Tapestries of Color

Pointillism is a method of painting in which tiny, unblended dots of opaque color are placed close together on the painting surface. In this approach, volume and form result from fine gradation in the color and value of the dots. When the painting is viewed from the proper distance, the viewer’s eye blends the colors into dimensional shapes—a phenomenon known as optical mixing—and the image seems to come into focus. In general, pointillist works have a soft, atmospheric look with lots of midtones, yet they’re full of rich color.

Pointillism is particularly effective for scenes dominated by the subtle interplay of warm and cool colors, as opposed to high-contrast scenes. For example, pointillism is great for re-creating overcast scenes, misty harbors or the look of high noon in summer, as in Summer’s Shimmer (above, right). It also works well for capturing shifting light on bodies of water.

To see how pointillism—and optical mixing—works, try juxtaposing numerous yellow and red dots to produce a brilliant orange. If you use more red dots, you’ll produce a darker orange-red. If you add more yellow dots, the orange will be lighter. You can see how both of these options work in the examples at right. To create shadow areas, try adding dots of complementary colors. For darker colors, apply dots of pure color straight from the tube. For midtone and light areas, mix your colors with white before applying dots to the canvas. To produce a sense of depth, use smaller dots in the background, then make them progressively larger as you move forward in the picture plane.

A brilliant white canvas is the best ground for pointillistic works. You can even enhance the effect by leaving a bit of the white showing between the dots, as in the lower right corner of Summer’s Shimmer.

Created in the mid-1880s, pointillism arose along with Impressionism at a time when artists were interested in re-creating the powerful color they saw when observing light outdoors. If you’re looking for new ways to energize your work, experiment with this technique. You’ll find that it gives you more brilliant color than you could ever achieve with palette mixtures.

Drawing Board creator Bill Tilton is a longtime contributing editor to The Artist’s Magazine.

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