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Georges Seurat and the art of pointillism

Painting consisting of thousands of coloured dots by Georges Seurat

In the 1880s, French artist Georges Seurat was using tiny points of colour to create paintings that conveyed a sense of calmness, including slowly flowing waters. Unsurprisingly, Seurat’s technique was called ‘Pointillism.’

But let’s revert to the present day and we’ll work backwards. If you take a close look at a colour picture in a newspaper, you’ll see that the image is composed of tiny dots or points of colour. The impression of full and natural colour is created by combinations of only four dots of different colours: cyan (a shade of blue), magenta (a shade of red), yellow and black. The printing combination is commonly known as CMYK – the ‘K’ being for ‘Key’ or black.

Picture this: joining the dots

While printing relies upon overlaying dots of four coloured inks to achieve its effects, Seurat’s dots were composed of oil paints in an infinite colour range.

Seurat was not trying to capture a photographic style of realism. He was more interested in conveying an impression or the mood of a scene. As Seurat discovered, his technique of Pointillism was ideal for capturing scenes with a sense of slowness or stillness.

Bathers at Asnieres

One of Seurat’s masterpieces is called Bathers at Asnieres (displayed in the National Gallery, London). It depicts a sunny day with ordinary working people relaxing in the waters and on the banks of the River Seine. The attractive natural scene is just outside of Paris. But in the distance through the heat haze, you can see a smudge of the city’s industrial smoke rising into the sky. In all likelihood, it’s the Paris of smoky factories where these ordinary people usually lived and worked just about every day of their lives.

But on this special sunny day, these working people are taking it easy. Their moments of precious relaxation captured for us forever in Seurat’s tiny points of colour on canvas.

You can see several of Seurat’s paintings at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.

Written by Brad Allan, writer and wine tasting host in Melbourne, Australia and frequent visitor to France.

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