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Making Colour At The National Gallery – Last chance to see

September 1, 2014

ArtsPaintingUncategorized | by Maxine Kirsty Sapsford


Moses Harris, 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..., 1769/1776, Book, © Royal Academy of Arts, London
Moses Harris, 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…, 1769/1776, Book, © Royal Academy of Arts, London

Just like we are able to peel away the many surfaces that make up great artwork and reveal the base colour used by the artist, the Making Colour exhibition journeys below the surface of modern tube-paint, with the purpose of finding its origin. It is a fascinating and highly-recommendable exhibition. An enriching venture into the annals of art, without which the likes of Monet and Cézanne would never have existed.

 

As you enter the exhibition hall you are greeted by a giant colour wheel. A shape familiar to all and seen everywhere from school science classes to TV programmes, to DIY shops. The colour wheel is instantly recognisable yet, unknown to me before today, was not discovered until Isaac Newton and changed the face of art forever. Shades of colour could now be manufactured in bulk, rather than fashioned on an individual artist’s palette. To the right of the room, a display illustrates the limited pigments that were available to Joseph Turner and Vigée Le Brun; artists predating Newton. Remember to capture these images and bring them to mind the next time you choose a colour for your carpet or a shade of magnolia for your walls.

 

Paul Cézanne, Hillside in Provence, about 1890-2, Oil on canvas, 63.5 x 79.4 cm, © The National Gallery, London
Paul Cézanne, Hillside in Provence, about 1890-2, Oil on canvas, 63.5 x 79.4 cm, © The National Gallery, London

The exhibition then proceeds to take you on the journey from each colour’s origin to its tube-packaged state today. Hundreds of intriguing details are packed into every picture, placard and cabinet on display. The blackened walls and lowered ceilings illuminate the importance of the journey being taken; adding power and profundity to the distinctive splash of colour that highlights the identity of each room.

 

Lapis lazuli amulet carved in the form of a frog, Lapis lazuli, 2.2 x 1.2 cm, The British Museum, London, 1856,0903.243, © The Trustees of the British Museum
Lapis lazuli amulet carved in the form of a frog, Lapis lazuli, 2.2 x 1.2 cm, The British Museum, London, 1856,0903.243, © The Trustees of the British Museum

Though you will need to visit the showcase to experience each colour’s full story, it is worth noting their similarity. The original mineral used to manufacture a colour’s pigment created a rich shade. Whereas the later, more widely distributed materials produced a paler and duller tint. Blue, for instance, has been and continues to be mined from a mineral called Lapis Lazuli in Afghanistan; a mineral that used to cost more than gold. No wonder blue has always been a Royal colour. Painters among you may recognise the shade French Ultramarine; a rich, luxuriant shade of blue, used to detail fine garments. In reality, this is a manmade version of the original tincture, Ultramarine. The rest of the exhibition continues in this fashion; detailing the progression from ore mineral to pigment to mass production.

 

Among the obvious paintings and distinguished artwork, there are a few hidden gems that are worth a look. For instance, in the Blue room you can find a brief analysis of a recent art project by Turner Prize nominee Roger Hiorns who filled an abandoned London apartment with Copper Sulphate Solution. After a few weeks the solution was drained and the results were mesmerizing. A section of the formed crystals are on display beside a picture of the apartment, crystallised in splendid blue from floor to ceiling.

 

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

Moreover, for you vintage lovers, it is worth observing the vibrant ceramic plate hidden within the Yellow room. As interactive media was not available pre-20th century, those who desired a custom-built dinner service had to choose their crockery differently. The widespread option was for the customer to select a colour from a Dinner Service Colour Plate; one dating to circa 1820 is on display. It is an oversized ceramic plate decorated with concentric circles, gradually changing in shade and tint through the colours of the rainbow. A perfect way to select one’s crockery; nevertheless, an item which would appear at home in any modern, vintage-themed dining room.

 

Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, Self Portrait in a Straw Hat, after 1782, Oil on canvas, 97.8 x 70.5 cm, © The National Gallery, London
Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, Self Portrait in a Straw Hat, after 1782, Oil on canvas, 97.8 x 70.5 cm, © The National Gallery, London

The exhibition focuses on the history of colour, but also acts as a reminder that the alluring mystery ultimately happens in our minds. Our brains operate on a three-colour spectrum; blue, red and yellow. Thus, for optimum results, modern technology must do the same. It is only through research into this enthralling history and how we process colour, that we are enabled to move forward in visual technology. A look into history truly precedes a step into the future.

 

Making Colour finishes at the National Gallery on 7th September, standard entry £8. For more information go to – nationalgallery.org.uk/whats-on/exhibitions/making-colour

 

Tom Stone