What are Ben-Day Dots?
Even if you have no idea what they are called or used for, you have probably seen them in pieces of art or comic books: The little colored dots that compose the color portions of an artwork or comic book panel, as well as many cheaply printed materials from the 20th century and today.
The Ben-Day dots are tiny dots in different colors used in a commercial printing technique. The technique was invented by illustrator and printer Benjamin Henry Day, whom it was named after, in 1879.
It was primarily used in color comic books between the 1950s and 1960s to produce the effects of shading and a secondary color without spending a lot of money.
To use this technique, small colored dots are widely spaced, closely spaced, or overlapping depending on the effect, color, and optical illusion you want to achieve.
Although they are widely known for playing an essential role in comic printing during the 20th century, Ben-Day dots were also significant in the work of American pop artist Roy Lichtenstein.
In most publications, Ben-Day is often defined in relation to dots. However, other shapes may also be used, including irregular effects, parallel lines, textures, or waved lines. Four primary colors are typically used in printing Ben-Day dots – yellow, black, cyan, and magenta.
From these four, the artist can create the illusion of more shades and colors by printing either of the colors in small, spaced together dots, overlapping, or far apart. For instance, when yellow and cyan are overlapped, they create the color green, while when magenta dots are widely spaced, they create the color pink.
Ben-Day was first used in newspaper images, prompting the ensuing collaborative relationship between comics/newspapers and dots. Before the technique was applied to fine art, it was applied predominantly in comic books, comic strips, and newspapers. But as cheaper and faster printing methods adapted toward mass consumption were invented, the dots became an alternative production technique in the world of art.
Before applying the Ben-Day dots, the artist would first get transparent overlay sheets, which came in various sizes and distribution, allowing for a broader range of shades, depth, and dimensionality when an image is rendered. Particularly, these overlay sheets were cut into different shapes and tonal regions, delivering shading once the image was reproduced photographically.
Ben-Day Dots vs. Halftone Dots
The main difference between Ben-Day dots and Halftone Dots is that Ben-Day dots are usually of the same size and distribution in a particular area. However, Ben-Day dots were essentially inspired by halftone dots, which were mainly used in black and white in photographic and lithographic printing.
In both techniques, the dots are arranged on a square grid, though Ben-Day dots are of the same sizes while halftone dots are of different sizes.
The halftone dots were perfected in the late 1800s after a series of failed attempts at something closely related. It offers a way to break up a continuously toned image made of shades of grey into thousands of small black and white dots.
Essentially, every photographic print is made up of numerous tiny dots that are irregular in form and greyness but are too little to be used in printing the photograph. They successfully create continuous grey tones.
Halftone screening became a necessity because it was impossible to print continuous grey tones by simple, inexpensive letterpress printing, which was majorly used throughout the 20th century to produce magazines, newspapers, comics, and packaging.
Letterpress can print words set in metal type, a line drawing, or a solid block of colors (black or grey). Before the halftones technique was invented, there was no way for a photo to be transferred to a printing plate. During the chemical-etching phase of photoengraving, the metal printing plate would only keep the darker sections of a photo as a solid printing surface.
The only well-known artist to use halftone dots was Sigmar Polke, who exaggerated their size to the extent that they are easily visible. On the other hand, Roy Lichtenstein, as well as seen later, is probably the best-known pop artist to incorporate Ben-Day dots.
But the most intriguing thing about the Ben-Day dots is that a lot of what most of us know about them is wrong. For example, the dots found on the comics are not actually Ben-Day dots – at least not if you want to be completely correct about it.
In the early days, Ben-Day dots were often used interchangeably, or it was assumed that Ben-Day dots were a type of halftone dots.
Neither of the above is correct, even though even Roy Lichtenstein also committed this same rookie error.
Artists known to have used the Ben-Day dots
Besides Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol also employed the Ben-Day dots technique in his “Most Wanted Men1” series from the early 1960s, in which he created a contrast between comic visuals and criminal mug shots.
Damien Hirst from the United Kingdom is also known for contemporizing Ben-Day dots via his absorbed, zoomed-in dot painting method of the 1990s.
Similarly, Japanese contemporary artist Yayoi Kusama also uses dots (polka dots) that appear to reference the Ben-Day dots while dealing with a more psychological tone as her repetitive use of dots references neurotic behavior.
On the other hand, Sigmar Polke used the method to express a more seditious and potentially perverse viewpoint on his craftsmanship. He notably juxtaposed the technique against disguised photography.
Last but not least, Christopher Wool also used this century-old printing method through silkscreen to adapt existing photos and paintings into more mechanical forms, matching the Ben-Day dot aesthetic.
Did Roy Lichtenstein really paint Ben-Day Dots?
Lichtenstein’s success is best remembered for his Romance and War paintings series he created between the early to mid-1960s, using predominantly images obtained from DC comics. While he stopped sourcing images from comic strips, he continued using three signature styles that he refined throughout that period, albeit also derived from the art and printing methods of the comics, namely:
- The black outlines
- The limited color palette
- The Ben-Day dots techniques used by the comics for gradations of color
With the above stylistic backbones, it is safe to conclude that Roy owed almost his entire lucrative career to the art of comics.
But while it is undeniably true that the three styles remained the mainstay of Roy’s craft, if paid a closer look, none of the three are directly copied from the comics as many of Lichtenstein’s critics have for years given him stick for.
It is always noted, even by those who criticize his style, that Roy did actually make more or less subtle variations to the original source, more often than not, framing only an area of a panel or sometimes merging two or more panels into a single image.
More interestingly, one thing that is never discussed or briefly mentioned is that Roy’s color palette was far removed from the tones of the comic printing process. He also altered the nature of the black outlines in the source image.
Roy never painted Ben-Day dots; instead, he painted his own dots. For example, if you compare one of Lichtenstein’s pieces titled Sleeping Girl (1964) with its comic book source No Cure For Love – Heart Throbs no. 70, Feb –Mar 1961 by John Romita, you will clearly spot the difference. They do not look alike.
Thus Roy painted his own version of the dots, perhaps “Roy Lichtenstein dots.” One of the most visible differences between the work mentioned above and its original source is that the comic version features square grids, while Roy’s painting does not; instead, the artist exaggerated the dots in hexagons and triangles.
Most art commentators and writers agree that Lichtenstein painted dots “similar to” or “derived from” the Ben-Day dots of the comics. Only non-professionals and journalists with little knowledge of art state downright that Roy painted Ben-Day dots.
However, with all fairness to the likes of Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel, the creators of Superman, the controversies over Roy’s alleged plagiarism should not be ignored. These two creators were poorly treated by their publishers, and while this is a different matter, it is ethically related.
Comics became more popular in the 1930s, and the first print of Superman was created in 1938. The publishers made a lot of money from the comics business and lived lavish lifestyles, but they did not bother to share the proceeds with the creatives.
But Roy Lichtenstein had an idea that would change his fortunes forever. In 1961, he set out to paint an exaggerated image of a comic strip panel – with minor changes – and create something that was not yet done by anyone in the art world. And with this, he’d hoped it would get him out of the unbeneficial pothole that his post-cubist, abstract expressionist painting career had stuck in.
However, he was not the only one with this revelation at the time. In fact, many believe Roy Lichtenstein enjoyed the success he had because he got his paintings into the galleries ahead of Andy Warhol, which made Andy feel he’d been beaten to it, forcing him to take another direction.
Ben-Day Dots in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is a computer-animated superhero film from 2018 produced by Sony Pictures Animation and Columbia Pictures in collaboration with Marvel. The film is touted as one of the best examples of translating comics into motion pictures, and the creators did so without losing anything in translation.
In the world of comics, Ben-Day dots printing techniques were not meant to be an aesthetic, stylistic choice. Instead, it was only seen as the best alternative for printing a hero’s latest world-saving adventure quickly and inexpensively.
That was throughout the 20th century, but why did this technique that worked wonders in a stencil emulated in a modern animated movie that hit our theaters decades after the evolution of printing technology rendered Ben-Day dots obsolete?
It seems Into the Spider-Verse was trying to evoke the aesthetic of the classic Silver Age of comics.
Andrew Farago, curator at the Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco, noting that Roy Lichtenstein did recognize this unique look hiding in plain sight, explained:
One of the first things that would jump off the page when you would look at a typical 1940s or 1950s comic book was this dot pattern. That, in turn, became instantly recognizable as this visual shorthand for comics. A way to say this is, for better or worse (…), what comics look like. Instead of this flat color, instead of this even, uniform rigid printing, you’ve got this weird, kind of hypnotic dot pattern.
But as we mentioned in this article, Lichtenstein actually did not use Ben-Day dots in technicality. His famous works such as Look, Mickey, Drowning Girl and Whaam! were in fact, painted and not printed. Lichtenstein’s dots are not overlays of the four printing primary colors meant to conjure a broader range of tones.
His dot patterns were made up of one color that filled the surface. It is a pop-art way of engaging with an artist’s craft, and once Lichtenstein’s reproduction of old pulp comic panels hit the mainstream media, “dots” became a part of comics.
But, as a result of being a computer-animated film and not a 10-cent comic book printed on cheap paper in the 1950s, Into the Spider-verse does not actually use Ben-Day dots in a conventional manner. Instead, only specific parts of the film, which appears more like animated collage inspired by street art instead of comic history, possess that famous dot pattern.
By employing these dot patterns, Into the Spider-Verse instantaneously reads like a comic. However, the film can’t take credit for bringing Ben-Day dots back into the limelight; imitating the dot patterns is the best tool for contemporary comic artists trying to capture that Silver Age magic.
I couldn’t tell you how many artists I’ve seen use Ben-Day dots when they want to indicate that this is a flashback scene. Maybe they want to indicate that this is a flashback scene specifically taking place in the 1950s. It is a technique artists will use when they want to capture a retro feeling.
The production designer of the film, Justin K. Thompson, grew up admiring superhero adventure. At 14, he landed a job at a comic book store, where he became an avid reader. In trying to come up with the right approach, Thompson recalled his younger self, spending hours staring at pages of comics, gripping over the linework as well as the Ben-Day dots, and noticing the misaligned plates of the four-color printing technique.
Those are things that I saw that I saw that made comics feel tactile. The color palette as very bold and expressive from panel to panel, you might have had one panel that was blue and one panel that was red. There were very high contrast images with saturated colors. You have black being used on comic books, in the shadows, very high contrast images with the saturated colors.
Also, since in comics, frames change color when the character’s emotions change or where there is a predominantly expressive moment, Thompson felt adopting this into the film would help the audience feel like they were in a comic book with Miles Morales.
Thomson said the following about the thought behind these flourishes appropriated from the source medium:
Since this is an alternative universe, let’s just treat it like a film that is told from the point of view of somebody in one of those comics.
Thompson tried to envisage what it would be like to live in the world as the leading character of the film, Miles, and how those printing deficiencies and complexities would logically be part of that world.
If I looked up from Miles’ point of view, if I looked up through his eyes, all those things would be in the world around me: the Ben-Day dots, the offsets, the line work on people’s faces, all those things would actually exist.
However, the production team’s most challenging part was to avoid making something that overwhelmed the storyline or was not overly permissive. His main goal from the start was to include all these elements from the comics without compromising moments that felt natural, believable, or human. Of course, the exaggerated moments of mystic fun had to be there, but without overshadowing the importance of the character’s journey.
My goal was to make sure that people fall in love with Miles Morales, not to make sure that they fall in love with the look of the movie.
The dots in Andy Warhol’s Most Wanted Men series
It is remiss to talk about the Ben-Day dots without mentioning one of the most influential figures in Pop Art, Andy Warhol.
Although Warhol was not known for using dot art as much as his most direct rival, Roy Lichtenstein, he incorporated similar patterns in some of his early works.
In Most Wanted Men No. 6, Thomas Francis C., Warhol based the mural on police mug shots and painted them over before they were seen by anyone. The two paintings are currently located at Los Angeles’s Broad Museum. It is usually referred to as a later form of 2 of the 13 Most Wanted Men silkscreens that the artist was invited to hang on the façade of a theater at the New York World’s Fair of 1964.
The canvases at the Broad Museum were also made from similar screens as the portraits from the World Fair. However, looking from a distance, the mug shots resemble an actual photograph and appear as if the original images had just been enlarged.
But when you come up close, the images suddenly break down into a collection of enlarged black dots, and its subjects stop being decipherable the closer you come. This breakdown gives the piece a conceptual attribute, calling to attention the pictorial process behind the mug shot and every image you see. And the exaggerated dots instantly remind us of the dotty works of Lichtenstein.
However, it is worth noting that Warhol and Lichtenstein actually riffed on different types of printer’s spots. While Lichtenstein painted dots similar to Ben-Day, Warhol dots, which vary in both spacing and size, come from halftone screening.
Create your own Ben-Day dots
How to create your own Ben-Day dots character with adobe illustrator
If you are a modern-day comic artist looking to learn how to create a Pop Art character with BenDay dots, below is a short tutorial to get you started.
Start by line drawing the face in close-up with simple strokes. Next, create shadows with solid black objects. Draw the objects using the Pen Tool and try to give movement and volume to the illustration.
Choose your colors. You can decide to go for the colors used predominantly in pop art comics to create a more noticeable effect or choose the tones that you want to express the character’s emotions.
Luckily, the Illustrator tool usually comes equipped with a Pop Art swatches palate, so try playing around with colors until you settle on the best tones for your illustration.
Create the strips for the dots background. You will need the grid guideline to be able to create the dots strips for every color.
If you want help locating the grid, go to View > Show Grid and View > Snap Grid to enable “Snap to Grid” by checking a box next to it.
Use the Ellipse Tool to draw two circles while holding the Shift key to restrain the proportions and create an ideal dot. Just like the Ben-Day dots printing process, the space between your dots will determine the color in the strips. The closer the dot, the more predominant the dot color will be compared to the background color, while the more space in between the dots, the more noticeable they would be in the eyes.
Duplicate the dots and use the Rotate Tool to rotate them at 90 degrees. To do this, click and hold the shift key, which will turn the dots in increments of 45 degrees. Next, use the Rectangle Tool (M) to draw a square so that each side passes through the center of the dots.
Now duplicate the square four times and intersect each instance with each circle using the Intersect Tool in the Pathfinder Panel. If you can’t see the Pathfinder Panel, you can go to Window > Pathfinder to reveal it. To finish the swatch, select the one square you have left and send it to the back by going to Object > Arrange > Send to Back.
Duplicate each set of square + dots four times, one for each color that our illustration has. Now fill each set of circles with the colors of our image. Finally, fill the square with white. Now we are ready to create the swatches from these elements! Select the first square with the circles inside and go to Edit > Define Pattern. Name your swatch if you’d like, and click OK to create the swatch. Repeat the process for the other colors. You’ll see the new swatches available in the Swatches Panel.
Replace the colors of the objects in our illustration with the new swatches. Then, select each object and click on the corresponding swatch in the Swatch Panel.
If you are unhappy with how any of the swatches look as patterns in your illustration, you can play with the background color to create other tones. For example, I wanted to give a fuller effect to the lips. To achieve it, I changed the background color from white to pink.
You can edit the swatch color by selecting it and going to Edit > Edit Color > Recolor Artwork. Locate the “Current” and “New” columns in this window and click on the color box under the New column to change the color. In this case, I changed the white color to pink. Click OK to apply changes.
Now we are going to take care of the strokes used to give expression to the face. This is single strokes with no fill. There are some for the nose profile, cheeks, forehead, etc. Open the brushes panel (Window > Brushes) and click on the top-right icon to reveal its menu. Select Open Brush Library > Artistic > Artistic_Ink.
A new panel will appear. Now select one of the strokes and click on the bottom brush named “Tapered Stroke” in the panel we just opened. Next, do the same with the rest of the strokes. I applied the brush to all of my elements in the illustration to have the edges between them perfectly aligned.
If the brush for the expression lines is too wide or too thin (depends on the size of your illustration), you can adjust the brush width. To do this, go to the brush panel, where you’ll find the brush you use for the expression lines.
When you select a brush in any of the brush library panels, it’s automatically added to the main Brush Panel. Double click on the brush. In the Width slider, move the arrow to the left to make the stroke thinner or to the right to make them wider. Click OK when you’re finished.
We are almost done. Since we are creating this effect for an avatar, you might want to make the dots smaller or bigger after seeing how it looks like a small icon. You can keep the width of the dots even if you change the illustration size.
To do this, open the preferences window (Illustrator > Preferences > General) and uncheck the “Transform Pattern Tiles”. Leave the “Scale strokes & Effects” checked to scale the expression lines.
Now you can have your avatar in several sizes without losing the Pop Art effect.
Follow this link for the complete tutorial with images.
How to create Ben Day Dots for your next comic art
There are numerous ways in which you can create these famous dots right in your studio, but we will talk about just a few of them today.
This is perhaps the simplest way to create Ben-Day dots in your art studio. Just draw small dots and space them evenly. But this can be more effective if the piece of work you are creating is small, as this means you will not get fatigued by drawing millions of dots.
Bubble wrap plus liquid tempera paint
Cut a bubble wrap into a paper-size piece and brush some liquid tempera paint over it. Place the paper on top and slowly even the back of the paper and then lift it to reveal your dots. Let it dry for a few hours and use it for a collage like Lichtenstein’s.
Stencil, pain, and paintbrush
This is the method that Lichtenstein used to make his Ben-Day dots. Using a hole punch, create holes in a strip of paper and place the paper over your piece of art. Dash paint in the holes and gently lift the stencil to reveal your dots.
Over the years, Ben-Day dots have undergone a transformation from an old technique used in mass production and commerciality to one of the most highly regarded methods within the world of art. Through the transitioning lies a great motif of consumer culture in the light of high art.
As Ben-Day dots continue to be used in comics and even films, questions about the labeling of low art versus high art keep emerging. But the acceptance of this technique into the art world addresses the public’s tendencies to accept structures created by those we consider “cultural creators” irrespective of their category or class.