In the late 1880s, a French artist named Georges-Pierre Seurat started painting in a unique style now known as Pointillism. The technique involves using many small dots or patches of pure colour, rather than blended colours or gradients. Seen from up close, Pointillist works appear pixelated and are not particularly pleasing to the eye. From afar, however, the technique creates surprisingly pleasant images.
Coinciding with the end of the Impressionist period that began 20 years prior, the movement Seurat created was initially received with harsh criticism. However, he soon gained a loyal following and drew other great artists to Pointillism, including Paul Signac and Henri-Edmond Cross. These fellow French painters helped Seurat to develop Pointillism into a fully fledged genre.
How does Pointillism work? As described above, Seurat’s and others’ works look like fragmented dots up close. Figures within a painting are discernible, but not clear. The colours do not blend together, and the quick and repeated contrast does not lend itself to producing cohesive images. Often the boundaries between objects in the painting will be unclear on close inspection. You might think you are looking at the fingerpaint art of a toddler—though a very careful toddler, as the dots rarely overlap.
Take a step or five back and the image changes completely. Suddenly the figures are clear, with wonderfully blended colours. If the dots are discernible at all, it is only enough to create a textured effect, rather than a grainy or pixelated image.
The change in viewing effect is created by the human eye—or rather, the brain as it interprets the data received from the eye. The eye actually picks up the colours as they are painted because each photoreceptor (light-sensing cell) detects only a narrow range of the colour spectrum that we can see. So the eye picks up many dots of different colors, but the brain blends them into a more consistent colour gradient.
The brain generally tries to make a coherent, easily understandable image out of the information provided to it. This is the same reason that we are not always aware of our blind spots. Where each optic nerve leaves the eye through the retina, there is a blank area with no photoreceptors. However, we never see the blind spot itself, as the brain smoothes over the area with whatever colour or pattern surrounds it. This is also why we see objects moving steadily when we are shown a series of still images.
All these effects are evidence of the powerful brain interpreting the data it receives to give us the most usable image. In Pointillism, this phenomenon is used to make beautiful art.