The Art of Seurat: Science and Pointillism

The Art of Seurat: Science and Pointillism

After winding through the bucolic Dutch countryside, two bus loads of scientists were disgorged at the Kröller-Müller Art Museum in Otterlo, hoping for a dose of culture to leaven our week-long immersion in research (on ATP-driven pumps; To our delight, the museum was hosting the work of Georges Seurat, the master of pointillism. Fittingly, Seurat once said, Some say they see poetry in my paintings; I see only science

What’s the Point?: In contrast to traditional methods that mix pigments, pointillism is a technique where dots of pure color are applied, allowing the eye and the mind to blend the colors to give a richer and brighter effect. Although the term was first used to ridicule the technique, pointillism (also called divisionalism) gained credibility by the end of the 19th century, giving rise to neo-impressionism, cubism and modern art, and influencing other artists like van Gogh and Matisse.  Seurat’s most famous work showcasing pointillism is A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte – 1884 ( Estimated to be made up of ~3.5 million dots, it took nearly 2 years to complete!

 A closer look reveals individual dots of blue, green, yellow and even red in the water, which give the impression of changing, shimmering color as the viewer moves towards the canvas. Our brains blend the dots into a color that is not actually there.  When pigments are mixed, they absorb light. By avoiding mixing, there is no subtractive effect and colors appear brighter. The white canvas between dots enhances this effect. 

The inner rings in the animated circles a and b appear to be different colors: pink or orange. But it’s just an illusion – revealed when the surrounding circles are stripped away. Notice also that the color surrounding the inner circles in a and c, or b and d, is the same, but the frequency of concentric rings is different, altering our color perception.

Points to Pixels: Never could Seurat have guessed that the principles behind pointillism would be so widely used in modern technology- computer and television screens light up individual pixels colored in RGB (red, green, blue) and printers deposit CMYK (cyan, magenta, yellow, and Key or black) dyes. We are all pointillists now!

Slide show pdf on Seurat:


Watch: Seurat. Master of pointillism, Kröller-Müller Museum. A must see!

For a related post, see, Was Matisse a Neuroscientist?


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85 Responses to The Art of Seurat: Science and Pointillism

  1. Chad Haney says:

    Sorry I missed you in NL. I just got home too.

  2. Rajini Rao says:

    OMG, were you there too, Chad Haney ? I did feel the Incorrigible Force was strong 🙂 

  3. Jim Gorycki says:

    I recall seeing works of pointilism at Fort Lauderdale museum.  One of them was titled “Luxembourg Gardens”

  4. Rajini Rao says:

    Jim Gorycki I searched for it and found one by Matisse and another with a similar name by Sargent. Do you have a link?

  5. Chad Haney says:

    I was in Utrecht. I think your trip was nicer. Although Utrecht is very quaint.

  6. Rajini Rao says:

    I had a colleague come from Utrecht to the meeting. We were in Lunteren..rather isolated from the hot spots of Amsterdam- on purpose, I suspect, haha. 

  7. Chad Haney says:

    We didn’t spend any time in Amsterdam on purpose. 

  8. james kalin says:

    la grande jatte is a truly mind-blowing piece. i got a chance to see it in 2010. it’s huge. and i had the good fortune of this little coincidence for my camera:

    definitely amazed at the science behind it, and how people like seurat can be so far ahead of their time in some ways.

  9. Good to see you in my stream. Haven’t seen many posts from you recently Rajini Rao 

  10. Rajini Rao says:

    james kalin la grande jatte is in Chicago, but I did see most of Seurat’s works in this museum in Holland. He died young, at 31, and his works were time consuming, so there are relatively few large pieces of his. The other pointillists are wonderful too, including Signac. 

  11. Rajini Rao says:

    Paul Montreal I’ve been gadding about 🙂

  12. J Stasko says:

    As a Daltonist,  I don’t really see that the rings in a and b are different…

  13. Rajini Rao says:

    J Stasko do you see a difference in color of the central orange ring? The one in a looks more pink than orange. Also, the difference between a and b is more prominent than between c and d. 

  14. Nick James says:

    Rajini Rao My pointillist colour printer only does dots, not concentric circles!  Wow – sophistication.  However, it takes 10 seconds to do a picture that is good enough for me – 2 years is just too long to wait for perfection.  Especially if I got the highlighting wrong again.

  15. Nick James says:

    Chad Haney Don’t be spooked by Amsterdam, especially during the day.  It is quite fun to look around at it’s ‘specialist’ services and they are not particularly pushy if you are not interested.  It also has good museums, diamonds and lots of nice canals and restaurants. Even Justine Bieber managed to visit the Anne Frank house without getting arrested (although he was pilloried for his comment in the visitor’s book).  And getting a coffee and biscuit without ‘additions’ is no problem. The airport is a simple train ride away.  

  16. Rajini Rao says:

    Nick James poor Seurat would be very annoyed to see a high def print out of his painting done in 10 seconds 😀

  17. Rajini Rao says:

    Nick James speaking of trains, the day we left the conference, copper lines along the railways were stolen, paralyzing nearly all train travel to Amsterdam. We had to get off midway and catch a pricey cab to the airport to make our flights on time. I was shaking out every last euro to pay the cab driver.  

  18. la notion mathematique du points ….ensemble de points” droite” ou” photo”tableau dart” …..le courant du cubisme est venu contre le perfectionisme de l image’ appareil ou tele’ “pixel”….. donc divers forme geometric peuveent donner le meme principe……….dalli….ect

  19. Nick James says:

    Rajini Rao Somehow I suspect I would not get $35 million for any copy of his work on my printer:-)  His stuff has quite a luminous quality that HP cannot match.

  20. Rajini Rao says:

    He was only in his mid-twenties when he painted it. Ah, the power of young eyes! 

  21. Nick James says:

    Rajini Rao I should think that was a painful trip, especially as the airport is on the ‘far side’ from where you were travelling.  I’m surprised you had to find cash as most cabs I have take there during cough business trips have taken plastic.

  22. Rajini Rao says:

    Nick James many of us Americans had difficulty using our plastic in NL because our cards apparently do not have a chip in them. I was carrying plenty of dollars, but thanks to my reckless spending at the bar (jk!) I was running low on euros. Fortunately, one of our European colleagues used his card and I dumped a whole bunch of coins with him. 

  23. Nick James says:

    Rajini Rao Ah yes, it is a problem with plastic.  Even now some European machines (late night fuel pumps) don’t work with UK cards, although they are not a problem with manned services.  I find it a nightmare buying gas in the States for the same sort of reason.  They insist you pre-pay!  Which works really well filling up a rental you are returning.

    Glad to hear that you found a friendly native to barter coins with:-)  At a push, I’m sure they could have worked out the $ equivalent, which would have given them a good excuse to visit US.

  24. Chad Haney says:

    Nick James I’ve been to Amsterdam before. I had business to take care of in Utrecht. In general big cities are too similar. I feel the smaller towns give a better impression of the culture.

  25. rare avis says:

    Rajini Rao

     The tetrachromat information was brand spankin’ news to me, too. Thank the Philosophy of Mind Community : Mark Baldwin & Adam Black (moderators) for the OP. There’s a bit more information and some links, I believe, in the thread in which they first discussed it, if you’d like to have a peep. Fascinating, indeed!

  26. Rajini Rao says:

    Fascinating information, thanks. I’m copying the link to the article on super-vision here, from your comment on my community share:

    It’s mind blowing that humans can see a million different shades of color, about 2 orders of magnitude more than other mammals! A terrific read, highly recommended.

  27. Kyla Myers says:

    I’ve always enjoyed this piece.

  28. Very interesting post. Thanks

  29. Tau-Mu Yi says:

    Pointillism is exactly how Samsung’s AMOLED screen on your Galaxy S5 works

  30. rare avis says:

    And now, ha ha, I’m interested in your conference! No worries. ATP, I think- the stuff of energy…In mom’s mito  DNA? Always been fascinated by it, as a layperson… I often joke that my ATP just isn’t getting the right “charge’. I hope you’ll share ideas that resonated with you, in addition to the sublime art… Can you recommend a good intro read…?

  31. Nick James says:

    Chad Haney Glad to hear that you have not missed out on the ‘cultural experience’ of Amsterdam:-)  Utrecht is one of their nicest cities and has the benefit of far fewer tourists.

  32. Most excellent!!!!!!!!! 🙂

  33. J Stasko says:

    Rajini Rao There is very little, if any, color difference.  It appears that “a” becomes lighter, but that is all.  (Daltonist: I’m colorblind.)

  34. Nick James says:

    J Stasko They are all hugely different for me…but maybe it is all this ‘Amsterdam hospitality…’?  Rajini Rao 

  35. thanks for reminding Seurat.

  36. May be he was an artist that was ahead of his time scientifically.

  37. Deeksha Tare says:

    Great post Rajini Rao! I’m so glad I woke up to this.

    It is so true when they say ‘science is an art’ and vice-versa!

  38. Rajini Rao says:

    Here is some trivia related to J Stasko’s colorblindness:

    Daltonism: Colorblindness of the red-green type (also known as deuteranopia or deuteranomaly)


    Chemist/physicist John Dalton wrote about his defective perception of red and green in the first scientific paper he published. It was entitled “Extraordinary facts relating to the vision of colours, with observation” (Mem Literary Philos Soc Manchester 5: 28-45, 1798). It is the first recognized account of red-green colorblindness.

  39. Rajini Rao says:

    Tau-Mu Yi I learned something about the electroluminescent “organic matrix”- sounds complicated, but thanks! 🙂

  40. Rajini Rao says:

    Mike Gleason, Art Project is a wonderful resource from Google, thanks for the link! 

  41. Kiki Jewell says:

    rare avis and Rajini Rao I finally read the article on super color and I’m starting to wonder if I’m one of those!

    My mom’s brother is color blind. My mom has 2 sons who are not, so she may not be a carrier. (It’s X-linked and recessive.) But she may be. And if she is, then I might be a carrier too. If so, I might be one of those described in the article with mutant cones!

    I used to have a big argument with an old boyfriend about whether his hoodie was brown (me) or green (him.) He insisted it was green. I insisted it was brown. In the end, I started suspecting that I saw red deeper than average people. Red looks far more distinct a color. Green and blue look kinda similar.

    I know from my studying of true color theory – CMY – that cyan should be as distinct from blue as orange is from red. But it doesn’t, which I always chalked up to two things: our weak response to that part of the spectrum and also the learned response that cyan is “blue” is taught to children from an early age. (I’ve spent time studying cyan and learning to distinguish it strongly from blue. And I’m teaching my own daughter to disnguish between them.)

    In any case, I have long wondered if I have a different view on color than others. I’m so tempted to contact the researcher and get tested!

    It would explain my life long frustration that red and blue don’t make purple.

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  44. Jim Gorycki says:

    Actually it was Georges Seurat. Can’t find the link of the showing of art ( it was years ago)

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