On a warm summer’s day with the bells of the Glockenspiel ringing in my ears I walked through Leicester Square to see the Making Colour exhibition, at the National Gallery off Trafalgar Square …
… an opportunity to see the wide-ranging materials used to create colour in paintings. These worlds of art and science, and how we see colour has been fascinating me – a non-artist, but always a learner – for a while …
A few years ago there was a tv programme on the Himba people of Namibia and how they perceive colour … very differently from us … having had the privilege of being able to visit the Himba tribe on a visit with my mother to the Skeleton Coast and Namibia …
… obviously this whetted my learning appetite, and I’m lucky my brain remembers, so whenever dyes and pigments are discussed I am interested to see more.
… the mechanics of colour vision are complex … and we each are different … colour, along with light, shadow and movement, defines everything we see. But what do we see?
The exhibition opens new ideas about colour not before thought about … how we perceive and register colour … how the brain and the eye respond to colour in unexpected ways …
|Recreated a Medieval Palette - details and on how
to make an illuminated manuscript can be found at
Randy Asplund's site - photo c/o his website
The natural world gives us many colours, but they are not permanent … so artists have always strived for a way to ensure the colour lasts – their work holds its own … at least during their life-time!
The exhibition starts with the early handbooks and instruction manuals transmitted from master to pupil, and from workshop to workshop by tradition and example.
The 14th century Cennino Cennini (1370 – 1440) was an Italian painter influenced by Giotto … and is remembered mainly for having authored “Il libro dell’arte”, often translated as The Craftsman’s Handbook: ‘the how’ to on Renaissance art … and interestingly other advice on lifestyle etc…
|Moses Harris' (1730 - 1788) early colour wheel
Seen at a recent Exhibition at the Royal
Pavilion, Brighton - more informationcan be found here; photo c/o site
Early art (pre-history) relied mainly on plants and coloured minerals – pigments … surprisingly some are local, other appear to have been brought it …
|Egyptian Book of the Dead
c 1300 BC
New painting techniques evolved … the proper preparation of the surface and the use of different binders to create the painting and ensure its durability … as we can see in the legacies of painting or objects we know today …
They were the first society to give us a chromatic palette – albeit a natural one – which is incomparably richer than its prehistoric kin.
|Barrel of Ochre
Colour palettes … were first set out by the physician Theodore de Mayerne (1573 – 1654/5) in his ‘de Mayerne manuscript’, then others including Moses Harris produced colour (the Prismatic) wheels …
|Newton investigating optics
c/o Science Ray
… before Newton, in the early 1800s, with his mathematical eye, who had first demonstrated that white light could be separated into pure prismatic colours and that these colours could be recombined to make white light again.
Newton also systemised colours: he arranged the colours of the spectrum in a circle that placed complementaries opposite each other. (Complementary colours are pairs of colours which, when combined in the right proportions, produce white or black).
We then move into the Exhibition and chambers to see the different artist’s palette in relation to various paintings and objects from the National Gallery itself, or a few precious items from other sources – art collections, Natural History Museum, private collections …
|The Virgin in Prayer by Sassoferrato
(1640-50) c/o National Gallery
… explaining how each pigment is made, applied or ‘set’, how the materials were prepared etc … with an art work to show the colour, a video to explain some of the techniques, various charts giving further explanations, some ground pigments and mediums to show the differences …
We use three primary colours since human colour vision is trichromatic … but we are forever exploring and searching out new ideas, new ways of looking at colour … at the world around us …
- Each colour of the rainbow is explored … starting with
- · the beautiful, brilliant blues … signifying richness
- · then greens as important components of the palette as reliable blue … as essential to the landscape as blue skies with yellow suns …
- · reds indispensable for all painters (and purple) … displaying wealth, or mixing the red plant dyes to over-glaze and bring out the translucency of colours
- · opaque strong yellows (and orange) – sunlight … or mixed with other traditional artificial pigments …
- · Whites, browns and blacks – the natural earth colours …
- · Gold and Silver – where gold could be beaten to tissue fineness – a Florentine florin is the best … an artist could get 100 sheets from one florin …
- … gold which does not refract, therefore brightens the space where it is used, or displayed … as too silver … both will glitter out of tapestries, shine out in processions …
|Degas' "La Coiffure" (c1896) - used three reds
Details and explanation of painting and colours
can be found here ... photo c/o The Science of Art
I asked earlier “What do we see?” – this I will need to come back to … to be able to give a reasonable explanation, or to open your thoughts to these challenging concepts …
|Visitors with chromatic suitcase
I also need to check out The National Gallery exhibition again … but as I ventured into the sunshine from this wonderful exhibition – what should I be greeted with but a mass of people with chromatic colours all around …
“Should you glance on mornings lovely
Lift to drink the heaven’s blue
Or when, sun veiled by sirocco,
Royal red sinks out of view –
Give to Nature praise and honour
Blithe of heart and sound of eye,
Knowing for the world of colour
Where its broad foundations lie.”
Making Colour Exhibition at the National Gallery, London
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