It’s fair to say that access to colour is something that we take for granted in our day-to-day lives. Figuratively speaking, it’s on tap. An artist or a designer’s palette is as wide ranging as they wish it to be; covet any shade on the spectrum and chances are you can get your hands on it. Pre about 1900 though, this certainly wasn’t the case. Creating pigments was more of a science, an alchemy perhaps, with each hue varying in quality, value and stability.

A couple of weeks ago I had the pleasure of visiting The National Gallery’s Making Colour. An exhibition about the history of hues, it’s the first of its kind and testimony to the fact that we may have previously undervalued its intriguing past. Of course for artists and art historians colour has always been of significance, but it’s tended played a supporting role along with form and subject. What’s so great about ‘Making Colour’ is that it shifts the weight of this relationship, giving you the chance to look at old works from a new perspective – the exhibition is littered with masterpieces from the likes of Degas, Cezanne, Turner and Arthur Hughes.

From china blue and emerald green, to yellow ochre, orange, vermillion and purple, each room in the National Gallery takes you through the history of each colour, their source and the many ways and means used to transfer them onto a canvas. From semi-precious lapis lazuli mined in the hills of Afghanistan to toxic orange shades made from a crude form of arsenic, there’s no shortage of dazzling facts and intriguing histories.

Making Colour is on at the National Gallery until the 7th September. For more information visit the National Gallery website.

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