Introduction to Colour

9TH JUNE 2021

The history of colour is as old as art itself, extending back 40,000 years to the late Palaeolithic era where the first pigments were created by combining iron-rich soil, animal fat, burnt coals and chalk.

Far from the seven colours of the rainbow, this was a basic palette of earthy tones – reds, yellows, browns, black and white. Our Stone Age ancestors utilised rudimentary tools like sticks and stones, as well as their own bare hands and feet, to daub images of wildlife onto the walls of caves.

The Dappled Horses of Peche Merle, Upper Palaeolithic era, c. 25,000 BC, France. © Wikipedia Commons.
The Dappled Horses of Peche Merle, Upper Palaeolithic era, c. 25,000 BC, France. © Wikipedia Commons.

It was not until the Middle Ages, however, that wandering explorers made several significant discoveries that truly advanced the development of colour. Lapis Lazuli, for example, discovered in Afghanistan in the 14th century, was used to create Ultramarine and cost roughly the same as its weight in gold. Centuries later during the Italian Renaissance, inspired by the purity of Ultramarine blue, artists began experimenting with new pigments to produce more potent dyes and bolder colours.

The most significant development came with the discovery of the Cochineal insect in Mexico during the 16th century that could be ground into a powder which, when mixed with oils, produced a deep red hue. Such was the importance of this discovery that it became the third greatest import from the ‘New World’ after gold and silver, and launched Spain towards its eventual role as an economic superpower.

As the value of pigments increased, so did the number of impresarios who looked to take advantage of this new profitable opportunity. By the late 18th century there was a huge market for pigment-based paints, but it soon became clear that combining chemicals to create lurid hues was a hazardous undertaking. In 1775, a Chemist based in Sweden created Scheele’s Green, a bright green pigment laced with arsenic - a highly toxic carcinogen. Scheele’s Green became a sensation in the Victorian era as it was so cheap to produce and was used in many products, from insecticide to soft furnishings. French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte’s wallpaper featured Scheele’s Green and there is strong evidence to suggest that contact with the pigment caused the revolutionary’s death in 1821. 

Around the turn of the 19th century an incredibly broad range of pigments were available to artists. They began to experiment conceptually with colour in their work, employing it for a myriad of reasons often entirely unrelated to the concept of representation. The Fauve artists – Paul Signac, Paul Gauguin, Vincent Van Gogh, Henri Matisse and Paul Cezanne – were the first artistic group to prioritise a bold, strong use of colour over realistic depiction and rejected the traditional values retained by the Impressionists.

Around the same time Wassily Kandinsky, an early pioneer of abstraction, begun to explore synaesthesia and relationship between colour and the senses. Henri Matisse, one of the greatest masters of colour, was beginning to utilise pared-down coloured shapes to explore notions of figure and ground, presence and void.

Paul Signac, Antibes, Small Port of Bacon (1917), oil on board, 54.5 x 64 cm. © Wikipedia Commons
Paul Signac, Antibes, Small Port of Bacon (1917), oil on board, 54.5 x 64 cm. © Wikipedia Commons

It is said that every artist develops their own theory of colour. Below we explore three different approaches in the works of artists within the Clarendon portfolio:

The Pond (1950), an offset lithograph by LS Lowry, rendered in his traditional five colour palette.
The Pond (1950), an offset lithograph by LS Lowry, rendered in his traditional five colour palette.



L.S. Lowry was famed for using a fundamental range of colours painted on the white background. He only used five colours throughout his entire body of work – Ivory Black, Prussian Blue, Yellow Ochre, and Flake White – and only ever Windsor and Newton oil paints.

“I’m a simple man, and use simple materials: ivory black, vermilion (crimson), prussian blue, yellow ochre, flake white and no medium [e.g. linseed oil]. That’s all I’ve ever utilised in my paintings. I like oils… I like a medium you’ll be able to work into over a time frame”. – L.S. Lowry

Lowry preferred Windsor and Newton as it was a highly pigmented oil range, often with greater strength of pigment than many competitors’ ranges. Lowry liked the relatively solid consistency of the range, as he applied his paint in thick impasto and straight from the tube.

After Lowry’s death in 1976, many new pigments became available and artists saw great improvements in the permanence of colours. Today, Vermilion Hue has more permanence and no longer fades when mixed with Flake White. Flake White has been replaced by Flake White Hue which is no longer lead-based, avoiding any issues with toxicity.

Marc Chagall, Le Jardin d’Eden (1974), lithograph on paper.
Marc Chagall, Le Jardin d’Eden (1974), lithograph on paper.



“When Matisse dies,” Picasso once remarked, “Chagall will be the only painter left who understands what colour is.”

Marc Chagall famously claimed that he had never seen flowers in his native Belarus and that he first encountered them when he arrived in Paris in 1910. Whether true or not remains unknown but it is clear Chagall’s palette exploded in a cacophony of colour when he first arrived in France, and he claimed that the Parisian flora was his inspiration. He soon gained a reputation as the ‘Master of Colour’ by both artists and critics alike.

During an exhibition of Chagall’s paintings at Tate Liverpool in 2013, the curators compared two versions of his depiction of Birth: one created during his early career before he left Russia, and one from 1911 when he had just arrived in Paris. The palette of the earlier works is dark, shadowy and oppressive. Whereas the mood and colours of the later version were not; they were lightened with pinks, purples and green and the space sharply divided by a diagonal of light and shade.

Sonia Delaunay, Rectange Rouge (c. 1970), lithograph, 575 x 455 mm.
Sonia Delaunay, Rectange Rouge (c. 1970), lithograph, 575 x 455 mm.



“Everything is feeling, everything is real joy. Colour brings me joy” – Sonia Delaunay

Ukrainian-born artist Sonia Delaunay was a key figure in the Modernist Parisian avant-garde movement. She was best known for the invention of the Orphism movement alongside her husband Robert Delaunay. By matching primary and secondary colours (for example, red with green, yellow with purple, and blue with orange) to create an intense visual vibration, the Delaunay couple developed a new style of non-objective abstract painting. They referred to this as “Simultaneous Contrast” but it soon became known as the Orphism movement, christened as such by Apollinaire in 1912.

Delaunay’s experimentation was not confined solely to the fine arts although she is perhaps less known for her textile design. She described her fabrics as ‘exercises in colour’ that informed her true passion: painting. Her boldly coloured textiles were hugely innovative and left a lasting legacy, influencing many designers of today’s generation. Both the paintings and textiles she produced proved to be vastly popular within the Parisian artistic community as they presented an intriguing shift away from the dull earthy tones of most cubist palettes of the time.