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  • Writer's pictureBonnie Johnson

Pointillism 201 - Choosing Subject Matter

Updated: Mar 25, 2021

Pointillism 201 – Subject Matter

Welcome back to my pointillism lecture series. In this lesson we will be covering how to select subject matter in pointillism.

All types of subject matter in art are not equally suited to each medium. Part of being an artist is learning which medium and technique to use to best portray the subject. Pointillism is no different, and in fact, may be more difficult when it comes to selecting subject matter that will render well as pointillism.

The Limitations of Pointillism

Like all artistic mediums pointillism has it's limitations. Understanding these limitations will aid in choosing subject matter to take advantage of the unique qualities of pointillism. Limitations can be strengths with the right approach.


It can be difficult to convey complex texture in pointillism. Something with a bristly or rough surface will be more difficult to portray. However, this means that a smoother surface will lend itself well to being rendered in pointillism.

For Example: A porcupine would be a tricky subject to tackle in pointillism. It would take a lot to give

dimension to all those quills and have the texture of the porcupine appear rough. Conversely something with a smooth surface like a dolphin(with very little texture) would be much easier to achieve. Easy doesn't always mean better. If you want to create a porcupine with pointillism go for it, but do so with the understanding that it may be more of a struggle than subjects with less texture.


Since pointillism only gets it's values from layers of dots it can take a lot to develop truly deep shadows or vibrant colors. Something that has a lot of bold shadows, or deep vibrant hues may lose some of those qualities in pointillism. I create pointillism using ink, and in doing so I must leave a small amount of white space between the dots and layers, this can create a washed out appearance in my colors. Recommendations: Don't choose a subject that relies on heavy/black shadows. Also, avoid heavily saturated colors. Something like a scarlet macaw is probably going to be more difficult to portray accurately in terms of color as opposed to a blue heron(which has more muted and less saturated colors).


Depending on the size of dots you are using pointillism can achieve some crazy levels of detail. However pointillism is a little weak when it come to detail that relies on lines. A dot is essentially the opposite of a line. A subject that relies on a lot of fine lines(hair etc.) may be tricky to get right. Detail that does go over well is flowers, leaves, and other little elements in nature.

Large blank space

This one is certainly not as tricky as the other limitations above. A subject(like a perfect blue sky) that involves a large area of blank space is not something I would recommend for beginners. While it certainly is achievable, your gradient and dot distribution will have to be perfect to avoid flaws that will break the illusion. It will also be highly time consuming and not terribly exciting.

Disclaimer: None of the subjects I have discussed above are necessarily “off limits” when it comes to pointillism. However for the purposes of this educational series I want to guide you towards subjects that are more likely to give you a higher degree of success. But if you have your heart set on that rainbow porcupine then go for it.

Now that we've covered the limitations I will list below subjects that I feel lend themselves well to pointillism and why I recommend them for beginners.

1. Landscape

Either at a distance or close up landscape offers plenty of opportunity to be creative with layout and color, while not presenting too great of a challenge. Below are some of my examples in landscape and pointillism. You can do a detailed forest study, or a zoomed out mountain horizon piece with clouds. If you are featuring the sky in your landscape I recommend having clouds, as that will break up the large blank area(as discussed above) of the sky.

2. Marine life

Marine life is where I started with my own pointillism. The animals you will find in the ocean are full of interesting detail and color variation. Many of them have a smoother texture to them, which makes them easier and engaging subject matter for pointillism. My first ever pointillism was of sea horses.

3. Impressionism

Pointillism has it's roots in impressionism, so naturally it lends itself well to this approach. Below are some of the old french masters, their work has a smooth ethereal quality. How abstract or realistic you want to be is up to you.

4. Flowers

Flowers tend to have a smoother texture, and come in a variety of colors. You could go with something easy like a crocus or a pale iris, or something with more texture like a cornflower, or something more colorful like a bird of paradise. Flowers are great because they present a variety of levels of difficulty. You could find some of the easiest subjects for your pointillism, or go with something far more challenging.

5. Smooth Mammals

By smooth mammals I mean mammals that do not have highly textured coast. So things like horses, cows, giraffes, okapis, antelopes etc. This would offer a more dynamic subject matter, perhaps even set in a beautiful landscape without worrying too much about conveying complex fur texture.

The above list is by no means comprehensive. Technically any subject can be portrayed in pointillism. However understanding the limitations and strengths of pointillism will help you in creating a stronger composition overall.

Where to get Reference Images?

There are a few places you can get reference images to use in creating your pointillism.

1 Take your own references – this is popular with artists as there is no risk for copyright issues, and you'll be able to get the exact shot/angle that you want.

2 Royalty free stock photos – there are many websites that offer copyright free images, two of my favorites are Pexels and Pixabay.

3 Combining images – you can use other references, or a conglomeration of images. Like the sky of one photo but the mountains of another? Mash them together. Like the composition but not the colors? Change them. Using multiple references is a way to get a unique image that is your own.

At last you are ready to select a subject matter you are interested in to create in pointillism! My final recommendation is that the image/subject you choose should be something you like quite a bit. You will be spending a lot of time bringing this piece into the world, it should be something that you really enjoy. I am very choosy about what I choose to create in pointillism for this reason.


Exercise 1 – Choose an interest. Outdoors? Animals? Still life? Choose an area of focus to help you narrow down what you might want to create.

Exercise 2 – Narrow that interest down. Now that you have that interest, for example “Outdoors” find a reference or a collection of references that interest you. Figure out what image you want to commit to, (or idea if you are going abstract).

Exercise 3 – figure out your palette. Look at your image and think about which combinations of colored dots will achieve the colors you see. Do this in particular for what you think are going to be the trickiest colors in the piece.

Exercise 4 – detailed sketch. Depending on the size of dot you've chosen to go with you'll want to create a fairly detailed sketch of your subject, denoting where shadows and highlights will be as well as overall forms.

And you are ready to begin creating your first big pointillism project. Have Fun! And reference earlier lessons/exercises if you get stuck. You can also check out my post on my own pointillism creation process, and the video lesson series on my Youtube channel. Stay tuned for pointillism 202 advanced color theory and technique. Happy dot making! Image Credit: Pixabay

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