Making Colour – a review

by Kostas Koutoupis

18 June – 7 September 2014
National Gallery
Sainsbury Wing Exhibition
The National Gallery, Trafalgar Square, London WC2N 5DN

Daily 10am – 6pm (last admission 5.15pm)
Fridays 10am – 9pm (last admission 8.15pm)

Adult £8.00, Senior £7.00

Last Friday, 29th August we visited the Making Colour exhibition at the National Gallery. Bringing together science and art the exhibition examines how artists from early Renaissance to the Impressionist movement overcame technical difficulties related to the production of colour. Paintings, textiles, ceramics and glass creations from different eras are put side to side to offer a comprehensive demonstration of materials and colour choices.

Making Colour Exhibition

Making Colour Exhibition

Overall the exhibition makes you look at colour from a fresh perspective. Learning about the laborious process of colour creation in past centuries makes you appreciate works of art even more. Limited by geography, scarce resources and the lack of advanced knowledge and technical means, artists were forced to make major breakthroughs in order to create. And if you look closely at the detail of most, if not all exhibits, ‘Making Colour’ becomes a lesson in human perseverance and ingenuity.

Making Colour Exhibition, Colour Wheels

Making Colour Exhibition, Colour Wheels

An immense colour wheel welcomed us to the exhibition. The notion of colour and some first attempts at colour theory were discussed in this section with religious and impressionist paintings serving as a living example of how it was perceived and used to create various effects in different contexts. The fundamental division between primary, secondary and supplementary colours in this space laid the basis for the rest of the exhibition organized in thematic rooms each dedicated to a specific colour.


Making Colour Exhibition, Renoir

Making Colour Exhibition, Pierre August Renoir – The Skiff

The blue room is the first one we visited to learn about the history or this particular colour. Initially extracted from the semi-precious stone lapis lazuli, blue once had to travel all the way from Afghanistan to Europe with cobalt blue being a popular alternative very often found in ceramics and pottery. From verdigris to viridian, green was found in clay or extracted from the ‘rusted’ surfaces of copper while yellow also came from earth pigments. In the same way red, from ancient vermillion to bright cadmium red, was produced from dried insects, shellfish and minerals or in some cases extracted directly from wood.

This kind of information made us think of how the production of colour in endless quantities is taken for granted these days. For centuries, artists had to look into nature not only for inspiration but for the basic ingredients of the colours they used in their work. Despite this limitation in means, they managed to produce stunning results proving that sometimes limiting yourself to the basics forces you to make major breakthroughs in technique and the way you approach your craft. As was emphasized in the exhibition, these limitations were lifted only in the 19th century with the advances of chemistry.

Coming back to colours, orange was the first secondary colour to make an appearance followed by purple, a colour favourited by royalty and the clergy alike. Last but not least, gold and silver were the ones to close the exhibition. Although none of them appears in the colour wheel, they both held a very prestigious place among colours as they were widely used in European painting for many centuries. The impressive lighting effects and stunning reflections they create were effectively used in religious works or depictions of historic battles. We must admit that we were impressed by the way these colours made some of the paintings come to life. This was also a very effective demonstration of how the juxtaposition of different materials in the same piece of art can create captivating effects.

Making Colour Exhibition, Peter and Paul

Making Colour Exhibition, Peter and Paul

After taking part in a short survey about colour in the cinema room, we decided to close the evening by paying a visit to the Restaurant at the top floor of the National Portrait Gallery where we enjoyed the wonderful view along with a glass of beer and delicious chips.

Making Colour Exhibition, London View

For more information on the Making Colour exhibition see here

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