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; http://p-atpases.org/). 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 (http://goo.gl/WXcS48). 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: http://goo.gl/jSTsBA
For a related post, see, Was Matisse a Neuroscientist? http://goo.gl/0QHeeI .