The oil company BP has just lost its battle to trademark the colour green in Australia – but other brands around the world have managed to claim particular shades as their own: US jeweller Tiffany has the sole legal right to use its signature blue and purple has been commandeered by pet food company Whiskas in Australia.
From Titian red to Yves Klein blue, some shades are immediately associated with particular artists. With the help of experts from the National Gallery and Tate Modern in London, we have picked out seven hues that have taken on particular meanings for painters in different schools, from Renaissance Masters to Russian abstract art pioneers.
International Klein Blue: Yves Klein
While lounging on a beach with friends in 1947, a 19-year-old Yves Klein reportedly gazed up at the sky, imagining his signature next to the clouds, and declared “the blue sky is my first artwork.” The French artist went on to patent his own unique shade of blue in 1961 and moved away from creating the paintings himself, instead directing naked models covered in the colour as they walked, rolled and sprawled on blank canvases.
Viridian: Henri Rousseau and Paul Cezanne
What did you do if you were a 14th Century painter, and you wanted to depict a tree? One unexpected problem encountered by nature-loving Renaissance artists was a degradation of pigment, leaving them with bizarrely coloured landscapes centuries later. “Previously, painters were often mixing blue and yellow together, and often the yellows were unstable and so the greenery is now blue,” says Caroline Campbell, the co-curator of the exhibition Making Colour at London’s National Gallery. “Landscapes weren’t really painted until the 16th and 17th Centuries; it’s a genre of painting that didn’t exist before, so there wasn’t such a desire to find green pigments. But by the 19th Century, when Rousseau and Cezanne are painting largely as landscapists, they have these new manufactured pigments that are rich in colour and also very stable: emerald green and viridian. Suddenly you have these landscapes which can be green, and stay green.”
Chrome yellow: Vincent Van Gogh
“People associate yellow with Van Gogh,” says Campbell. “He said that yellow is the colour of happiness … and it’s the colour of so many of his paintings between 1880 and 1890.” Doctors believed that the Dutch painter suffered from epilepsy, prescribing him the drug digitalis – which can cause users to see in yellow. High doses of the chemical thujone can have a similar effect: the toxin is present in absinthe, which Van Gogh drank regularly. “At this really intense period in the summer of 1888 when he’s painting the sunflowers, yellow really is the colour of happiness,” says Campbell. “But that changes, and by the end of the year when he’s cut off his ear and his relationship with Gauguin is gone, it’s interesting that his self-portrait with a bandaged ear is also in yellow. Maybe it’s because he’s thinking about a moment in his life in which he was very happy.”
Mauveine: Royal portraitists
Purple, the traditional colour of royalty, was given a twist in 1856 when the English chemist William Perkin accidentally produced the first ever synthetic dye, mauveine. Perkin’s shade of mauve received a royal seal of approval in 1862, when Queen Victoria appeared at the International Exhibition wearing a silk gown dyed with mauveine and brought the colour into vogue. In a set of photographs, she and her family are shown in dresses in this colour – the pictures were hand-painted with a coloured wash made from the dye. “When I think of Victorian England, I do think of purple as being one of the colours associated with it,” says Campbell. “Suddenly this colour that was the colour of royalty could be really easily and quickly produced.”
Black: Kasimir Malevich
Renaissance painters produced their blacks by burning bones or ivory, collecting soot from oil lamps and grinding charred grape vines. The colour was long associated with death – but one painter gave it a different spin in 1915. When Kasimir Malevich painted his first Black Square, he launched a new movement, Suprematism, and liberated art from the figurative. It “brought an end to centuries of representation and marked a zero hour in modern art” according to Achim Borchardt-Hume, the curator of Malevich: Revolutionary of Russian Art at London’s Tate Modern. It also became a personal motif for the painter: when he died in the Soviet Union in 1935, mourners waved banners with black squares; his burial site was marked by a black square on a white cube. “Within months of Malevich’s death, his art was banned from public view and the Black Square was not to find its way back onto display until the early 1980s.” But the dark hue marked a new beginning: “For Malevich, it was the starting point for a wholly new approach to art, wiping clean the slate of conventional notions of image construction.”
Although artists had mixed red and yellow to make orange in Medieval paintings, a pure pigment was sought. The mineral realgar was used in 16th Century Venetian and Dutch flower paintings, but it had one drawback – it contained arsenic. “Realgar produced a really bright orange, but was poisonous,” says Campbell. Despite this, the Venetian painter Titian was partial to the pigment, using it to tint the tresses of the women in his paintings a particular shade that is now a popular hair dye (and even inspired a range of Barbie dolls). “Titian red was a phrase that was coined in the 18th or 19th Century for looking at the hair of the women he painted – such as the Flora in the Uffizi Gallery, or the Venus,” says Campbell.
Green earth: Renaissance Masters
Italian painters often used the mineral clay pigment as an underlayer when painting skin. It neutralised reds and pinks, which could appear fiery when applied to wood panels – but with the passing of time it lends an unfortunate complexion. “The problem is that often the top paint layers faded over centuries, and now these faces sometimes have a rather sepulchral greenish tinge,” says Campbell. The pigment has given greenish tinges to the faces of the Archangel Gabriel and the Virgin Mary in Ducci’s The Annunciation and to the neck of the woman in Vermeer’s Guitar Player.