The colour is a basic element in every artistic composition. Through it, artists express emotions and feelings, but it was not until the late nineteenth century when it became a source of inspiration. The National Gallery presents until 7th of September, the exhibition ‘Making colour‘, an artistic and scientific voyage of discovery of colour, from the Middle Ages until the late 19th century. The display reveals the different means of obtaining pigments coming to use, from sparkling minerals to crushed insects, as well as incredible journeys made by the artists themselves in finding new nuances.
The course is divided into 7 rooms, each dedicated to the history of one colour. The first area examines how theories of colours, such as knowledge of the primary colours or the colour spectrum, have influenced painters about the use of pigments, and the search for new materials.
The second room contains the history of blue pigments, highlighting the ‘Ultramarine’, pigment which became more expensive than gold, being used in religious imagery as a symbol of devotion. One example is The Virgin in prayer (1640) by the author Sassoferrato. Another important colour, green (third room), was often used by artists as a basis for painting human flesh, because it helped to define shadows and gave the illusion of three-dimensionality. In spite of being a colour that is abundant in nature, the difficulty of extracting green pigments from it urged painters to use mixtures of blue and yellow to get it. Over time, the latter would disappear, leading to blue trees, as in the painting The Marriage of the Virgin (1380), by Niceolo di Buonacorso.
Yellow, one of the most accessible colours, available since pre-historic times, and orange, are the protagonists of the fourth room. The fifth is dedicated to red colour, highlighting one of the first existing tones, the ‘vermilion’, used in the work St Jerome and John the Baptist (1428) by Masaccio. Room 6 is intended for colour of nobility and luxury since ancient times, purple.
Finally, the last room reveals the history of gold and silver. These metals were of fundamental importance to the colour effects of European painting through many centuries, although they do not appear in the traditional colour wheel.
The exhibition is complemented by a scientific experiment that introduces a new world of contemporary scientific thinking about colour. It deals with the human perception of colour, and the degree to which is variable individually. It also examines how the brain processes visual information differently and the impact this has on our perception of colour.