Arts Enclave's Blog

Seurat and the Fuck-It Point

Seurat probably never said, “fuck-it.” Anyone who has seen his pointillist paintings becomes instantly aware that he just kept going, adding dot after dot after dot until the wee hours. But at what point (literally what point) was it time to stop? It’s really not clear that Seurat knew.

Here’s how it goes:  Anything in life is about perception, which is subjective, meaning completely clouded by the notions and emotional artifacts of the person doing the perceiving. That final impression—of a painting, a song, a movie, an event, even the way you spent Thanksgiving—is as much about the mind of the audience as it is about the creator.

Art needs to cut through this cloud in which billions of particles of debris are already floating to leave one single, fleeting impression. Seurat, who led the Post-Impressionist Movement, discovered he could manipulate the way the brain receives the message by breaking down the colors in the painting into separate points.

Seurat is the artist most associated with pointillism—although there were (and still are) others who practice it. The technique involves placing very specific dots of pure color in careful juxtaposition. Up close, they are DOTS, painstakingly applied, and appearing to have little meaning. But as you move away, the mind takes over, filling in the spaces for a more complete, unified picture. The further back you stand, the better it looks.

A Sunday on La Grande Jatte by Georges Seurat (Wikimedia Commons, courtesy of Chicago Museum of Art)

Seurat painted about 240 paintings, often repeating the same subject. His most famous work, Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte,” appeared in different forms over several years, as he “reworked” the painting, actually adding the points of color later in the process as his technique grew.

He also did many color studies and sketches before tackling the painting. Clearly, this man took an Aspergian interest in detail, but he did manage to finish the paintings enough to show them in his lifetime.

So it could be that the Fuck-it point is a moving target. In your creative work, you are linking hundreds to thousands of dots artistically, theoretically, verbally, or even logistically, to create that single impression.

All the main connections have to be there, and then you can fill in some—but never all—of the detail. And you have to stop, at least temporarily, to have any sense of where in the process you are. Of course, this means crossing back from the vast open sea of right-brain thinking to at least feel the left brain sand between your toes. You must let go of your creation and step back enough to see it clearly.

And so, at some point, literally, at one point in a painting, after putting the brush to the canvas and applying one single dot of color, Seurat must have realized that any further dots would not contribute to the overall impression of the work or the message it contained. He reached—with each painting—the point of diminishing returns, where the majority of what needed to be said, had been said.

Artists continue to struggle with the notion that their art is never finished, because each work helps them to grow, at which point they know they can do better what they just did. The temptation is strong to go back, as Seurat did, and as George Lucas often does.

Let’s face it; Star Wars was a pretty cool movie the first time around. Those of us who saw it first run in theatres thought it was awesome, and there’s no question it definitely blew us out of this world, and into a galaxy far, far away (where everybody looked and talked just like we did). Many had tried, but no one had succeeded in creating a realistic and engaging movie about the future before George Lucas (and he had to create new special effects companies just to do it).

But long after the release, the film bugged him, and he obsessed over it, continuing to update it regularly, and even doing a 20th Anniversary release that few people who aren’t totally into the technology even care about. That’s because the first film reached the Fuck-it point in 1977, but Lucas didn’t.

George Lucas can afford to keep working on his tome, but for most of us, it’s best to keep going forward if we want to really make a mark. The problem is, we get stuck, worried that our creations are not good enough to be shared.

One of my favorite movies is The Wonder Boys (from a book of the same name), about a one-time author working on his second book—and it’s reached 2500 pages. His life is falling apart, and he can’t find his story. When he’s asked why his book is so long, he says, “Because I couldn’t stop writing.” And this is exactly what went wrong.

Nobody knows for sure where the Fuck-it point is in anything, despite the loud thump as you roll right over it, because, like the sunset over the canyon in the rear-view mirror, it can only be seen from behind. It is the day when you realize that one more word, one more note, one more drop of paint will add nothing to what you have already said.

Georges Seurat died in 1891 at the age of 31, possibly from diphtheria, meningitis, pneumonia or viral angina—or maybe, he just reached his Fuck-it point.

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