The Polka Dot: Art, cosmos and graphic design

Alex Bigman

Polka dots. As the only decorative motif worn by the universe itself, we think it merits a pretty serious showcase.

In fact, the polka dot has a richer history than we ever imagined. Since first hitting the men’s fashion scene in mid-19th century England, the polka dot (which has no substantiated relation to the polka dance, by the way; Flamenco, yes) has come to hold a perhaps unexpectedly grand place in the history of modern art.

We’ll look at its many wonderful appearances, from the post-impressionist paintings of Georges Seurat to the multi-multi-million dollar-selling canvases of controversial contemporary artist, Damien Hirst.

And as for graphic design? Of course, there is no shortage of awesome logos, product packages and such that make use of polka dot patterns, but the dot goes even deeper than that.

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, rocking Victory Dots (left); Flamenco dancers (right).

If you’ve ever considered the terms DPI (dots per inch) or PPI (pixels per inch), you know that dots constitute the very building blocks of designed images, both print and digital. That’s right: starting from the Big Bang, we intend to zoom in to the inner workings of your computer monitor and inkjet printer. Let’s go.

Polka Dots in Art

Pointillism

Georges Seurat and a detail from one of his pointillist paintings, “La Parade de Cirque” (1889)

Coming on the heels of Impressionism in the late 19th century, pointillism took the radical practice of leaving visible brush strokes a step further: composing images from many tiny dots (quite similar to how modern printers operate, actually).

The method, championed by French artist Georges Seurat, was rooted in assumptions about color theory — namely, that if you place many dots of different but complementary colors near one another, the human eye will blend them into an intermediate tone (as occurs with CMYK printing). This turned out not to work so well with paint, but the resulting works are dazzling nonetheless.

Seurat’s most famous work: “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” (1884)

Ben-Day Dots

Roy Lichtenstein and one of his Ben-Day-inspired works, “Forms In Space” (1985)

In the 1950s, comic books adopted a cheap way to achieve a spectrum of color, using just the four printing process colors — cyan, magenta, yellow and black. Named after illustrator Benjamin Henry Day, Jr., the “Ben-Day” method overlaps (or spaces out) dots at different intervals to create the perception of new tones. For example, overlapping cyan and yellow produces a green effect, while spacing magenta dots further apart on a white surface creates the perception of pink.

Pop artist Roy Lichtenstein made the artifice of this method apparent with his iconic, large-scale paintings of comic book imagery.

A famous work by Roy Lichtenstein, “M-Maybe” (1964)

This makeup artist put together an astounding Lichtenstein-inspired costume

Infinity Dots

Yayoi Kusama and her installation “Infinity Dots Mirrored Room” (1996)

If anyone understands the power of the polka-dot, it is Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama. The artist, who has struggled with mental illness throughout her life and voluntarily resides in a Tokyo mental hospital, has publicly said that if it weren’t for the spiritual, therapeutic repetition of her art-making, she would have killed herself long ago. Her installations involve polka-dotted sculptures and mirrors that spread the patterns endlessly. Of the noble dot, Kusama has this to say:

“A polka-dot has the form of the sun, which is a symbol of the energy of the whole world and our living life, and also the form of the moon which is calm. Round, soft, colorful, senseless and unknowing. Polka-dots become movement… Polka dots are a way to infinity.”

Kusama’s “Passing Winter” (2009)

Damien Hirst

Damien Hirst and his “For the Love of God” (2007), a diamond-encrusted skull valued at $100 million

In 2012, British artist Damien Hirst, whose wealth is valued at well over £200 million, making him the world’s richest living artist, jumped on the polka-dot bandwagon, unveiled a series of 300 spotted works. Ka-ching!

One of Hirst’s dot paintings (2012)

Graphic Design and the Pixel-to-Printing Process

(Left to Right): RGB sub-pixels, a diagram relating pixels to printed dots, and an actual close-up image of printer dots

Pixels, dots and points — oh, my! The relationship of these elements to one another, as practically manifested in the “DPI” or “PPI” fields with which any Photoshop user will be familiar, is complex enough to warrant a blog post of its own (stay tuned for this…).

For now, suffice it to say that computer screens consist of rows and rows of pixels, each of which consists of a red, green and blue sub-pixel that, illuminated in different combinations, produce a spectrum of perceived color as a result of additive color processing. Printers meanwhile, spray out ink as tiny dots at a density of somewhere between 300 and 600 per inch.

So there you have it: whatever you design is, at its core, just a bunch of dots of one sort or another. Respect the dot! And don’t shy away from using it on a decorative level, either, as with these awesome examples below.

Awesome Lichtenstein-inspired business cards by 99er TintoDeVerano

Polka dots in logo design by 99er Boola

“Branding the Polka Dot,” by designer Kirstie Hardingham

This packaging design for Paco & Lola liqueur would do Yayoi Kusama proud

An incredible video showing artist Miguel Endara’s point-based portraiture work

Have you seen any sweet polka-dot designs lately?

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