August 28th, 2014

The National Gallery’s Making Colour exhibition explores how artists have transformed pigments into works of art throughout time. From the creation of the richest blue made from lapis lazuli for ancient artworks to the important role gold and silver played in European paintings, the exhibit tells both the artistic and scientific story of colour. Mill colourist James Bamford reviews the spectacular exhibit and discusses how it relates to his role as a colourist.

Mill colourist James Bamford, who’s recent creative highlights include KFC ‘Rodeo’, Planet Of The Apes: Year 10 ‘The Gun’ and the multi award winning Volvo ‘The Split’, gives us his thoughts on colour, and the impact it has on all forms of art.

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What part does colour play in creating art?

Colour can have an enormous part to play in any picture or moving image. Colour can literally take the viewer on a journey through the picture. It can be used to emphasize certain areas or used in collaboration with another colour to give contrast. Not only that, but colour can portray an emotion or even symbolize importance; for example Sassoferrato's 'The Virgin In Prayer' uses lapis lazuli, a vivid deep blue pigment which was so rare and expensive that it was considered the only colour worthy of adorning sacred subjects.

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What were your stand out artworks in the Making Colour exhibition?

The blue room on the whole was an absolute standout. The precious lapis lazuli pigment mined only in Afghanistan was worth more than gold. An element like this may be used in the same painting to adorn a dress or a robe, (blue as a symbol of devotion) whereas the backgrounds stuck to the more cost effective pigments like Prussian blue, smalt and synthetic cobalt blue.

Sadly not all pigments stand the test of time and the cheaper alternatives or the synthetics show their age. A good example of this is in Pierre Mignard’s ‘The Marquise de Seignelay and Two of her Sons’ where her robe is absolutely striking, retaining its color after all these years due to its use of the lapis lazuli, while the background and skies are faded and pale in comparison.

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It’s hard to pick standout pieces because everything was so spectacular. The exhibition covered all genres of art and a huge range of colour. It was so interesting to see how colour has been used in such a different way throughout the years, but also the similarities of what colour can symbolise that transcend across time.

How does colour inspire you? 

Colour in itself inspires me all the time whether it's through everyday life or through more classic mediums such as film, photography or art. Everything and anything could provide inspiration for a particular project and make me want to get back in the suite. When you’re so involved with looking at colour all the time, you start to look at real life in a different way… almost grading everything you see in real time. I know it sounds strange but that’s what happens when you’re so immersed in colour constantly!

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I recently graded a project called KFC ‘Rodeo’ with director Jeff Labbe. He showed some photography from William Albert Allard, an American documentary photographer known particularly for his work in the ‘Wild West’ of America, who hugely inspired me for this particular grade.

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Would you say that using and understanding colour is a science or an art?

How colour is made and how we see colour are all scientific questions, however once that science is understood, that’s when it becomes more about how things feel and how you react to them.

The scientific theories of colour have already been established; when working with pigments we know what colours mix to make new ones and that mixing all of the primary colours together (red, yellow and blue) will create a dark grey or black. This is completely opposite to using colour in a grading suite; colourists are essentially grading with light, not pigments. The primary colours to a colourist are red, green and blue, also known as the light primaries. When mixing these together the result is white light. In short – pigments do not behave the same way as light. It’s part of my job to then take this science and use it for an emotive purpose, or simply just to make something look its best.

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What’s your favourite colour and why?

Well I do tend to like cyan but since going to this exhibition I will now call it azurite.  

Visit the National Gallery website to book tickets to the Making Colour Exhibition before it ends on September 7th and see more of James’ colour work here.