Be The Artist: Seurat and Signac

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Pointillism gives the artist a new way of looking a familiar characters. Images by Lisa Kay Tate
Pointillism gives the artist a new way of looking a familiar characters. Images by Lisa Kay Tate

The Artists: Georges Seurat and Paul Signac

French artists Georges Seurat and Paul Signac are both standout artists in their own right, but they share a common claim in the 1880s: the development of the technique known as pointillism.

Georges Seurat took two years to create one of the most famous examples of pointillism, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. Images from Wikicommons.

Pointillism has been described as the placement of distinct, separate dots of color arranged in such a way they form an image. Some pointillist paintings are more noticeable, with large dots of paint more easy to see. Others use such fine dots, they might not even been recognized as pointillism until the viewer gets very close.

Seurat was trained in neoclassic methods, and was influenced by impressionism in his early work. He eventually departed from the traditional way of looking at things. He also started an organization called Société des Artistes Indépendants in Paris, where artists could have annual non-competitive exhibits, and explore new methods and theories. One of these new ideas of Seurat’s was, of course, pointillism.

His painting, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, which took him two years to complete, is probably the most famous example of pointillism today and has been copied, parodied and featured in countless movies, books and films. Stephen Sondheim based his 1984 musical, Sunday in the Park with George, on the painting, and the 2003 live action/animated feature film, Looney Tunes: Back in Action, even gave families a short and goofy description of the pointillist technique.

Signac was an impressionist painter and writer, who enjoyed traveling the European coast painting landscapes, particularly harbor communities and the water. He was able to meet several fellow artists on his journeys, such as Seurat and Claude Monet in 1884. Signac and Seurat became friends, and with Seurat’s influence, Signac begin experimenting with using dots instead of brush strokes.

Neither artist created the term pointillism, but it was instead used by some art critics to ridicule these types of artists. Today, however, the term has come to describe what critics and artists alike have accepted as beautiful method of painting and drawing. This method has had such an influence on the art world, artists are still using it today, from fine artists to graphic designers.

 The Project: “Lazy” Pointillist Portraits:

Pointillism practice sheet.

Rather than creating a detailed drawing from scratch, here’s an easy introductory way to practice pointillism: inking with dots.

The term “lazy” may be a bit of an overstatement, since this will take some effort and time to really get the hang of it. Making an art school-style practice run is recommended. Start by drawing a long, thin rectangle and dividing it into about five equal parts. Using only dots, start at one end and lightly make a few dots. Make slightly more in the next section, and even more in the next, until the final section appears significantly darker. This grade school method of pointillism in a nutshell, but now it is time to make it art.

Print out a letter-sized portrait of a favorite character, person or creature (real or fictitious), and cover the image with sheet of tracing paper or vellum.

Use paper clips to hold it in place, and begin “inking” the picture with dots, using a fine tip marker. Felt tip markers work best with vellum, as washable markers tend to smear.

Just like the practice run, use a higher frequency of dots in some areas that are shaded and more sparsely spaced dots in lighter areas. Do not use any strokes, or fill in any areas, by simply coloring them. The temptation to do this will be huge in some areas, but fight it; the results will be worth it.

Turning a photo into a pointillist painting is like tracing with dots, but patience is more important than drawing talent.

Young artists who might find this task a little daunting, can use take a coloring page image or black an white clip art image, and “paint” it using only dots. This is much easier, but still conveys the concept of pointillism to them.

pixel pointillism
Turning pixels into points.

Everyone, no matter the age or detail, might want to take a couple of breaks, as this project can get tedious if stared at for too long. Take a moment to pause and look at the progress, or step away it from and move around a little. When the eyes and brain get tired, the hand makes mistakes.

Once finished, remove the top sheet from the original image and place it on a white sheet of paper. Darker papers look cool if using neon or bright gel pens. This looks like and entirely different picture, but if done correctly will still be recognizable…or even worthy of framing.

For an added challenge, take a color picture, and turn it into a black and white drawing using only black dots…or try one with isolated areas of color.

Seurat and Signac knew there was more to pointillism than just dabbing dots on paper. They knew they had created a new way of seeing things.

“Some say they see poetry in my paintings; I see only science,” Seurat said.

Experiment using one color, or just a few isolated ones. Image by Lisa Kay Tate


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