Gold Anna Akhmatova
“gold - smells of nothing”
Associated with prosperity, royalty, alchemy, Midas…. gold has an established place in painting and sculpture. Traditionally, gold leaf was made by hammering money into wafer thin leaves, so gilded panels that glowed in candlelit churches would have awed congregations. The Incas believed gold was the sweat of Inti, the sun god. But why did Joseph Beuys paint his face with gold? And what attracted Klimt and the Art Nouveau movement to it? Discover this and how contemporary sculptors like Louise Nevelson who gilded reject furniture into mass totems and Jeff Koons revived the use of gold.
Blue Cennino Cennini
“illustrious, beautiful and most perfect, beyond all other colours”
Ancient Egyptians were unusual for valuing blue so early on. It wasn’t until the C12th in Europe that Abbot Suger, proponent of Gothic architecture, stated blue was divine. Discover how blue went on to become the most venerated pigment in Medieval and Renaissance art and how chemists strove to replace costly lapis lazuli. Why is denim ubiquitous? What made Yves Klein smear his nude models in blue paint? Explore blues through the works of Giotto, Holbein, Titian, Vermeer, Van Gogh, Picasso, Matisse, and Hockney amongst others.
Red Keith Haring
“Red is one of the strongest colours, it’s blood, it has a power with the eye.”
Pliny said the colour came from the merging of the blood of an elephant and a dragon when they fought. There are myriad reds: alizarin crimson, vermilion, rose madder, Venetian, Indian, iodine scarlet, and cochineal which took the bodies of 80 female beetles, imported from the Americas, to make 1g. Why should waitresses wear red? How did Rothko transform it into the colour of despair? Discover how artists such as JMW Turner used red to enliven their work, and how others like Reynolds and Velasquez saw their reds fade away.
“Green made of copper, even when this colour is mixed with oil, loses its beauty like smoke if it is not quickly varnished”
The Chinese associate green (and black) with the female Yin - the passive and receiving principle; Islam venerates it as paradise. But what was taboo about green in the Medieval period? And why was green blamed for child death? Discover a host of greens including verdigris, Egyptian and emerald greens and how these were used by Renaissance masters like Duccio and Michelangelo, the Pre-Raphaelite artists, and the Impressionists and post-Impressionists like Cézanne.
Yellow Richard le Gallienne
“till one comes to think of it, one hardly realizes how important and pleasant things in life are yellow”
Yellow is associated with peace and knowledge in India. But how did it go from being the Imperial colour for the Chinese to a symbol of notoriety in late C19th Europe? Discover the range of yellows from the Indian yellow made from the urine of cows fed only on mango leaves and water to the chrome of Van Gogh’s sunflowers. And learn why Kandinsky included it in his key colours and one of today’s most influential installation artists, Olafur Eliasson, uses it in his practice.
“White has the appeal of the nothingness that is before birth of the world in the ice age”
We may not consider white a colour now, but it wasn’t always so. The Ancient Romans had two words for it: albus and candidus. Trace the history of lead, zinc, and lime whites, and consider their changing symbolism. How did it come to be associated with authority? Why were polychromed Greek sculptures scrubbed in the C18th? Who were the C19th ‘white painters’? From unicorns to Korean porcelain to Whistler’s women to Agnes Martin’s minimalism to the French performance artist who covered an apartment in toothpaste, discover the enduring appeal of white.
“I have finally discovered the true colour of the atmosphere. It’s violet. Fresh air is violet”
So expensive, it was a subject of sumptuary laws and mostly restricted to imperial or royal families, purple has a history that stretches back to Antiquity. Plato mentioned it in his Symposium as the greatest hue of all. The 1890s were called ‘the mauve decade’ when the first synthetic dye was made. But many purples were mixed from reds and blues and, often, faded reds have left only blue paint behind. Discover the true purples in works by Gossaert and Renoir; see how fashion changed forever; and why Monet (and Elizabeth Taylor) fell in love with violet.
Orange Vincent Van Gogh
“There is no blue without yellow and without orange”
A special colour in Buddhist art, till the C16th, orange was referred to as ‘yellow-red’ or ‘saffron.’ But a deep orange chromium from a Siberian mineral was discovered in the C18th. Before that, orange the colour was popular with the sophisticated Ferrara Renaissance painters such as Garofalo and Dosso Dossi. Explore how orange became a fashionable colour from princely orangeries through Frederic Leighton’s Flaming June, Winslow Homer’s and Toulouse-Lautrec’s works.
Black Hans Arp
“The black grows deeper and deeper darker and darker before me. It menaces me like a black gullet. I can bear it no longer. It is monstrous. It is unfathomable”
One of the most difficult colours to paint with, see how masters such as Frans Hals, Caravaggio, Degas, Goya, Manet, Robert Rauschenberg, Ad Reinhardt, and more succeeded in using black. What did Malevich mean by his iconic ‘Black Square’? How is bone black made? From the drawings of Aubrey Beardsley to the fashions of Coco Chanel, to Picasso’s ‘Guernica,’ and the innovations of Anish Kapoor, see this colour in all its manifestations.
Brown Georgia O’Keeffe (Visit to the National Gallery)
“All the earth colours of the painter’s palette are out there in the many miles of badlands”
The earth pigments are some of the oldest to be used in art, evident in the Cave painters. There are many natural (raw umber, raw sienna) and human-made (burnt umber, burnt sienna) variations. Their versatility, stability, and affordability mean we can enjoy them in the great landscape painters, Dutch and Flemish genre painters like Joachim Beuckelaer, Velázquez, Van Dyck, and masters like Rembrandt who eschewed more expensive pigments in their search for truth. This gallery visit will also be an opportunity to revise our other colours by comparing them ‘in the flesh.’