The Neo-Impressionists and Pointillism

Neo-Impressionism was founded by Georges Seurat who worked alongside Paul Signac to produce a illustrative technique of pointillism, or divisionism, which used optical methods of colour perception to create vibrant and luminous paintings. Both were influenced by the use the Impressionist’s use of colour, particularly their prismic, or solar colour palettes (colours that represented the colours made by light as discovered by Isaac Newton) and the brush strokes that they used. Pointilism, nicknamed ‘coloured fleas’ or ‘coloured measles’ by critics, used dots of paint to make up an optical illusion of colour on their canvases. These dots were deliberately placed to provide an impression of colour when viewed from a particular distance. Critics of the technique felt that it actually toned down the colour and had a habit of providing the viewer with a vision of grey rather than bright tones. The Fauvists, the artistic movement that followed the Neo-impressionists, dismissed the technique as a way of conveying light but not colour choosing instead to create colour by painting in large blocks, often outlined in black. But Seurat and Signac’s methods were backed up by scientific theory and a great number of experiments and studies. Seurat was said to be able to carry out his process even in the gloom of the evening light, because of the preparation that he had made in the creation of his pigments, and preparatory studies. Their use of this juxtaposition of complementary coloured dots was obsessive and as their work evolved, both Seurat and Signac perfected and developed their techniques.

Michel Eugenel Chevreul (1786-1889) was a chemist whose research on colour contrast, when dye master at the French tapestry company Gobelins, was published in 1839 as De la loi du contraste simultané des couleurs. This document was the result of his investigations into the dyes used at Gobelin which arose from complaints about colour consistency in their tapestry threads. Chevreul discovered that it was not the dyes to blame but the perception of the colour of the thread when placed alongside other coloured threads. Chevreul stated that ‘“In the case where the eye sees at the same time two contiguous colours, they will appear as dissimilar as possible, both in their optical composition and in the height of their tone.”’[1] This concept of simultaneous contrast identified that certain colours will be perceived differently when placed next to each other, in particular when complementary colours are placed alongside each other. Chevreul set out his findings in a chromatic diagram which charted the discoveries that he’d made experimenting with placing coloured threads next to each other and is very similar to the partitive colour wheel modern colour theorists use today.

Scientific influence

Pointilism was inspired by colour theorists writing in the 1800s, in particular Michel Eugene Chevreul, and Ogden Rood. Their work was frequently quoted in letters and sketch books by these artists and were widely discussed in artistic circles at the time.

Chevreul’s Chromatic Diagram has 12 sections divided into twenty equal parts to represent the full scale of tones of each hue and is most comparable to the partitive colour wheel.

Leonardo Da Vinci (1452-1519) also wrote about simultaneous contrast but Chevreul’s colour law emphasized the changes in colour perception that complementary colours in particular brought about and would have influenced Albert Munsell (1858-1918), whose colour system is used today in the textile colour management process and beyond .

Ogden Rood (1831-1902) was an American physicist and amateur artist who published Modern Chromatics, with Applications to Art and Industry in 1879. His work on contrast colours has been shown to be a huge source of inspiration for Seurat. Rood’s experiments with contrast colours (complementary colours) lead him to urge artists to utilize the optical perceptions that they create to bring out rich and striking colour in paintings.

In his book Seurat and the science of painting, Homer identifies the key experiments and theories that he felt most influenced Seurat in Roods work.

None of Seurat’s paintings appear to be vividly colourful at first however having read Homer’s Seurat and the science of painting I knew that you had to stand in a particular place in order to get the vivid colours. Too close the optical illusion of the dots does not work and too far away the colours become grey. I found, as suggested by Homer, that in standing 2 metres away from the paintings that the colours started to form and in particular in the Bathers the reds and greens started to pop out and the sky and water shimmer. This was a really amazing effect and I spent a long time moving back and forward from the painting in order to see where the partitive, complementary, optical illusions really came into play.

How could partitive colour and pointillism inform my practice

My first thoughts are how similar pointillism is to half-toning, the process that an ink jet printer uses to build up colour. Dots of ink are jetted out by the printer using cyan, magenta and yellow inks to build up colour. If the digital file has a a high number of dots per inch (dpi), for example 300, then 300 dots of colour will be printed per inch to create the colours you view when printed. Low resolutions, for example 72 dip, are used for web images but do not work for printed images because the eye can see the dots, as when you view a pointillist painting up close.

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