Pop artist Roy Lichtenstein used a dog-grooming brush to paint the dots in “Look Mickey.”

Look closely at the paintings in the National Gallery of Art’s new Roy Lichtenstein retrospective … walk right up to the canvases and scrutinize them … and you’ll see a common characteristic in many: dots, like those sprinkled throughout these sentences. Small circles of paint, meticulously applied by hand in evenly spaced patterns, fill canvases made throughout the pop artist’s career.

Whether representing the skin tone of cartoon characters or lending dimension to placid landscapes, dots were a Lichtenstein trademark.

“They were part of his vocabulary,” says Harry Cooper, the exhibit’s curator and the gallery’s head of modern and contemporary art, who wrote an entire chapter on the late New York artist’s dots in the exhibition’s catalog.

Even when critics tired of the repetition in Lichtenstein’s technique, he refused to stray from his artistic language, which he developed in the early 1960s and stuck with until his death in 1997.

“I think once he realized how many different ways he could use [dots] and in how many different subjects, it was just like any other vocabulary,” Cooper says.

Orbs of paint, some toothpick-width, others Q-tip- or button-sized, were full of meaning for Lichtenstein. They reference commercial printing processes, in which images, colors and shades are reproduced with a series of tiny, four-color dots. They can also suggest cheaper printing, such as that of comic books or newspapers, or high-tech media, such as the pixels in TVs or computers.

Particularly in some of his large, comic-book-inspired paintings, Lichtenstein used small dots with a great, big wink.

“Part of the point is that there aren’t convincing representations of anything,” Cooper says. “When we take a comic and blow it up, it’s all dots and lines and stripes. He wants us to realize that we might not just want to swallow these images so easily.”

In other words, if you’d like to connect the dots … there are many ways to do so.

‘Look Mickey,’ 1961

While Lichtenstein eventually developed stencils to create standardized dots, he initially began with a more DIY approach. For “Look Mickey,” above, he used a plastic-bristle dog-grooming brush to paint the dots in Mickey Mouse’s face and Donald Duck’s eyes.


Lichtenstein pokes fun at himself in “Masterpiece.”

‘Masterpiece,’ 1962

Roy Lichtenstein is not Brad here, but the artist is “certainly in ‘Masterpiece,’ ” curator Harry Cooper says. The painting was made “just when he was starting to sell his work, and I think there’s a lot of his life and humor there.” The praise coming from the woman is the same sort of feedback Lichtenstein was hearing in 1962. The fact that Lichtenstein included it reflected his “self-mocking” attitude, Cooper says.

National Gallery of Art, 4th Street and Constitution Avenue NW; through Jan. 13, free; 202-737-4215. (Archives)