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Stippling [stip-uhl-ing] is the creation of a pattern simulating varying degrees of solidity or shading by using small dots. Such a pattern may occur in nature and these effects are frequently emulated by artists. In a drawing or painting, the dots are made of pigment of a single color, applied with a pen or brush; the denser the dots, the darker the apparent shade—or lighter, if the pigment is lighter than the surface. This is similar to—but distinct from—pointillism, which uses dots of different colors to simulate blended colors.

In printmaking, dots may be carved out of a surface to which ink will be applied, to produce either a greater or lesser density of ink depending on the printing technique. Stippling may also be used in engraving or sculpting an object even when there is no ink or paint involved, either to change the texture of the object, or to produce the appearance of light or dark shading depending on the reflective properties of the surface; for instance, stipple engraving on glass produces areas that appear brighter than the surrounding glass.

The technique became popular as a means of producing shaded line art illustrations for publication, because drawings created this way could be reproduced in simple black ink. The other common method is hatching, which uses lines instead of dots. Stippling has traditionally been favored over hatching in biological and medical illustration, because it is less likely to interfere visually with the structures being illustrated (the lines used in hatching can be mistaken for actual contours); it also allows the artist to vary the density of shading more subtly to depict curved or irregular surfaces.

Images produced by halftoning or dithering and computer printers operate on similar principles (varying the size and/or spacing of dots on paper), but do so via photographic or digital processes rather than manually. These newer techniques have made it possible to convert continuous-tone images into patterns suitable for printing, but artists may still choose stippling for its simplicity and handmade appearance.

‘The Wall Street Journal’ still features stippled and hatched portraits known as hedcuts in its pages, a holdover from its earlier avoidance of photographs. In description of flora species, the term stippling is invoked to describe certain patterns, especially in the case of flowering plants. There are patterns produced in nature that occur on flower petals and sepals which are similar to the dot patterns in artworks that produce an often intricate pattern. An example can be seen on the base of the petal insides of Calochortus luteus, a poppy endemic to California.

The term stipple can also apply to a random pattern of small depressions applied to a surface to increase the friction and make the surface easier to grip. This process is similar to knurling or checkering, but is often used on complex curved surfaces, such as anatomical grips, where a regular pattern would not fit. Stippling can be cast into plastic objects, or applied with a hammer and punch to wood or metal objects.

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