Making Colour @ The National Gallery

This is one of the most purely didactic exhibitions I’ve been to. Usually, the curators tell you lots about the movement or biography of whoever’s featured, but you are essentially left to decide whether you enjoy the art by yourself.

Making Colour is more like a lecture, or a short degree course, compressed into half a dozen rooms. It is a fascinating, thorough and rather exhausting explanation of how coloured oil paints were and are made, where the raw ingredients came from in medieval and renaissance Europe, and then how discoveries by chemists throughout the 19th century introduced new shades and tones to the artist’s palette which are still in use today.

There are several strands or themes:

The growth in scientific understanding of how the human eye sees colour, how it is detected by the cones and rods in our retinas – there is a short film about perception in a cinema to one side of the gallery, which goes into colour blindness and the dramatic difference the ambient light we see a painting in has on our perception of it: thought-provoking as, for most of their history most of these paintings will have been seen either by partial daylight or candlelight – certainly not by the flat fluorescent light of modern galleries.

Theories of colour ie how colours complement each other. It was only in the late 1600s that Isaac Newton broke white light up into the spectrum, and placed the study of light and colours on a scientific basis. Various art theorists produced lists or descriptions of spectrums, often arranged into colour wheels.

The Natural System of Colours Wherein is displayed the regular and beautiful Order and Arrangement, Arising from the Three Premitives [sic], Red, Blue and Yellow, The manner in which each colour is formed, and its Composition... Moses Harris 1769/1776

The Natural System of Colours Wherein is displayed the regular and beautiful Order and Arrangement, Arising from the Three Premitives [sic], Red, Blue and Yellow, The manner in which each colour is formed, and its Composition…
Moses Harris, 1769/1776

Complementary colours Apparently, the most influential work on colour was published by the dyer Michel Eugène Chevreul in 1839, not only containing colour wheels but systematically showing how colours opposite each other on the wheel complement or enhance each other. These ideas had a big impact on the Impressionists and post-Impressionists and the show demonstrates how with two very different paintings embodying the theory.

Renoir’s The Skiff (1875) deliberately contrasts blues of sky and river, with the vibrant orange of the boat. You can see from the colour wheel above that these colours are directly opposite each other, and this helps understand why the colours of both seem so bright and vibrant. (The other example is Van Gogh’s Crabs, see below.)

NG6478 Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841 – 1919) The Skiff (La Yole), 1875 Oil on canvas The National Gallery, London. Bought, 1982 © The National Gallery, London

Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841 – 1919)
The Skiff (La Yole), 1875, Oil on canvas
The National Gallery, London. Bought, 1982
© The National Gallery, London

Chemistry Turns out to have played a vital role: during the 19th century industrial chemists in particular were researching ways of generating effective dyes etc for industrial purposes and these discoveries – often complete accidents – were quickly translated into new shades available as paints. Thus Renoir is using two new paints, cobalt blue and chrome orange, which were invented in the 19th century.

Paint availability Until the mid-1700s painters had to mix powdered pigments with either oil or egg themselves, to create the paint they were going to use. This was a fiddly business and not suited to doing outdoors where paint often dried too quickly and so almost all painting was done inside, in studios or churches etc. In the mid-1700s there was a breakthrough of sorts when ready-mixed paints became available in pig’s bladders, allowing greater outdoor painting. But it was not till the mid-1800s that ready-mixed paints became available in tin tubes which were light and easy to transport anywhere.

This technical breakthrough in paint’s portability and convenience contributed to the movement in France to paint out of doors, the movement which came to be known as Impressionism.

A room per colour

How to tackle such a massive subject? Well, the National Gallery has given a room to each of the major colours and in that room explains the history of how those colours were made, from earliest times. And each of these colour rooms has a selection from the full breadth of the National Gallery’s collection, illustrating the different shades of blue, red, green etc as actually applied by the world’s greatest painters in a wide selection of paintings from the 1400s to around 1900.

A personal selection

Rather than rewrite the entire exhibition catalogue, I’ve made a personal selection of favourite paintings, with what they tell us about the sources and uses of colours in their time.

Purple This medieval painting is used to demonstrate a few aspects of colour. 1. It was part of an altar piece on public display in a church, therefore the brightness of the colours helps bring out the clarity of the composition, making the image easier to read (almost like a cartoon). 2. The image uses purple, usually associated with royalty, for the executioner’s dress. At this early period purple was made by mixing ultramarine with red ‘lakes’ and white.

Gherardo di Jacopo Starnina (Master of the Bambino Vispo) The Beheading of Saint Margaret (?) probably about 1409 Egg tempera on poplar 42.3 x 65.2 cm Credit Line: The National Gallery, London

Gherardo di Jacopo Starnina (Master of the Bambino Vispo) The Beheading of Saint Margaret (?) probably about 1409 Egg tempera on poplar 42.3 x 65.2 cm Credit Line: The National Gallery, London

Blue This is a stunning use of the main source of blue in the early Modern period, ultramarine. As the name indicates this was sourced from lapis lazuli rock mined in what is now Afghanistan and brought to Europe along trade routes. By the time it reached Europe this material was more expensive than gold, and is therefore an indication of the wealth of the sponsor of the painting. Its value led to its association with the Virgin Mary, the Queen of Heaven.

But these raw pigments could only be converted into paint by mixing with a medium of which there were two common ones:

  • mixing pigment with egg creates tempera which gives a flat matt affect
  • mixing pigment with oil produces varieties of glaze

The stunning blue of this painting is testament to Sassoferrato’s mastery of the techniques of mixing as much as to his eye and ability at composition.

History of blue Early painters who couldn’t afford ultramarine used Azurite, cheaper but with a greenish hue, or smalt, a blue glass pigment, more affordable but unstable. In the early 18th century Prussian blue was discovered and could be manufactured in bulk, but ultramarine remained the gold standard of blues. In the early 1800s a method was developed for creating a synthetic cobalt blue, and then an artificial version of ultramarine was developed: French ultramarine is still used to this day.

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

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

Yellow Yellow was sourced either from earth ochres or or from compounds of lead tin and antimony. In this Gainsborough from 1756 the dress of the painter’s daughter on the right is done with a shade called Naples yellow, mixed with lead white to create the lighter areas. The panel tells us Gainsborough mixed it well and it has lasted, but Naples yellow contained impurities that, over time, can turn orange or even pink.

Thomas Gainsborough (1727 – 1788) The Painter’s Daughters chasing a Butterfly, probably about 1756 Oil on canvas The National Gallery, London. Henry Vaughan Bequest, 1900 © The National Gallery, London

Thomas Gainsborough (1727 – 1788)
The Painter’s Daughters chasing a Butterfly, probably about 1756
Oil on canvas
The National Gallery, London. Henry Vaughan Bequest, 1900 © The National Gallery, London

The show includes the paintbox of JMW Turner, found in his studio after his death in 1851. It is a fascinating insight into the actual practical tools of the painter’s trade, showing the pigment bottles and the oils he used to mix them with. Incredible to believe Turner created his marvellous, transcendent works with such a small range of pigments available to him.

Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775 – 1851) Turner’s paintbox Metal paint-box Tate Archive © Tate, London

Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775 – 1851)
Turner’s paintbox
Metal paint-box
Tate Archive © Tate, London

Green Green was sourced from verdigris, a kind of clay, or from green earth, a tarnishing of copper. It is fascinating to learn that Renaissance painters often used green earth in  particular as the underlay for skin, but the whites and pinks painted on top sometimes fade to reveal the underlay and this is why the faces of many renaissance paintings have a greenish tinge. Later artists were able to take advantage of the inventions of emerald green and viridian.

This stunning painting by Van Gogh of two crabs is used to show a) the vibrant greens and ready-made oil paints available to a late Victorian artist and b) the artist’s application of colour theory. As well as the depiction of its subject, it is a study in complementary colours, for the vivid greens of the background lie opposite the reddy oranges on the colour wheel.

It is striking to see how the same colour theory has been applied with radically different results by Renoir (1875) and van Gogh (1889). Figurative though the image is, it’s clear that for van Gogh experimenting with colour has become the prime focus. He is quoted as saying, ‘a painter had better start from the colours on his palette rather than the colours of Nature’, and that sounds.

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

Right at the end of the 19th century Dégas was experimenting with colour as this fantasia in red demonstrates. It uses bright red vermilion for the dress and curtain, along with red lead and orange-red, with Venetian reds for the background and the brusher’s blouse made from red ‘lakes’ mixed with white.

The painting can be analysed in terms of colour theory, in terms of the way the actual available paints have been mixed by the artist. Also biographically, as towards the end of his life Dégas was losing  his sight before going completely blind, and the intensity of the reds is possible over-compensation for his failing sight. And psychologically, for the contrast between the theoretically relaxing atmosphere of a woman having her hair combed, contrasting with the emotional impact the image actually makes on the spectator, of the scene being somehow intense and highly charged.

Hilaire Germain Edgar Degas Combing the Hair ('La Coiffure') about 1896 Oil on canvas 114.3 x 146.7 cm Credit Line: The National Gallery, London

Hilaire Germain Edgar Degas
Combing the Hair (‘La Coiffure’) about 1896
Oil on canvas, 114.3 x 146.7 cm
Credit Line: The National Gallery, London

Conclusion

Most people, me included, stroll round a gallery or exhibition deciding whether I like something on the basis of its subject matter, or on its immediate visual impact, its form and design.

The take-home message from this thorough and fascinating exhibition is that there is a huge extra dimension to art appreciation, a whole realm of appreciation based on a real understanding of the physical components of a painting; of the actual paints, the colours and pigments – and the theory of colours – which were available to the artist, which makes the attempt to understand their achievements a lot more complicated and demanding.

Related links

Other reviews of National Gallery exhibitions

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