This Christmas holiday, the Wrenaissance Man and I enjoyed an old-fashioned past-time—working on a jigsaw puzzle.
As we built the puzzle, I realized that the jigsaw offered an excellent, if unorthodox, way to study and internalize the Post-Impressionist artist’s technique and concepts.
The most classic way to study a master artist’s work is to paint an exact copy, then to use that technique to paint a work of one’s own choice. Dr. Peter Guenther, my art history professor at U of H, used to have his graduate students do just that as part of the graduate requirement for his mixed-level courses. By doing this, the student artist develops a kinesthetic and concrete understanding of the artwork and the master artist. Or, as one grad student said during her presentation of Ernst Heckl’s woodcuts, “Now I know why the German Expressionists had so much angst! Who wouldn’t after carving woodcuts with a kitchen knife?”
What I discovered by handling the puzzle pieces was that Seurat painted his dots with a directional bias and with different touches that created different dot and dash shapes. This helped model his forms, differentiate edges and created variety between similar shapes, such as women’s bodices.
The other thing I noticed was how limited the palette and color scheme for this painting really is. For example, all the black shapes use black, a light mix of ultramarine blue and white, and a vermilion red. What makes them different are the ratios of red to blue dots, and whether those dots are dottier or dashier. The same goes for the great swathes of blue-green used throughout the composition. The shape and wetness of the paint marks differentiate the shadowed grass in the foreground from the shaded underside of the trees in the upper sections of the work.
Next time you want to learn more about an artist’s methods, but can’t jet off to the Chicago Art Institute or the Louvre to paint from the masterpiece first hand, try a jigsaw puzzle. You might glean a few tips while you’re being entertained!