What is Pointillism?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Pointillism is a painting technique which involves adding very small dots or dashes of color to a canvas. The term “pointillism” was actually a pejorative coined by critics of this style of painting in the 1880s; technically, pointillist artworks are considered to be in the Neo-Impressionist school of painting. One of the most famous examples of pointillism can be found in the painting Sunday Afternoon on the Island La Grande Jatte, painted by Georges Seurat in the late 1880s. Pointillist works are quite distinctive, and optically they are very interesting because they rely on tricks of the eye and mind.

Pointillism is a painting technique which involves adding very small dots or dashes of color to a canvas.
Pointillism is a painting technique which involves adding very small dots or dashes of color to a canvas.

By separating paint into small dots of color, artists break their paints into their most basic elements. Up close, a pointillist painting can look slightly confusing, but as the viewer backs away, the picture comes into focus. This is because the eyes and mind work together to blend the dots of color into a smooth picture, much like people interpret pixels on a computer screen as a single image. In fact, Pointillism is very similar to the Cyan Magenta Yellow Key, or Black (CMYK) printing process used to produce many printed materials; this can be seen by magnifying a page in a magazine to see the individual dots of color which the eyes and brain smooth over.

Besides Georges Seurat, the Neo-Impressionist movement was spearheaded by Henri-Edmond Cross and Paul Signac, two artists who worked in the late 19th century. This school of art may have been derived from the school, but it expanded radically upon the concepts that the Impressionists dealt with. Neo-Impressionist works are marked by unusual and interesting uses of color, shapes, and lines which make them very recognizable to students of art history. The groundbreaking work of the Impressionist movement in terms of the use of light, subject matter, and color certainly laid a path for the Neo-Impressionists to follow, but they took it further, pushing the boundaries of painting.

Pointillism may also sometimes be called Divisionism or Chromoluminarism, referring to the terms that Seurat himself used. Seurat believed that painting and art could be approached scientifically, relying on the rules of optics and perception to bring dynamism and feeling to his work. The painter also realized that the use of warm colors could make a piece feel more friendly and happy, while dark colors and jagged lines could completely change the mood of a piece.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


@NathanG - Yeah, that’s easy for a computer or a printer – but not so easy for a human being. Can you imagine the laborious, tedious nature of Georges Seurat's pointillism?

You have to create so many little points in order to make one large picture. In essence you have to learn to see both the forest and the trees, and you would certainly need endless amounts of patience as well.

My hat is off to anyone who has the determination to paint in this style, especially in the modern era when there are so many other choices available to create an art painting.


I don’t know much about art in general, but I think that pointillism art would be the easiest to duplicate even if you weren’t an artist.

Simply use a computer. As the article points out (no pun intended) pointillism is very similar in structure to dot matrix or bubble jet printouts.

If you wanted to simulate a pointillist painting just get some clip art, adjust your printer resolution to be a bit lower, and print the artwork. The final “painting” will be very pointy indeed.

Of course I don’t expect that your masterpiece will be showcased in any museum, but it is a cost effective way to see for yourself how pointillism works.

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