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This is Colour! It can be natural or man-made, and some of the craziest stories in art history are about colour.

We’ve used colour for tens of thousands of years to make art, from painting it onto walls to tattooing it onto our skin. Advances in science have meant we can now create our own but our earliest pigments came from nature. 

When our ancestors painted in caves they used charcoal and burnt bones for blacks and ochre for browns, reds and yellows. They achieved masterpieces with these simple colours. In the Chauvet Cave in France paintings dating between 30,000 - 33,000 years old were found depicting at least thirteen species including rhinos, bears and lions. Archeologists think we may have painted our bodies using pigments too.

Chauvet Cave, Photo credit: Claude Valette
Mummy with a Portrait of a Youth, Photo credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

As history went on, our colour palette expanded. People came up with innovative and downright strange ways to make colour - Tyrian purple was a rare and expensive pigment made from shellfish and Indian yellow is said to have been made from the urine of cows which only ate mango leaves. Turner and Van Gogh famously used this pigment but it was later banned due to its cruelty. 

A Swedish chemist called Carl Wilhelm Sheele invented a bright green paint in 1775 which he named after himself. Scheele’s green became extremely popular and was used in clothes, carpets and even in food. But this was a deadly green. It contained poisonous arsenic. People died while sleeping in rooms decorated with the killer green, perhaps even Napoleon. A sample of his hair was found to contain arsenic. Could he have suffered from death by wallpaper?

Artists have made pigments into paints in all sorts of ways. Unsurprisingly, oils are used to make oil paints but did you know that artists used to make paints using eggs and animal glues? This is known as tempera and has been used to paint portraits on Egyptian mummies and by Botticelli to paint his famous Birth of Venus. 

Sandro Botticelli, The Birth of Venus
Edgar Degas - Dancer, Photo credit: The Metropolitian Museum of Art 

Pastels are sticks of pigment used by artists and in the 19th century they were popular with Edgar Degas and Mary Cassatt, one of only three women Impressionists. Degas used pastels to create some of his famous images of ballet dancers and Cassatt used them to capture rare scenes of women and children. Impressionism was an early influence on the artist Jack Butler Yeats. He went on to develop a loose and expressive way of using paint to depict colourful scenes from mythology and daily life. 

In the 20th century, artists have remained obsessed with colour and have even invented their own. In the 1950s, Yves Klein patented an intense ultramarine blue called International Klein Blue. Nearly 200 of his paintings are canvases painted only with this luminous blue. Anish Kapoor bought the rights to a material called Vantablack, a ‘super-black’ coating which is the darkest material ever created. 

Words by Helena Hunt

Natural Dyes

Get cooking in our latest demo! Make your own natural dye using vegetables, herbs and spices. Once we have the dye made we will use it to dye some fabric to see what colours it produces.

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Tie Dye

Now we're going to tie dye some t-shirts with the natural dyes we made. Make some groovy t-shirts with the swirl technique by following along with this demo!

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Highlights from Colour!

Join us as we take a deep dive into Colour and discover
why people all over the world have been creating
incredible art for centuries with this amazing material.

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This is Art! 2022

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