Exploring Colour – from Medieval to Contemporary!

During Spring Half term we ran a popular Insights into Art History workshop on the theme of colour. The temporary closure of The Courtauld Gallery has encouraged us to make use of other world class collections around London and for this event we were kindly hosted by the National Gallery and Tate Modern.

We met in bright sunshine in Trafalgar Square and settled into the National Gallery’s Education Centre for an overview of the science of making and perceiving colours. Art historian Francesca Herrick introduced participants to some of the world’s oldest recorded pigments. We were able to handle some of the expensive minerals, including lapis lazuli, azurite and malachite, which were sought after by artists for millennia for their purity of colour.

We also discussed the limits of science, and indeed language, when it comes to articulating the cultural and personal meanings of colour. In the modern era, artists readily seized on innovations such as the development of accurate colour wheels and internationally recognised colour charts, but remained highly attuned to colour’s social, religious and psychological significances.

In the gallery itself, we talked about medieval artists’ application of gold leaf to represent divine light and the various techniques involved for creating spectacular patterns. Connections with fashion and textiles came up frequently over the course of the morning, from the sumptuary laws that restricted what colours people could wear depending on their class, to the cochineal beetles used to produce rich crimson dyes and lake pigments from the 16th century.

Artworks by Titian, the great Venetian master of colour, were an essential stop on our visit. Thinking like Renaissance artists, we weighed up the value of careful drawing versus applying expressive colour straight onto the canvas. We finished the morning in front of J. M. W. Turner’s The Fighting Temeraire (1839), which was created with a surprising combination of traditional pigments and new synthetic paints that were a product of his own industrial age.

The afternoon workshop at Tate Modern was led by art historian and contemporary artist Kate Aspinall who continued the story of colour into the middle of the 20th century with an emphasis on how evolving colour theories, commercial uses of symbolic colours and experimental formulas of acrylic paints inspired Abstract and Pop artists to develop revolutionary approaches to applying paint to canvas.

Kate led us into Tate Modern’s specially designed space that houses a selection of Mark Rothko’s magnificent Seagram murals (1958). Students heard how Rothko’s bequest to the Tate followed a complete change of location and intention (originally destined from the high-end Four Seasons restaurant in the Seagram Building, Mies van der Rohe’s radical Modernist skyscraper in New York City).

Red on Maroon Mural, Section 74, Mark Rothko, 1959, Photo: © Tate, London 2019

Kate explained that Rothko loved traditional carmine and crimson pigments, but working on a large scale necessitated some cheaper industrial forms of the paints (the gallery lights are kept dimmed to prevent these fading). Only in person is it possible to appreciate the physical texture of the canvases and the complex layering of different paint types that leads to the works’ astonishing visual effects; light appears to emanate from the seemingly pulsating portals of colour.

We also encountered Brigit Riley’s dizzying Op Art, which takes advantage of the inherent instability of colour and draws on a scientific approach to colour theory pioneered by the French Pointillist George Seurat. Riley, like Seurat, found an aesthetic expression that made use of dots and relied on the eye to perceive colour combinations. The role of the eye was also considered in relation to later artists’ use of light-technologies, from fluorescents to lasers and holograms, to further experiment with our anatomical experience of colour in art.

Colour Cycle III, Peter Sedgley (b.1930), 1970, Photo © Tate, London

Kate concluded her tour with a remarkable painting by Peter Sedgley that is continually transformed by a pre-programmed sequence of coloured lighting directed at the canvas.

For the final part of the day, students worked independently to select an artwork and make their own creative interpretation by altering the hue, intensity or value of its colours.

We gathered in the Turbine Hall afterwards to discuss how the students had changed the mood or effect of the originals. Familiar and iconic artworks were completely transformed and we were hugely impressed by the students’ energy at the end of such a full schedule.

With special thanks to Kate for sharing her fascinating research.

Francesca Herrick