Two exhibitions of paintings this week have made me ruminate about colour from different perspectives; Making Colour at The National Gallery and Art and Life at the Dulwich Picture Gallery.
It has recently become possible to take a favorite scarf or piece of wallpaper and get the man at B and Q to mix a paint colour to match. We can have any paint colour we wish for at the touch of a button. Making Colour at The National Gallery reminds us of just how onerous it used to be for painters in the early Renaissance and right through to the beginnings of Impressionism to acquire some of the paint colours they needed. Pigments had to be extracted from earth, rock or insects and then ground down to form intense powders, which could then be mixed with oil or egg to make oil paint or egg tempera. Because of the difficulties painters often had in acquiring and paying for their powders, some of these became very precious and took on a religious and spiritual meaning. Others, made by grinding down insects or the use of poisonous substances took on the aura of danger or excitement.
Each room in the exhibition explores the history and use of a different colour. We are shown how paintings that we think we know well were never meant to look like this, as the pigments have faded or darkened. Reconstructions of the original colours show us the pictures with, what feels like now, a vulgar density and luminosity. I was made aware of how I am inclined to like what I am used to.
Ultramarine, the richest blue, which was made out of lapis lazuli, had to be mined, which was a dangerous and costly process. The lapis lazuli was ground down into a brilliant blue powder and because it was so precious and difficult to buy it became the ideal colour for painting the Madonna’s cloak in all those Renaissance nativity scenes. In the 19th century a synthetic form of blue began to be manufactured and the Impressionists were then able to be extravagant with their use of French Ultramarine. In the process blue lost some of its spiritual meaning.
Green was a particularly unstable colour until a stable version was discovered in the 19th century. It was used in the Renaissance as a base for skin tones. That is why faces in Botticelli paintings often have a green tinge. Some of my delight in Renaissance paintings has always been in the blackness of the leaves, the ways in which the trees and bushes in the exquisite landscapes behind portraits are dark, dark green, as a contrast (I always imagined) to the bright Italian sunlight. It was a shock to discover that was not the painter’s intention and that the leaves and vegetation had originally been a bright green.
The room that looks at Yellow and Orange makes much of the poisonous compounds that made up these colours. Arsenic and its associated compound realgar produced deep yellow and orange colours, essential for painting but potentially dangerous for the artists to use. Red associated with danger and blood was made either from minerals and insects, which were crushed and made into a fine powder, or in the case of red madder from the root of the madder plant. The madder plant was made to bleed juice.
The paintings shown appear almost incidental to the major educational thrust of this exhibition. They are used as examples and I found myself reading the dense text far more than I looked at the paintings and then just glancing at the paintings as illustrative examples. Once inducted into the thrust of the theory it became more difficult to look at the paintings from anything but a scientific perspective. Where had the painter used orange? How had the green paint changed? Did the Impressionists use excessive blue paint because it was now easily available and cheap?
However Making Colour does offer a delightful new way to look at some of the treasures of the Gallery’s collection. Unlike me you could go round this exhibition and simply look at the paintings. It is always stimulating to be shown paintings that you know well through another lens, and any chance to see Van Gogh’s Two Crab,s even if they are there to show what green and orange do to each other when put side by side, is worth taking.
Art and Life looks at the effects Winifred and Ben Nicholson had on each other’s work between 1920 and 1931 and the impact on the other painters who were drawn into their circle at that time. It is especially intriguing in terms of the palettes of both the artists and how Winifred’s lightness of touch and delight in colour contrasts with Ben’s more somber palette.
Winifred Nicholson is an extraordinary artist. Her ability to capture the intensity and aliveness of a fleeting moment in time and to convey the joy of this moment of seeing is unparalleled. Her Anemones painted in 1924 is a most exuberantly joyous and moving picture. The overall effect of the picture is yellow and yet it is the large expanses of white and magenta pink, which give it its ethereal and magical quality. She had a wonderful capacity to understand what colours did to each other when put side by side. In the note beside this picture she is quoted as saying about another painting: ‘Yesterday I set out to pick a yellow bunch to place as a lamp on my table in dull rainy weather. I picked Iceland poppies, marigolds, yellow iris, my bunch did not tell yellow. I added sunflowers, canary poppies, buttercups, dandelions; no yellower. I added to my butter-like mass, two everlasting peas, magenta pink and all my yellows broke into luminosity. Orange and gold and lemon and primrose, each singing its note.’
Art and Life is like a really good meal. It delights in the respective elements of the couple’s paintings, the spiritually enlivened inner life of Winifred’s flower paintings as well as her loving portraits of her children and other families and, in contrast, the intellectual aestheticism and control of Ben’s still lives and landscapes. Yet sometimes I was taken by surprise. A picture that I thought was by Ben was by Winifred and vice versa. They affected and infused each other in form and content, although mostly not in colour. At this early stage of their painting lives it was Winifred who was the most sophisticated of the two artists and the one who had found her style.
The exhibition also looks at the exchange of influences between the Nicholson’s and Christopher Wood, Alfred Wallis and the potter William Staite Murray. Everything displayed here is worth really looking at and taking in. But it is Winifred Nicholson’s understanding of the life of colour that will stay with me.
Art and Life is at The Dulwich Picture Gallery until the 21st September.
Making Colour is on at the National Gallery until the 7th September.