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What Seurat saw

BEING alert lies at the very heart of the creative process. One never knows what may suddenly appear over the horizon of the unknown, or pop into view in the here and now. Without such alertness, D"urer would never have been able to capture the sense of living actuality that sets his ``Young Hare'' apart from all other depictions of small animals. And Turner would never have been able to translate sunsets, storms, and other atmospheric realities into a few quickly dashed-off washes of pure color.

Being alert takes other forms as well. Thus, Paul Klee expanded the range of art by remaining extraordinarily sensitive to what happens when tiny daubs of color and thin washes of paint are joined by a few scratchy lines. Piet Mondrian touched formal perfection by probing the structural and metaphysical implications of right angles and the primary colors. John Marin fashioned a dramatically original watercolor style by sensing what was truly essential about an experience -- and then putting it down as swiftly as possible via his own pictorial code. Morris Graves created some of the most spiritually evocative images of our time by waiting patiently at the frontier of secular knowledge for intimations of the divine.

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The list is endless. Every artist of substance has, in one way or another, activated his or her sensibilities and intuitions to the point of maximum effectiveness. For some, this takes the form of clearer observation, for others, a greater sensitivity to medium, inner truths, alternative techniques, or expanded thematic possibilities. But whatever, the ultimate impact of this increased awareness on the artist's work will depend on how seriously and consistently it is applied.

No one knew this better than Georges Seurat (1859-91), the inventor of Pointillism and the creator of some of the most beautiful drawings ever made. In his short career he systematized Impressionism and gave it a more classical orientation, and evolved a style of drawing that abandoned linear definition in favor of a precise manipulation of tonal gradations.

In the process, he produced such modernist masterpieces as ``Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte'' and ``Le Cirque,'' and at least one drawing, ``Portrait of Aman-Jean,'' that would have put him in the art history books if he had done nothing else.

Both his works in color and in black and white result from a profoundly intellectual and highly disciplined -- yet also very open -- approach to art that demanded not only that he apply logic and observation to his creative endeavors but that he remain totally alert to new ideas, forms, and sensations as well.

His openness to new possibilities becomes very apparent if we study the evolution of his drawing style. He began in the late 1870s by copying antique sculpture and working from life-class models in an academic, linear manner. He graduated in 1880 to much looser and warmer sketches of people on the streets and began to work in the bulkier tonal method which was to become his trademark in 1881. By the beginning of 1882, his mature style had formed, and by 1883 he was producing such masterly and original studies as ``Woman Embroidering'' and ``Boy Calling Out.''

In roughly four years he went from talented student to brilliant professional, an accomplishment made all the more remarkable by the fact that it was during those years that he took Pointillism from theory to actuality.

None of this would have been possible had he been content with the formal ideals of the French Academy or of Impressionism, and had he not insisted that he put everything he had -- intellectually, emotionally, and professionally -- on the line every time he painted or drew.

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``The Colt'' is not one of his best drawings. It is too rough and tentative, too structurally unresolved, to rank with his masterpieces. And yet it is so obviously by his hand, and reveals so much about his approach to drawing, that I decided to use it rather than one of his more finished works to illustrate this essay.

To begin with, it establishes that Seurat's drawings achieve their unique identities by means of a transformation of perceptual data into relatively undifferentiated areas of black, white, and gray. Linear definition is replaced by tone and mass, and by a dramatic dependence on silhouette. Everything has been distilled into the most purely, most exclusively black-and-white image possible.

Seurat drew ``The Colt'' by piling line upon line until he had achieved the desired blackness or opacity for each section of the composition, or until the black/white contrasts matched what he had in mind. The shapes of the animal, the trees, the shadow, and the low-lying hill were arrived at by this process. They were not determined beforehand by carefully drawn outlines.

The result is a shimmering, two-dimensional black-and-white approximation of what the artist actually saw. For all its roughness and tentativeness, it represents a totally original approach to drawing that led not only to a number of stunning works of art, but to a new way of transcribing nature onto paper as well.

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