What’s colour to you?
If an artist peers at your lapis or malachite necklace with what looks like envy, it could be because they want to grind it down to dust. It’s not that they are vindictive, they just want the pigment for a fabulous colour. That’s what many animals, vegetables and minerals used to mean to artists, and still do to some, including some members of Herts Visual Arts (HVA)! And it is this fascination with pigments that I’m sure will draw many people to the up and coming ‘Making Colour’ exhibition at the National Gallery.
It seems to me that understanding colour involves different sciences including physics, chemistry and psychology. I was a teenager when I found that out. I bought what turned out to be a recipe book for making your own paint – amongst other things. It was Hilaire Hiler’s Notes on the Techniques of Painting. I still have the book - and Chapter Two took me to a whole other world of colour. Hiler starts with the physics of colour – and an in-depth modern explanation can be found in the TEDEd Video on YouTube called “What is colour” by Colm Kelleher.
Next Hiler mentions a chemist called Chevreul. According the Encyclopaedia Britannica, Chevreul had a science education during the time of the French Revolution. Then, as assistant to the professor of Chemistry at the Museum of Natural History his job was to isolate substances from animal and plant materials resulting in the creation of some commercial dyes – and the discovery of cholestorol. In 1824 he was appointed director of dyeing at the famous tapestry works in Gobelin, where he received a host of complaints about the ‘lack of vigour’ in the colours. So he set about studying colour and created the ‘chromatic circle’ which still has an impact on the way we look at colour today.
The way our eyes work have an impact on our perception of colour too. Have you come across this experiment? You place a square of coloured paper on a white background. Hiler says, ‘stare it out of countenance for some time.” Next, remove the coloured paper from the white background, and the white background will appear to be the complimentary colour of the colour you were staring at.
Then there is the chemistry and the intrigue of colour. Hiler says, “There have always been secrets connected with the making of pigments, and some of these were lost for centuries. Even in the preparation of the natural earths, which were formerly washed and ground by the artist in his workshop, there were tricks and processes in the comparatively simple operations involved.”
Hiler, who was an artist, psychologist and colour theorist certainly recommends creating your own: “An artist who has ground his own colours knows all about them – the purity and the nature and peculiarities of each.” The fairytale names of the pigments he mentions are like an exotic menu that’s too difficult to choose from: Flake Cremintz, Blanc d’argent, Aureolin, Gamboge, Vermilion, Venetian and Indian Ochre… And from him I learnt that it’s not just a matter of mixing a bit of this with a bit of that. Blending pigments is probably a safer activity now because of the control of toxic substances. Here are some of the warnings relevant in his day. Ultramarine: “Dangerous mixed with emerald green, chrome yellow alizarins and even flake white.” Vandyke: “At least three principal varieties, one very dangerous.” Cobalt: “Should not be touched with a steel palette knife.” Cobalt Green: “Somewhat sensitive to damp.”
So how about this up and coming National Gallery exhibition: Making Colour? It starts on the 18 June and runs to 17 September 2014. The best description I can find is on the Art Fund website. Works include "painting, mineral, textile, ceramic and glass" and illustrate artists’ “challenges” and “breakthroughs”. The exhibition “spanning the early Renaissance to the Impressionist movement” charts "the history of colour over a 700-year period." I wonder what secrets and delights we are going to find…
By BELINDA NAYLOR-STABLES