this art movement was based on a somewhat misguided understanding of how color works and how we perceive it, the movement did produce some stunning artworks and techniques which you can apply to your paintings.
What is pointillism?
Pointillism is a style of painting which involves using dots of distinct color to create the illusion of form. The idea behind pointillism is that when you place two distinct colors next to each other, the colors will optically blend into a different color.
The style first came to head in the 1880s with artists such as Georges Seurat and Paul Signac. The term "pointillism" was actually coined by critics and was used to mock the style of painting. The style of painting was originally referred to as "divisionism".
Pointillism was developed under the misconception that you could use optical mixing to create the appearance of more bright and vivid colors than what is capable from the physical mixing of paints.
With our paints, when you mix all the primary colors together, you get mud. When you mix all the primary colors of light together you get white light. Pointillism was developed to try and mimic the way light works. However, instead of the colors optically mixing to create more bright and pure colors, the actual result is more of an averaging of all the colors.
How do you paint using a pointillist style?
The pointillist style is difficult to pull off, but the idea is simple. Instead of mixing your paints on your palette, you use small dots of distinct color and rely somewhat on optical mixing to do most of the work.
The amount of optical mixing that occurs will depend on how large the dots of paint you use and the distance people view your painting from. The smaller the dots, the more optical mixing will occur.
In general, pointillism will only result in partial optical mixing. You will usually be able to see the distinct dots of colors, but not clearly. This can result in a stunning visual arrangement of color which seems to vibrate.
So if you want to paint an area of green in your painting, instead of mixing a nice green on your palette, you could use small dots of yellow, blue and green to create the appearance of green on your palette. The resulting green will depend on the proportion of different colors you use.
Below is a painting by Paul Signac, one of the figureheads of the pointillism art movement.
When you zoom in on the painting, you can see all the distinct dots of colors. Below are close-ups of the grass, the woman and the sky in that order.
Also, you can leave areas of canvas exposed to add an extra level variance and to control the lightness of the perceived color. The more space between the dots, the lighter the perceived color.
The issue of pointillism is that you cannot reliably predict how people will perceive the colors in your painting. Physically mixing paints is hard enough, but relying so much on optical mixing introduces a whole new level of inconsistency and unpredictability.
When you place small dots of yellow, blue and green on a canvas, you may assume people would see green. But this is a loose assumption at best. The color people see would depend on so many variables.
The benefits of pointillism
One of the benefits of the pointillist style is that you can, in theory, use more vivid and pure color in your painting.
You will all appreciate that the more you mix your colors, the less saturated they become. With pointillism, you could negate this by using small dots of pure color to give the illusion of a different color.
The result can be a stunning vibration between the different colors. But there is a compromise to this, as I will discuss below.
The compromise of pointillism
When painting in a pointillist style, you naturally compromise the drawing, edges and brushwork of your painting to some extent. When you commit to painting with just small dots of color, there is not much room for delicate drawing, strong edges or skillful brushwork.
This may not matter to you and you may prefer to rely more on a contrast in hue, value and saturation to create the illusion of form in your painting. It all comes down to personal preference. But it is important to be aware of the compromises of different styles.
Also, if you use pointillism so that you can paint with more vivid and pure colors, then you may be sacrificing the range of values you use in your painting. This is because most colors reach full saturation around the mid-value range. If you want to hit those dark values, you generally need to start introducing black to some extent. So whilst you may have a stunning arrangement of vivid colors, the value structure may be weak without the use of any true darks. Obviously, you could start using black in your painting, but that may undermine the reason you are painting in the pointillist style in the first place.
What can you learn from pointillism?
Whilst the pointillism movement is in a way based on misconceptions about color, there is much to learn from the movement which you can apply to your own paintings.
One of the things I notice about pointillist paintings is how the color “vibrates”. This is because the distinct dots of color are only partially blending in our eyes, resulting in a visual dance between all the competing colors.
You do not need to paint in a full pointillist style in order to use some of the benefits of it. For example, if you were painting a landscape, you may want to employ the pointillist style to create a sense of depth in a large area of grass. But that does not mean you need to use the pointillist style throughout the rest of your painting.
Famous Pointillism Artworks
For your viewing pleasure, here are some of the stunning paintings that resulted from the pointillism movement: