Making Colour at the National Gallery

Colour in Art

I wish the National Gallery had done the ‘Making Colour’ exhibition, the first of its kind in the UK, a good few years ago when I was studying art and design. This excellent curation of the story of colour would have been so useful! In short, the exhibition was great and now it’s closed, so I wanted to share a few interesting things in each room…

Covering over 700 years of art in a series of colour themed rooms, it encompassed traditional pigment creation, colour theory development, the application of colour and the pursuit of new hues, illustrated with displays of paintings, mineral specimens, textiles, ceramics and glass.

Colour Theory
Isaac Newton influenced colour theory – it was his experiments with light that first demonstrated light could be separated into pure prismatic colours and recombined to make white light. Informed by Newton’s work, the difference between combining light and pigment was only documented on a colour wheel in 1776 by Moses Harris; mixing light makes white, but mixing pigments makes black.

Even in these early times, the emotional impact of colour and of defective colour vision was being explored by Goethe.

Artists instinctively used complimentary colours long before the theory was formally proposed in 1839. Chevreul was the first to record colours opposite each other on the colour wheel that enhanced one another. His theory influenced 19th century Impressionist painters, as seen in Renoir’s ‘The Skiff (La Yole)’ focusing on blue and orange, and Van Gogh’s ‘Two Crabs’ using red and green.

Interestingly, Chevreul noted that if complimentary colours were too close in tapestries, the opposite occurred and they appeared grey.

Until paint came in metal tubes there was no outdoor painting. Although paint could be made and stored in pig bladders it had to be kept inside to stop it drying out. Renoir said that, “without paints in tubes, there would have been no Cezanne, Monet, Sisley or Pissario, nothing of what the journalists were later to call Impressionsts.”

Quest for Blue
The best blue colour is and was Ultramarine. Natural Ultramarine is the purest, richest available – made from Lapis Lazuli, “beyond the sea,” reflecting the difficulty of importing it to the West from Budakhshan, Afghanistan in the 13th century. This colour, unlike others, retained its colour and vibrance over the years; special commissions requested Ultramarine and the pigment was more expensive than gold!

Another blue, Copper Sulphate, was used to fantastic effect in Seizure, Hiorns’ 2008 art installation. He flooded a flat with 75,000l of copper sulphate solution and returned to see it was completely covered in beautiful, piercing copper sulphate crystals. Bright, sparkling blue and with a very other-worldly feel, it is on display at Yorkshire Sculpture Park!

Painting Green
There are few natural matches for a green pigment, usually it was mixed from primaries but in the 16th century landscape painting emerged as a separate subject in art. Verdigris, the corroded rust on the surface of copper and bronze has been used since ancient times and then manufactured on copper plates to help overcome the problem of supply.

Green Earth, a mineral clay, was used by Renaissance painters as an underlayer for the flesh colour.

Fashioning Yellow (and Orange)
Yellows and oranges mainly derived from the colourants used in the glass and ceramic industry, the heat of production meant they were stable and didn’t change over time like other colours.

Not widely used as it was toxic, Realgar is a rare orange mineral which contains arsenic! Artists are known to lick their paintbrushes, so they had to be quite careful – it’s other use was as a rat poison.

Seeing Red
The richest reds are extracted from insects, like kermes and cochineal – and are still used today in lipsticks and food colouring.

Dyes processed to give coloured pigments are called ‘Lakes,’ and some of the dyes were so valuable that fabric offcuts were kept make lake pigments with.

Degas’ ‘Combing the Hair’ is a monochromatic study in Vermilion, Red Lead, Earth Pigment and Red lake which really shows the effect of each colour – he was losing his vision which might explain the fiery work of art.

Royal Purple
Natural mineral purple comes from a rare form of Fluorite, arising from structural defects in the mineral.

Pre-Raphaelites depicted heros and heroines in purple but used a mix of primaries, it was not until Queen Victoria dressed her whole family in purple there was a high demand for a dye called Mauveine.

Gold and Silver
Gold and silver aren’t included in the spectrum of colours, but they were important in pre-16th century Western Art. Renaissance painters would apply gold leaf, which in candlelight created a glittering, beautiful effect. For illuminated manuscripts, shell gold was used – it was a mix of powdered gold leaf and egg white traditionally kept in a mussel shell, hence the name.

In the late 15th century, artists used paint to replicate gold or silver and combined with real gold or silver, it would draw attention to their skill. Leon Batiste Alberti said, “There is more admiration and praise for the artist that imitates the rays of gold with colour.”

Many of the different colours were discovered by chemical accidents but otherwise, competitions launched by industry meant manufacturing of new colours increased dramatically during the 19th century. The medium used to apply pigment such as egg tempera or oil, had much to do with the vibrance, luminosity and final colour as well.

Picking out my highlights has proved very difficult, because it was so interesting and informative! The artwork on display really helped bring it to life, which fortunately can be seen in the National Gallery YouTube video on the exhibition. Or I can give you my full notes!


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