Monday, 2 June 2008

Painting in the neo-impressionist style

This article was first published in my newsletter "Notes From My French Easel" – April 2008. Follow the link to subscribe to the newsletter .

A long time ago, after seeing neo-impressionist canvasses in the Jeu de Paume museum in Paris (these works have been transferred to the Orsay museum since), I had a go at pointillism. It took me ages to fill-in the canvas with little dots of oil paint.

Circus Sideshow, 1887–88
Georges Seurat (French, 1859–1891)
Bequest of Stephen C. Clark, 1960 (61.101.17)

I just read “Delacroix to Neo-Impressionism” by Paul Signac where he explains the theory behind neo-impressionist paintings and defends the divisionism technique pioneered by Seurat. Here are the directions Signac gives in his book:

  • A palette only composed of pure colours close of the colours of the spectrum. Neo-impressionism does not use the blacks and earth colours. Instead, these colours are obtained by optical mixing. Colours are used in their different shade from dark to light with the addition of white. Signac quoted Delacroix who, in his diary, wrote: “Grey is the enemy of any painting.”

  • Optical mixing. No mixing of the colours on the palette or on the canvas. The dots or marks, which are applied on the canvas side by side without mixing, are mixed together by the eye of the viewer when he watches the work from a distance.

  • Division of the marks. Neo-impressionist is not defined by stibbling (which is only a mean) but by the division of colours. The benefit of division is the luminosity, purity of colour and harmony. The size of the mark should be proportional to the size of the painting.

  • Technique which is methodical and scientific. Optical mixing and the use of contrast between complimentary colours were found by the neo-impressionists in the work of Chevreul. Signac also advocates the methodical application of the dots or well defined marks on the canvas, making the process coming from the brain rather than the hand. He vindicates cheap tricks done with the brush and the brilliance of execution of certain artists that, according to him, go in the way of true artistic expression.

Lighthouse at Groix, 1925 by Paul Signac (French, 1863–1935)

Oil on canvas; 29 1/8 x 36 3/8 in. (74 x 92.4 cm)Partial and Promised Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Douglas Dillon, 1998 (1998.412.3)

Metropolitan Museum of Art

The technique described by Seurat had a limited success beyond the neo-impressionist painters but the influence on how colours are used (in particular the use of complimentary colours and the fragmentation of the marks to get luminous colours) can still be felt today.

I think what played against neo-impressionism is the painstaking process of applying the small marks on the canvas. Signac reports that Seurat would work one year on a single work and, even if Seurat’s works are exhibited in museum around the world, the artist only sold two painting during his life.

The luminosity obtained by division of the colour comes with a price. The laborious process does not entail spontaneity and, despite Signac argumentation, renouncing to the multiple possibilities of different brush strokes is losing an important meaning of expression in painting. Pissarro tried the divisionism technique at some point in his career but put it aside because of its lack of flexibility.

Despite some reservations, I would encourage you to try this technique on a small format. This exercise will make you think a lot about colours and colours interactions.

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