Seurat & errant authors

The bulk of this post is more or less a copy of an email to an artist friend a few days ago, slightly edited to suit a blog post. My feeble excuse for such a shortcut is that the pressure of study is such that I’m lucky to be able to do this much!
What has me so excited is partly the new light on Seurat’s work, partly a new way to think of colour usage but most importantly a fine example of writers writing what they have read, not what they know. Enough to make me rant…

Another words, it’s about the perpetuation of fiction peddled as facts. For students the continuous regeneration of errors in book after book is a serious disservice to their learning and that of the students some of them will go on to teach. I don’t for a minute blame those teaching, now or past, they too have been hoodwinked by books written by those claiming to be expert. It’s simply of matter of those who would be published making reasonable effort to check their facts. Please.

Rant over. The story begins (quoting directly from my email, as stated above):

Right now I’m reading (for myself – not uni – in between the crippling loads of required reading…) a book called Advice to Young Artists in a Postmodern Era by Williams Dunning. Don’t let the title put you off – no way is this book for truly young artists. It would be completely wasted on them. Besides which, we are all young artists – if not might as well give up.

I’ll quote, rather rather than paraphrase, in case I miss something (aren’t scanners wonderful!)


Studies of students from all fields consistently indicate that art students in general have read less than those in most other disciplines. But when successful people in all fields are compared to successful artists, the artists register as among the best and the broadest read of all the professionals. The implication for artists here is quite clear: don’t read, don’t succeed.
Gilmore also argues convincingly that “the higher the level of creative activity involved, the more compelling the need for a cohesion of studio practice, awareness of art history, and critical analysis, as well as [a] general education” (Gilmore i991,37)•
Furthermore, those who read little can seldom discuss art intelligently, and an ability to discuss the ideas in your field is indispensable…

Now, the good bit:

But never allow what you read or what you know to blind you to your own vision, and never allow what you have read or heard shape what you see or experience. During my years in art school I read in several books, and I heard from several art history instructors, that the pointillists, especially Seurat, mixed their pigments additively. I was told that when Seurat and the pointillists wanted a green, they did not use green out of a tube; instead, they placed small dots of blue and small dots of yellow next to each other and let the color fuse additively in the eye to create a green that was livelier than any that could be mixed subtractively.
Josef Albers, the patron saint of color, wrote an inspired book, Interaction of Color; I believe this to be the best method ever devised to teach color empirically rather than theoretically. But on the mixing of green in pointillism, he made the same mistake everyone else was making. He tells us what he has read rather than what he has seen, and noting what he has seen is usually his strong point. About the impressionists (pointilists were originally called impressionists) he wrote: “Instead of using green paint mixed mechanically from yellow and blue, they applied yellow and blue unmixed in small dots, so that they became mixed only in our perception-as an impression” (Albers 1963, 339). Albers has just reiterated the classic misconception about retinal (actually partitive) color mixing.
When I was working on an M.EA at the University of Illinois, I visited the museum at Chicago Art Institute. I specifically wanted to see Seurat’s La Grande Jatte, the painting that is usually named as exemplary of the theorizing mentioned above. I stood in front of that painting and looked carefully for tiny intermingled dots of blue and yellow that would mix additively in the retina to make green.
There were none!
There was no place on that canvas that I read as green where I could find blue and yellow dots intermingling. Seurat had used dots of several different shades of green to depict the lawn and the foliage and those areas he wanted green (which generated a more vibrant green). Among these different shades and colors of green dots, he placed here and there a dot of red, which tends to make the green seem even brighter and more vibrant.
He chose red because the impressionists and the pointillists still used Brewster’s by then outdated red, yellow, and blue primary colors to construct their color wheel; hence they believed red was the complement to green, and they had learned correctly from M. E. Chevreul’s Laws of Simultaneous Contrast that adjacent complements create supersaturated color that is perceived as brighter (more saturate) than any pure color alone.
In the bright sunlit areas on the lawn, Seurat interspersed dots of yellow to make those areas yellower (lighter and warmer); and in areas of deep shadow he interspersed dots of blue, which made the shadows darker and cooler.
This came as a shock to me. I wondered if those writers and art historians had ever looked at pointillist paintings.

A bit of an eye opener? The guy who wrote this is professor of fine arts at Central Washington University. The book is published by Syracuse University Press. Another words: he has cred. It is certainly enough to have me off looking for decent reproductions of Seurat’s work.


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