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I had some time to kill last Sunday, so I popped into the National Gallery to visit their Making Colour exhibition. It proved to be one of the most interesting exhibitions I’ve seen for a very long time. The exhibition took a rather different focus, looking at the ways in which artists have used colour over the centuries and the difficulties they have faced in finding the right shade. I’m not an artist, although I enjoy looking at art, so I’ve never really thought about the restrictions artists face when it comes to paint.

Concerning Colour

The first room was about the early use of colour, and made the point that the modern theory of primary colours was only developed around 1600. However, earlier artists such as Annibale Carracci instinctively used colour to emphasise and contrast. Colour wheels were developed, in which colours lying opposite one another produced the most effective contrasts. This can be seen in later paintings by Renoir and Van Gogh: Renoir painted an orange boat against blue water while Van Gogh depicted orange crabs against a blue-green background.

Despite the conventional representation of an artist’s palette as neat with distinctly marked colours, in reality palettes were incredibly messy owing to the need to mix colours together to provide an accurate shade. J.M.W. Turner’s paintbox on display shows that relatively few colours were available to him, and his palette was hugely messy. Later on, paints were produced in tubes, making them more convenient and easier to transport; the Impressionists were among those artists who benefited from this development.

The Quest for Blue

The history of blue in art is a fascinating one. The second room explored the various kinds of blue available to artists, and the benefits and drawbacks of each. For centuries natural ultramarine, made with the rare and precious mineral lapis lazuli (mined in Badakhstan, now part of Afghanistan), was the highest quality blue available: it was more expensive than gold, and figures and amulets made with this mineral have been discovered in Middle Eastern graves. This is the reason why, in Western art, Mary (mother of Jesus) is often portrayed in blue robes – painting her robes with the most expensive shade available was seen as a sign of devotion. I found this really interesting, as I had wondered in the past why Mary was always depicted in blue. Ultramarine is stable and long-lasting: this is shown in Pierre Mignard’s painting “The Marquise de Seignelay and Two of her Sons” (1691) in which the colours are as fresh today as they would have been at the time.

Other, cheaper blues were available, but these came with their own problems. Azurite has a tendency to go green over time: the contrast between the greenish robes of Saint Peter (painted with azurite) and the rich blue robes of Christ (painted with ultramarine) in the painting “The Betrayal of Christ” (1324-5) by Ugolinodi Nerio is clear to see. Another option was smalt, but this is also unstable. In Jan Jansz Treck’s “Still Life” (1651), smalt was used and the blue has now faded to grey.

In the eighteenth century a synthetic blue, Prussian Blue, was created and manufactured in bulk. Though it did not have the quality of ultramarine, it was an improvement on what had gone before. Gainsborough’s portrait of Sarah Siddons (1785) shows that while the Prussian Blue has faded, it still looks better than either azurite or smalt.

A synthetic ultramarine, known as French ultramarine, was developed in the nineteenth century, and is still used to this day. Finally, an artificial shade was available that matched the results of natural ultramarine. It was used in such works as Monet’s “Lavacourt Under Snow” (c. 1878-81).

Painting Green

The story of green is another fascinating one. The need for green became more marked as landscape painting grew in popularity, with artists struggling to replicate the colours of the landscape in pigment. Two of the most common early greens were verdigris – taken from the surface of copper and bronze – and green earth, producing more muted greens. In Renaissance Italy, green earth was used as a base for faces: this is why they often appear to us to have a greenish tinge. In the nineteenth century, emerald green and viridian replaced earlier greens. Rousseau’s “Valley” (c. 1860) and Cézanne’s “Hillside in Provence” (c. 1890-2) are examples of paintings that made use of artificial greens.

Fashionably Yellow

Muted yellow shades – ochres – were available for many years, with artificial yellows becoming available during the Renaissance: relatively early compared to some other shades. Lead-tin yellow and Naples yellow were among the shades which came into the world of painting via ceramics: there are some interesting porcelain colour test plates on display. Anthony Van Dyck’s “Lady Elizabeth Thimbelby and Dorothy, Viscountess Andover” (c. 1637) and Thomas Gainsborough’s painting of his daughters chasing a butterfly (c. 1756) are examples of the use of these yellow glazes.

Orange could be created by mixing red and yellow, and red lead was also used until around the fourteenth century. Realgar, an orange mineral, was also used on occasion, but this was problematic as it contained arsenic, and was therefore poisonous.

Seeing Red

There were two main ways of creating red pigments. Vermilion was produced from the mineral cinnabar, and was also made artificially from the nineteenth century onwards. In addition, plant and insect dyes could be processed to create red lakes. Vermilion was a much brighter and more stable option, as shown in Masaccio’s painting of the saints Jerome and John the Baptist (c. 1428-9). Jerome’s robes, which were painted with vermilion, are still bright but John’s, which were coloured with red lakes, have faded to pink.

Royal Purple

Creating purple was less problematic than many other colours, as it could be mixed from blue and red. Paris Bordone’s “A Pair of Lovers” (1555-60) is an example of a painting that incorporates purple to give the illusion of rich silk. However, there were other ways of making this colour. The Romans used Tyrian purple made from shellfish, while in 1856 mauveine was patented by William Perkin, although the latter colour was chiefly used as a fabric dye. Queen Victoria and her family are pictured wearing purple in her cartes de visite, while paintings such as Arthur Hughes’ “April Love” (1855-60) capitalised on the popularity of the colour.

Gold and Silver

I found this section to be one of the most interesting in the exhibition. It appears that when real gold leaf is used in art, it is candlelight in which it appears to best effect: modern lighting makes it look flat and dull. Paint, which was increasingly used instead of gold leaf, actually looks better and more realistic to modern eyes. In terms of silver, paint effects were used to create the impression of this metallic shade. In Salvoldo’s “Mary Magdalene” (1535-40), the silver cloak was created using a mixture of lead white and lamp black.

I was really impressed with this exhibition. It was really different, and made me think about what goes into creating works of art. I have the utmost respect for artists in the past who had to make the best of the limited materials they had.