Making Colour At National Gallery

When admiring the National Gallery’s permanent collection, have you ever wondered why the Virgin Mary is always depicted wearing blue and why gold leaf was very fashionable in paintings and altars, then suddenly fell out of favour once the Renaissance was in full flow?

The latest exhibition answers these questions by looking at the history of pigments used in painting and how they evolved in a world where modern day synthetic paints weren’t available, and paint was derived from crushing everything from semi-precious stones to beetles.

All primary schoolchildren are taught about complementary colours but we’ve never stopped to look for them in famous paintings. This display shows us that the Impressionists often used these combinations, as illustrated by a Van Gogh and a Renoir where orange and blue are used in combination to draw the eye to crabs and boat upon a lake.

The exhibition is split into separate rooms per colour and the history of the colour blue within different styles of painting is arguably the most fascinating, with green also providing some insights including that Cezanne could never have painted his landscapes if synthetic greens hadn’t been developed in his time.

We were concerned that with a relatively dry subject matter, the National Gallery would put on a very academic and detail heavy exhibition. But, as with the excellent architecture-focused Building The Picture, it proves that an educational show can offer some brilliant insights that will change the way we look at paintings.

Making Colour is on at National Gallery until 7 September. Tickets are £8 for adults, concessions available. Also still on at the National Gallery is the excellent and free Building the Picture.

For more art in London, see our June listings.

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