In this guide, learn all about Pointillism, the art movement, its history, the famous artists who used the style and how to go about creating a pointillist style painting yourself.
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What is pointillism?
Pointillism is a form of painting in which artists apply small, separate dots of colour to create an image. The term “Pointillism” was first used by art critic Félix Fénéon in 1886 to describe the work of Georges Seurat.
The pointillist technique is especially effective for creating the illusion of light and movement. By painting with pure, unmixed points of paint, artists work meticulously to compose an image of thousands of tiny dots.
Dots of paint
Artists place the small dots of colour in strategic positions to create the impression of light and shadow. The focus in the painting is of the composition as a whole, rather than small details. This is because artists make small dots of colour with unmixed hues, that when seen next to other dots of colour appear to change in shade and tone. Viewers should step back from the artwork to see the full effect and to interpret the subject as a whole.
Colours mix optically
In pointillist paintings, colours are mixed optically by the viewer, rather than physically on the palette. Artists paint dots of unmixed colours on the canvas, leaving the viewer to mentally blend the hues to create new tones. This creates an optical illusion, as the colours appear to blend into one another. This creates the impression of vibrancy and variation, more so than if the colours were mixed physically. When the viewer steps back from the artwork, separate colours are perceived as a coherent whole. The eye perceives a range of colours that don’t actually physically exist in the painting.
Pointillism art movement: History
Artists using separate dots of colour, to allow the viewer’s eyes to mix optically. This method was first perfected by Georges Seurat.
The French artist, Paul Signac was one of the first artists to develop a systematic application of divided-colour painting. Artists refer to this technique as chromoluminarism, also called divisionism. Signac’s interest in colour theory and the optical effects of different colours lead him to develop his signature style of painting.
However, while other Impressionists were concentrating on the natural world, Paul Signac’s interests lay more in the realm of urban scenes and cityscapes. In his series of paintings titled “The Port of Saint-Tropez”, for example, we see a view of the French Riviera town that is composed entirely of thousands of tiny dots of colour.
While Georges Seurat and Paul Signac are considered to be the fathers of pointillism, it was actually another French artist, Henri-Edmond Cross, who took the idea of painting with dots of colour and ran with it. Cross was heavily influenced by Japanese woodblock prints, the compositions of which inspired his own work.
Cross’s paintings are characterised by their vivid colours and dynamic compositions. In his painting “The River in Saint Clair”, for example, we see two people set against a swirl of red trees and purple mountains. The effect is almost dizzying; it’s as if they are surrounded by a halo of colour.
While pointillism was originally developed as an offshoot of Impressionism, it quickly gained popularity in its own right. Today, some of the most prestigious museums house Pointillist paintings in their collections. This includes the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, and the National Gallery in London.
Famous Pointillism artists
Famous Pointillism artists include Georges Seurat, Paul Signac, Vincent van Gogh and Henri-Edmond Cross.
Georges-Pierre Seurat was a French post-Impressionist painter and draftsman. He is noted for his innovative use of paint and for devising the techniques known as chromoluminarism and pointillism. He was very influential in late 19th-century art, inspiring artists such as Vincent van Gogh, Paul Cézanne, Paul Gauguin and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, as well as the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art movements as a whole.
Georges Seurat developed the Pointillist style in the late 19th century as an alternative to using line and shadow to create depth and volume in a painting. Working primarily with oil paints, Seurat developed a technique of applying small dots of color to the canvas in order to create the illusion of light and movement.
A French Neo-Impressionist painter, Paul Signac worked with Georges Seurat to help develop the Pointillist style.
As a young man, Signac showed an interest in both art and studied architecture before transferring to learn painting. In 1884, he met Georges Seurat, who would become his lifelong friend and collaborator. They founded the Salon des Indépendants and went on to develop the Pointillism technique together, inspired by the broken colour techniques in impressionism.
The two artists shared an interest in colour theory, and together they began experimenting with a new technique of painting with small broken brushstrokes of colour, that look like tiny dots.
Vincent van Gogh
Vincent Willem van Gogh was a Dutch Post-Impressionist painter who is among the most famous and influential figures in the history of Western art. In just over a decade, he created about 2,100 artworks, including around 860 oil paintings. The majority of the most popular artworks were made in the last two years of his life. They include landscapes, still lifes, portraits and self-portraits, and are characterised by bold colours and dramatic brushwork. His art spanned several styles, including Impressionism, Post-Impressionism and Pointillism.
A French painter and printmaker, Henri-Edmond Cross played an important role in the development of Neo-Impressionism. He is best known for the way he used colour and for his innovative compositions.
Cross first became interested in painting while studying at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. He was drawn to the work of the Impressionists, but he was also influenced by the work of Japanese woodblock artists. In 1884, he met Georges Seurat, who introduced him to the pointillist style of painting.
If you’re interested in exploring the world of pointillism, we’ve put together a list of some of the most famous pointillist paintings. Plus, find a few tips on how to create your own pointillist masterpieces.
Famous Pointillist Paintings
This painting is widely considered to be the seminal work of pointillism. Seurat spent two years working on the piece, which depicts everyday people enjoying a Sunday afternoon in a park on the banks of the Seine River.
Signac completed this painting in 1899, more than ten years after Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. This painting is a good example of Signac’s use of colour, light and composition to create depth and movement.
Swirls of dots in complementary colours of red and green optically create a muted effect in this late self-portrait by Van Gogh.
Pointillism painting technique
Load your brush with one colour from the palette, and dot in the canvas. Use a stippling brush for accuracy. Make sure to work section by section, cleaning the brush as you go. This technique takes time, as it includes creating thousands of tiny dots that all vary in colour slightly.
Supplies to create your own Pointillism art
There are ‘stippling brushes‘ that artists can buy to achieve more precise and consistent dot shapes. This makes the process a lot quicker, but it’s not essential. Alternatively, get a stiff round brush to make the consistent dot shapes.
You can also use other mark-making tools to create your dots, such as a toothpick, Q-tip or even a chopstick!
As for paint, pretty much any kind will do. Most famous Pointillism painters historically used oil paints, as oil paints are incredibly vibrant and hold their shape on the canvas. However, acrylic or gouache would be a good choice as they dry quickly and are easy to control.
How to create a Pointillist painting
- Choose your subject matter. This could be anything from a landscape to a still life to a portrait. Start with something simple if you’ve not tried this technique before.
- Mix your colours, your palette should include black, white and either one or two versions of each primary colour. To get some ideas for colour palettes, check out our limited palette tutorial. Don’t mix too many different shades. Leave the colours on your palette as vibrant, as you will use the Pointillism dotting style.
- Draw the outline of your subject and outline where the darkest shadows and lightest highlights in the piece will be. This will give you an idea of where to place your dark and light pigments.
- Start dotting in the midtones of the painting. Use a stippling motion to create the dots. Place light coloured dots next to darker coloured dots to make the appearance of midtones from a distance. Dot in some saturated colours and less saturated colours to create that sense of vibrancy and variation.
- Work on deepening the shadows, mix in more of your dark pigment, which could be black or burnt umber. Create dots of your midtone, then layer dots of the darker colour over the top to transition shades.
- Use the same technique for areas where midtones transition to light tones.
- Save the brightest highlights until last. Wait for previous layers to dry to achieve separation between these tones.
Step back and take a look at your painting from afar. Make sure the overall piece has a sense of harmony and balance. You may want to add some more dots in areas that appear too light or dark.
And there you have it! You’ve successfully created a Pointillism painting.