'Making Colour', the first exhibition of its kind in the UK, offers visitors an exceptional opportunity to discover the wide-ranging materials used to create colour in paintings and other works of art. Using the National Gallery’s own paintings and loans from major UK cultural institutions, the exhibition traces the history of making colour in Western paintings, from the Middle Ages to the end of the 19th century.

Posted 12 August 2014

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The exhibition brings together the worlds of art and science to explain how artists overcame the technical challenges involved in creating colour. Work on this subject has long been a specialism of the Gallery's internationally recognised Scientific Department. 'Making Colour' shows the material problems faced by artists in achieving their painterly aims, the breakthroughs they struggled for, and the difficulties they faced in creating works of art that were both beautiful and enduring. 'Making Colour ' looks at its subject from multiple perspectives. It examines the origins of paint sources – be it the natural world or human invention – and their supply, manufacture and application, as well as their permanence and colour effect.

The rich and diverse display with National Gallery paintings at its core is part of the 'National Gallery Inspires' programme of exhibitions. Drawn from the National Gallery collection, the exhibitions take a fresh view of National Gallery paintings alongside special loans and featuring world-leading research by Gallery experts. 'Making Colour' shows the central importance of colour to painting, but also incorporates minerals along with textiles, ceramics and glass, demonstrating the material connections in these sister arts.

The exhibition begins by examining how theories of colour – such as an awareness of primary colour, or of the colour spectrum – have influenced painters' use of pigments, and their quest for new materials. Visitors then journey from lapis lazuli to cobalt blue, ancient vermilion to bright cadmium red, through yellow, orange, purple and verdigris to deep green viridian in a series of colour-themed rooms. Finally, they enter a dazzling central room devoted to gold and silver. These metals were of fundamental importance to the colour effects of European painting through many centuries, although they do not appear on the traditional colour wheel.

'Making Colour' is illustrated at every stage by National Gallery paintings, complemented by selected objects on loan, such as Joseph Mallord William Turner's paintbox. The exhibition includes Claude Monet's 'Lavacourt under Snow' (about 1878–81) on display with lapis lazuli figurines from the British Museum and the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. Anthony van Dyck's 'Lady Elizabeth Thimbelby and her Sister' (1637) and elaborate majolica plates from the British Museum help to illustrate the story of yellow. In the red room Degas's 'Combing the Hair ('La Coiffure')' (about 1896) and Masaccio's 'Saints Jerome and John the Baptist' (about 1428–9) are displayed alongside fragments of beautiful crimson velvet brocade on loan from the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

The exhibition is complemented by a scientific experiment that introduces a new world of contemporary and scientific thought on colour. It deals with human colour perception, and the degree to which it is individually variable. It will also consider the ways in which the brain processes different visual information – for example in lighting paintings – and the impact that this has on our perception of colour.

The computer-controlled experiment in lighting and perception will be presented beside the Sainsbury Wing exhibition galleries, designed to demonstrate how we perceive and register colour, and to show that the eye and brain respond to colour in unexpected ways. The experiment has been developed with the advice of Professor Anya Hurlbert, Professor of Visual Neuroscience and Director of the Institute of Neuroscience, University of Newcastle and the support of the Wellcome Trust.

Ashok Roy, Director of Collections at the National Gallery, said:
“Art and science really do come together in Making Colour. By exploring the materials that make up the array of artists’ pigments, we can begin to comprehend some of the historic circumstances and difficulties in creating colours that we now take for granted. The inclusion of objects such as early textiles, mineral samples and ceramics ensures an enticing display that provides a new angle from which to approach familiar works in the collection.”

Caroline Campbell, Curator of Italian Paintings before 1500 at the National Gallery, said:
“Artists from the Middle Ages to the present day have sought to find suitable pigments and colours. This exhibition is a wonderful opportunity to celebrate this quest for colour. Thanks to the work of our Scientific Department, we can add another layer to our understanding of how artists created such beautiful images.”

'Making Colour' is curated by Ashok Roy, Director of Collections, and Caroline Campbell, Curator of Italian Paintings before 1500.

The exhibition is generously supported by Art Mentor Foundation Lucerne, with additional support from the Wellcome Trust, The Tavolozza Foundation – Katrin Bellinger and Terry de Gunzburg, founder of the cosmetics brand ‘By Terry’ and the Haute Perfumery brand ‘Terry de Gunzburg’.

Trafalgar Square
UK-London WC2N 5DN

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...
Credit Line:
Royal Academy of Arts, London

The Virgin in Prayer
Oil on canvas
73 x 57.7 cm
Credit Line:
The National Gallery, London

Plate with concave foot, painted on the front with a woman standing with a bow and
quivers (Diana?), with a rim of grotesques on an orange ground, c.1520-25
Diameter 35 cm
The British Museum, London
© The Trustees of The British Museum

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