The Story of Colour


NG200 Sassoferrato The Virgin in Prayer 1640-50 Oil on canvas 73 x 57.7 cm Credit Line: The National Gallery, London

It’s easy to take the availability and accessibility of coloured paints for granted. When we run out of cobalt or chartreuse paint, we simply pay a visit to our favourite art shop and restock.

But colour paints weren’t as readily available in the Renaissance and the Making Colour exhibition takes you on a journey through the colour wheel and demonstrates the struggle faced by artists to find natural materials to make colour.

The exhibition is divided up into six different rooms; each room is devoted to a specific colour with paintings that demonstrate the use of that colour.

In the introductory room before the exhibition main event, is a brief history of colour and colour wheels. Invented by Isaac Newton, they are an essential tool for artists even today. The opposite colours in the wheel are known as counterpart colours. Although they are opposites, when they are placed together in a painting, such as yellow and blue they actually compliment each other and make the painting vibrant and stand out. Good examples of this can be seen in paintings such as Carracci’s Christ Appearing to Saint Peter on the Appian Way (Domine, Quo Vadis?) 1601-2; and in Two Crabs by Vincent van Gogh 1889 which shows two bright orange crabs set against a blue background. Whilst the counterpart colours in these paintings compliment one another, the opposite is true of tapestries. When colours such as these are placed next to each other, far from standing out they appear dull.

L995 Vincent van Gogh (1853 – 1890) Two Crabs, 1889 Oil on canvas On loan from a Private Collection © Private Collection

Vincent van Gogh (1853 – 1890)
Two Crabs, 1889
Oil on canvas
On loan from a Private Collection
© Private Collection

The first room marks the start of the colour journey with blue. This colour was notoriously difficult to acquire. Made from the lapis lazuli stone located in the mines of Badakshan, Afghanistan, it was called ultramarine, meaning ‘across the sea’ which reflected the complex nature of obtaining this precious stone. At this time, the lapis stone was incredibly valuable and was worth more than gold.

Another room that I particularly liked was the room devoted to green. Although we are surrounded by this colour in nature, it surprisingly was a challenge for artists to find. Green was used as a base for skin tone in Renaissance paintings and to achieve this pigment, artists would mix green earth with egg. In some paintings it is possible to see an underlying green tint to the skin of the painted figures.

The climax to the exhibition is the final room devoted to gold and silver which played important parts particularly in religious paintings.With several beautiful paintings on display in this room that are prime examples of the effective use of these glittering colours, it is a fine and fitting end to the journey of colour.

Making Colour is on at the National Gallery from 18th June – 7th September 2014

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