Neo-Impressionists Georges Seurat and Paul Signac pioneered a painting technique, dubbed Pointillism, that was revolutionary for its time. Bored of traditional paintings, artists of the era were searching for new ways to make “impressions” of landscapes and day-to-day life. Seurat and Signac looked to science for inspiration, and discovered how to trick the eye into seeing more in a painting than the sum of its parts: an arrangement of colored dots. Informally known stippling art or dot art, since its inception, Pointillism has influenced many artists working across a diverse range of mediums, and today we see traces of it in modern art, fashion, and tattoos.
What is Pointillism?
Part of the Post-Impressionist movement, Pointillism is the technique of painting with distinct dots of color, which are meticulously applied in patterns to compose a cohesive image. While Impressionists, such as Claude Monet and Vincent van Gogh, often used small dabs and strokes of paint as part of their technique, Pointillism artists took this idea a step further, by painting tightly packed, individual dots of pure color. When viewed from afar, the viewer’s mind and eye blur the dots together to create detailed images, comprising a fuller range of tones than the dots provide alone. The term “Pointillism” was in fact coined by art critics in the late 1880s to ridicule the works of these artists. Little did they know that the term would be used today as a positive association for some of the world’s most renowned master painters.
Influential Pioneer Artists of Pointillism
The first pioneer of Pointillism was French painter Georges Seurat, who founded the Neo-Impressionist movement. One of his greatest masterpieces, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte (1884–1886), was one of the leading examples of Pointillism. The dotty composition depicts 19th century Parisians relaxing on the River Seine. One of his other works painted shortly before—titled Bathers at Asnières (1884)—mirrors the riverbank scene. In this piece, the bathers are doused in light, while most of the people in the …Sunday Afternoon… painting are hidden in shade. Both pieces were painted on large canvases with dots of oil paint in a range of summer hues.
Another artist to adopt the revolutionary style was Paul Signac, who studied the science of dot art with Seurat. Since 1886, the French artist worked in this style throughout the entirety of his career, and carried on producing a large collection of Pointillism artwork, even after Seurat died in 1891, aged just 31. Among his most well-known works is The Pine Tree at St. Tropez, which depicts a brightly colored pine tree in the south of France; a place where the artist spent his time each summer. In another, titled Un Dimanche (A Sunday), Signac’s close-together, vibrant oil paint daubs depict a Parisian couple and their cat on a Sunday afternoon. This is an example of how Pointillism artists created clearer pictures: by painting smaller dots, closer together.
End of the Golden Age of Pointillism
By the 1890s, Pointillism had reached its peak, with many artists of the time choosing to adopt the technique. However, even though the golden age of Pointillism is now over, many of the concepts and ideas still continue to be used by artists today, in many different mediums.
Contemporary Pointillism Artists
One modern artist to adopt the Pointillism technique is Miguel Endara. His amazing photo-realistic piece titled Hero (2011) is made of of a staggering 3.2 million hand-drawn dots. The artist used just one pen—a Sakura Pigma Micron (nib size 005, 0.20 mm)—and took a full year to complete the piece. Endara reveals, “I logged in exactly 210 hours of just stippling.”
London-based watercolor artist Ana Enshina uses multicolored dots of various shapes and sizes to illustrate majestic animals. Dot by dot, the pointillistic artwork forms diverse creatures including a regal peacock, pink flamingo, and rainbow-colored owl.
Los Angeles-based artist Kyle Leonard (aka K.A.L) creates amazingly realistic drawings made up of countless tiny dots using fine-tipped pens. “Pointillism is my method of madness,” Leonard explains, referring to the painstaking technique. We commend his patience!
Swedish photographer Philip Karberg creates 3D Pointillism art using thousands of painstakingly arranged wooden pegs, painted in different colors, and placed into boards. The artist then photographs each of the peg portraits using his clever lighting skills to reveal the celebrity behind the glasses.
Another artist to take Pointillism to the third-dimension is Herb Williams, who used thousands of colorful crayons to create a colorful pixelated portrait of his client’s wife in the ‘60s. The artist explains, “When you're right up to the portrait, it's abstract, but from a distance it completely works.” He has since continued using crayons as his medium, and has even created life-sized dog sculptures from them.
Korean artist Jihyun Park approaches the art of Pointillism from an unorthodox direction—by creating it in reverse. The artist uses incense sticks to burn thousands of tiny holes into rice paper until he makes recognizable images of clouds, mountains and trees. Titled the Incense Series, the final hole-filled drawings are mounted on varnished canvases, which reflect light and reveal the image.
Finally, it’s impossible to write about Pointillism without mentioning the master of dot art, Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama. Although her work isn’t strictly Pointillism—as her patterns often don’t make up full images—it could be argued that dot painting could have been developed or inspired by the likes of Seurat and Signac.
Kusama incorporates polka dots into her work in almost all forms; she covers surfaces in polka dots, makes polka dot covered clothing, and even creates entire dot-filled environments and mind-boggling installations. She explains, “A polka-dot has the form of the sun, which is a symbol of the energy of the whole world and our living life, and also the form of the moon, which is calm. Round, soft, colorful, senseless and unknowing. Polka dots can't stay alone; like the communicative life of people, two or three polka dots become movement…polka-dots are a way to infinity.”