London's National Gallery explores sources and varieties of colour in the history of painting

A London exhibition opens our eyes to the amazing variety of pigments in the history of painting, writes Victoria Finlay

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 July, 2014, 3:35pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 July, 2014, 3:35pm

In 2008 British artist Roger Hiorns flooded an abandoned basement flat in South London with a solution made of copper sulphate. There was so much of it that it came in two shipping containers. A month later, when he drained it, every inch was covered in blue copper sulphate crystals, some of them the size of a human palm.

"You had to put wellies on to go in," recalls Caroline Campbell, the National Gallery of London's curator of pre-1500 Italian paintings. "It was in this disused council flat on Harper Road in southeast London; and from those grim surroundings you stepped into this immersive blue world," she says. "It was one of the most moving experiences I've had."

Putting paintings next to each other that have never seen each other before, you learn different things about them
Ashok Roy, co-curator 

This - and a lifetime of working with mediaeval and Renaissance paintings and a fascination with materials the artists worked with - was one of the inspirations that led Campbell to work with her colleague, director of collections and colour paint expert Ashok Roy. They have co-curated one of the gallery's most unusual and fascinatingly educational shows of recent years: "Making Colour".

The exhibition, which runs until September 7 and took three years to plan, explores the very materials from which visual art is made.

Each room is dedicated to a colour, starting with blue (including a sample of that mystically immersive Hiorns room) and moving through the colour wheel: green, orange/yellow, red and purple. Missing out black and white ("Which was agonising but we couldn't include everything," Campbell says) it ends with a room dedicated to gold and silver. These colours are famously hard to use in paintings: silver because it tarnishes so quickly to black, and gold because often it does not look nearly as authentic in a painting as a spot of judiciously applied yellow and ochre and gleaming lead white.

The works are mostly from the gallery's own collection but placed together in new colour-organised combinations they tell quite different stories: "For me that's been the biggest surprise," says Roy. "By putting paintings next to each other that have never seen each other before, you learn different things about them."

So, for example, in the red room, a 15th-century panel painting of Saints Jerome and John the Baptist by Masaccio - the former in a bright mineral vermilion paint made from mercury and very shiny; the latter in a pinker, more faded, robe made with organic ingredients in a "red lake" paint - is next to a painting by Degas of a woman having her red hair combed, painted when the artist was going blind, employing four kinds of red paint and giving an astonishingly saturated effect.

There are borrowed objects too, including a paintbox once owned by English artist J.M.W. Turner, who loved to try out the latest paints, whether they were stable or not; a Della Robbia family terracotta angel from the 15th-century Italians with a yellow glaze that was so bright and stable that artists used to go round to the ceramic painters to beg some of the colour from them to use as paint. (It was called lead tin yellow, and is illustrated in a charming portrait of Thomas Gainsborough's two young daughters in yellow dresses chasing a butterfly.)

At the end of the exhibition, visitors are asked to take part in a research project by the University of Newcastle and the Wellcome Trust to study how people's eyes distinguish between colours under different light conditions.

You'd think that a painting and a really good laser print or book plate of that painting might look pretty similar, but you'd be wrong. In some light conditions, you might struggle to tell the difference. But in other lights (daylight, or fluorescence, or the South of France natural light it was painted in, or the candle-light a Renaissance painting was designed for), one version will look markedly paler, or more blue or orange, or duller than the other.

It shows not only why an original is vastly different from a print or a book plate or a computer screen, but why the decisions of gallery curators about the artificial light they use for exhibiting their collection is so vital to your enjoyment of the paintings.

"Making Colour" , National Gallery, Trafalgar Square, London, until September 7.

Victoria Finlay is the author of A Brilliant History of Colour in Art , which will be published by the Getty Museum in the US in November.