Sunday, 23 October 2011

Elephant No. 21: Pointillism

After a few days working in fairly limited colour palettes, today I thought I'd try pointillism. I've never actually tried it in colour before, although I think I might have done a small black-and-white pointillism drawing years ago.

Pointillist painting was originally developed by Impressionist painter Georges Seurat. Relying on colour theory and optical illusion, Seurat placed tiny dots of contrasting colour next to one another. He knew that the viewer's eye would blend the colours together, and was also convinced that using dots instead of brushstrokes would make the colours brighter and bolder.

The first real work of pointillist painting was Seurat's Un dimanche après-midi à l'Île de la Grande Jatte, which he completed in 1886. Thinking to make the experience even more vivid for viewers, Seurat gave the scene a border of painted dots, surrounded by a white wooden frame.

A Sunday Afternoon on la Grande Jatte, 1884–1886
Georges Seurat (1859–1891)
Oil on canvas, 207.5 x 308.1 cm (81.6 x 121.3 in.)
Art Institute of Chicago

Although the word "pointillism" was originally a mocking term invented by art critics, other artists of the time embraced the technique, including Vincent Van Gogh, Camille Pissarro, Henri-Edmond Cross and Paul Signac. Contemporary practitioners include Andy Warhol and Chuck Close.  

Modern printing owes a great deal to the concepts behind pointillism. Today's CMYK colour printing, for example, blends microdots of cyan (blue), magenta, yellow and key (black) to create realistic images. The pop art of Roy Liechtenstein plays with this idea in large paintings that exaggerate these microdots. Computer monitors use RGB (red, green, blue) to produce the same effect. All of these processes rely on the brain's willingness to blend distinct colours together.

Most pointillism is done with oil paint, because the paints are thick and don't bleed into one another. Not having a wide range of oil colours, I used acrylics, which have a bit of body, but also dry quickly. For my colour palette, I decide to stick with the three primary colours—red, yellow and blue—and the three secondary colours—green, purple and orange. I didn't think I needed white because the canvas itself is white, and I avoided black so that I could see what effects I could achieve with colour alone.

I chose to work on a small 7.6 x 12.7 cm (3 x 5 inch) canvas board today, so I pulled out my finest brushes, ranging from 00 to 12/0. I wound up using the smallest brush—a 12/0—for the whole thing.

I tried at first to add dots of paint without sketching anything, but discovered that it's actually better to have a vague outline from which to work.

Starting with the blue, I added it more or less where I thought the darkest areas of the sketch would be, then layered purple, green, red, orange and yellow, in that order.

After that, it was simply a matter of adding colours wherever I wanted. I concentrated on building up the shadowed areas first, then added some highlights. After that, I went back over everything, trying to give the elephant some shape and depth. It's not as easy as I thought it would be.

Every so often, I placed the picture a fair distance away, in order to see what was going on. It's a bit of a weird process, because you can't really tell what's happening when you're close to it. What looks like a brilliant bit of colour work up close doesn't even show from a distance.

I found it surprisingly hard to create a sense of dimension with this technique as well. Then again, it might be that I eventually tired of the process and decided—after four hours—that it was as good as it was going to get.

I'm not sure how I feel about the final result. It's not exactly how I pictured it would be, but I don't think I have the skill to do much more than this with the colour palette I chose. If I'd worked with shades that were a little closer to one another—instead of a palette that, by its very nature, is going to cause colours to vibrate when placed side by side—the final painting might have looked a little less like an explosion at a confetti factory.

It also helps to squint.

Elephant Lore of the Day
Elephant polo, as the name suggests, is a form of polo played atop elephants rather than horses. Because elephants are slower than horses, the polo pitch is three-quarters the length of a normal playing field.

The ball is a standard polo ball, and the mallet is a stick measuring 1.8 to 2.7 metres (six to nine feet) in length, with a polo mallet head on the end. Two people ride each elephant: the mahout who steers the elephant, and the player, who hits the ball and tells the mahout which way to go.


Elephant polo was first played in India in the early twentieth century, although it actually originated in Nepal. Today, the game is played in Nepal, Sri Lanka, Rajasthan, and Thailand. Tiger Tops in Nepal, near Kathmandu, remains the world headquarters of elephant polo, and the site of the World Elephant Polo Championships.

The World Elephant Polo Association (WEPA) has strict rules regarding elephant welfare, as well as regulations about how the game is played. Although Nepal and Thailand play under the auspices of the WEPA, some tournaments in India and Sri Lanka are independently managed. In 2007, during a tournament in Sri Lanka, an elephant went on a rampage during a game, tossing its mahout and player to the ground, and attacking the Spanish team's minibus. Observers suggested that the incident might have occurred because elephants are shortsighted, and that this particular elephant might have become confused and agitated by sudden unexpected movement nearby.

Teams from around the world compete in the annual championship tournament. In 2010, a team from Switzerland won the 29th World Elephant Polo Championships.

To Support Elephant Welfare
World Wildlife Fund
World Society for the Protection of Animals
Elephant sanctuaries (this Wikipedia list allows you to click through to information on a number of sanctuaries around the world)
Performing Animal Welfare Society
Bring the Elephant Home

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