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  • Writer's pictureBonnie Johnson

Pointillism 101 - The Primary Colors

Welcome back to my pointillism lesson series! This lesson covers pointillism and the primary colors. If this is the first post you have found I would encourage you to go back and take a look at my introduction to pointillism blog post here.

Here is a quick refresher on what pointillism is. Pointillism is the art of placing colored dots to create a a work of art. And this can be done in many mediums though it is most commonly done in paint and ink.

Note: For the purposes of this lesson we will be discussing the traditional primary colors(red, blue, yellow). However all techniques discussed will also work with the true primaries (cyan, magenta, yellow).

Pointillism Origins and the Primary Colors

To understand that question we need to go back and look at the origins of the medium. Pointillism originated in France in the late 1800's as part of the impressionist movement. It's origins can be traced back to one artist in particular, George's Seurat. Seurat was influenced by the work of a french art critic named Charles Blanc. And the important takeaway from Blanc's work as it relates to pointillism is -

“Mixing colors optically would create more chromatically pure and vibrant colors than the traditional method of mixing them on the palette.” - Charles Blanc

Here Blanc means that if colors are distinct, yet intermingled on the canvas the illusion of another color can be created. For example laying down both red and blue dots on the same area would create the illusion of purple at a distance.

Now you may have heard the term “true pointillism” or “pure pointillism”. This is a term some use to refer to pointillism that uses only the primary colors. Now in practice this term is obsolete. Even the artists who developed the medium used more than the primary colors. In my own pointillism I use 9 colors to create my work.

Applied Color Theory

Pointillism thrives on the limited color palette. And the use of solely the primary colors is a very strict limitation. In many cases black and white can be added to the primary palette, this may especially be the case when using paint to create pointillism.

Examine the piece below up close and at a distance. See how the colors create the illusion that purples, oranges and greens were used? Up close it should be apparent that in fact the only colors used were red, blue and yellow. In the areas where some dots appear almost black that is a result of all three colors being layered heavily over one another. This piece was created using ink.

Reflections 2019, Bonnie Johnson

Close up of Reflections


Complete the below exercises to get a feel for how dots of color can interact. I recommend evenly dispersing each color equally to achieve the best results. Experiment with different ratios when you feel like you are getting the results you want. And remember, sticking strictly with the primary colors is NOT a requirement for pointillism. It is however quite beneficial for educational purposes.

Exercise 1 – orange Lay down dots of both red and yellow to create the illusion of orange. Remember to stand back for the full effect.

Exercise 2 – purple Lay down dots of both red and blue to create the illusion of purple.

Exercise 3 – green Lay down dots of both yellow and blue to create the illusion of green.

Exercise 4 – brown Lay down dots of red, yellow and blue to create the illusion of brown. I would recommend using more red and yellow dots with sparing blue for best results.

This concludes the lesson on pointillism and color theory. In a later lesson I will go into detail about achieving more complex colors and matching colors in a reference image.

Keep making dots!

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