Making Colour. A history about pigments.

This exhibition was so interesting that when a friend came to visit me the next day and heard about my enthusiasm for the exhibition, we visited the National Gallery once more.

Since antiquity, artists, philosophers, and scientists have studied the way in which colours interact.”

This is the first line I read when I entered the exhibition ‘Making Colour’ in the National Gallery in London. An exposition that took me on a journey through the history of colour, baffling me with interesting facts and beautiful works of art. In this article, I selected the most striking and inspiring things that I have seen.

Meeting with “old friends”

The exposition consisted of seven different rooms, six of which were dedicated to the colours blue, green, yellow, red, purple, and gold & silver. The first room told about the basics of colour theory and showed several examples of early colour wheels. Even going back to 1769 when Moses Harris made ‘The natural system of colours’. Of course, Newton, Chevreul, Goethe and Schiffermuller were all there. 

Difficulties in making and preserving colours

The exhibition not only told the story of how pigments were found, made and used, but also explained the difficulty painters experienced with the production of colours. Back in the day, colours were made manually from minerals, plants, or insects. Some colours made from plants and insects faded rather fast, especially when exposed to (sun)light. This caused the colours in the paintings to change dramatically.

Painter, a hazardous occupation

Not only was it a challenge to get the right colours, but the sometimes highly toxic paints even led to the early deaths of painters (apparently a lot of them licked their brushes). For example, realgar, a mineral containing arsenic which was used to make an orange paint, but was also used to kill rats. 

Lapis Lazuli or blue gold

Did you know that ultramarine blue was at one time more expensive than gold? Even today, the natural pigment still comes from rocks with Lapis Lazuli, mined in Badakshan, Afghanistan. Besides, you see a great example of the use of ultramarine in a painting by Giovanni Batista Salvi da Sassoferato, hanging in the National Gallery. The colour of the sky (heaven) is blue, and the clothes of Maria are mostly painted in this colour. 

Making Colour
Exhibition National Gallery London

Virgin Mary, (1640-1650), 
National Gallery, London

Green with ivy

In the green room, I found out where the expression ‘green with ivy’ comes from. I always thought it was Shakespeare who came up with this expression, but I think he probably found his inspiration in paintings. Individuals portrayed in ancient paintings sometimes have a very pale complexion, as if they suffer from a bad case of liver failure. 

The virgin and child with Saint John 

(fragment), (1490-1500) 

David Ghirlandaio, National Gallery, London 

One of the pigments painters used to make the skin tone of people was “green earth” made of clay. There are several examples of paintings in which all colours, except for “green earth” faded away, leaving the people in the painting with a greenish skin complexion. Luckily, these people cannot see themselves any more. 

How your mind tricks you into seeing colours

At the end of the exhibition, I took part in an experiment about the perception of how we think we see colours. A banana is yellow, no matter in which light it is shown to you, your mind will trick you into seeing the colour yellow. This illusion is called chromatic adaptation. 

An original painting and a printout made of ink (fruit bowl by Gaugain) were shown in various types of light. The colours looked the same, however, when set in a different light they suddenly looked entirely different. Showing that it makes a huge difference in which medium and which lights are being used.


In the yellow room, I was surprised to see two pictures of Pantone. They seemed a bit out of place there. Unfortunately, it did not say why these paintings were here. However, it was a beautiful reminder of an inspiring course I followed in the U.S. with Pantone’s Leatrice Eiseman, an exceptional and inspiring colour expert.

Since antiquity, artists, philosophers, and scientists have studied the way in which colours interact.”

With some new books about colour (I could not resist buying) and new insights, I left the National Gallery in a typical English rain.

Utramarine in front of the National Gallery

Gepost 7th September 2014 

Locatie: Londen, Verenigd Koninkrijk

Labels: chromatic adaptation colourwheels colourwheels green earth green with ivy lapis lazuli making colour national gallery pantone pigments ultramarine