Reynolds 300: A world of colour

Reynolds 300: A world of colour

13 July 2023

This summer we’re celebrating the themes of light and colour as well as the 300th anniversary of the birth of famous portrait artist Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792). For Reynolds, colour was a fundamental part of creating captivating portraits. The use of colour he saw in centuries-old paintings during a period of time he spent in Italy as a young man influenced both his practice and teaching.

When we are looking at Reynolds’ paintings, we are looking at the effect of one colour against the other. How he is creating depth, how he’s creating the effect the light, how certain features are brought out whether it’s the lips or the glow on the cheeks.

Rana Begum, artist and Royal Academician, elected 2019

Brightly coloured bottles of pigment
Age of Innocence and Portrait of a Lady by Sir Joshua Reynolds hanging on a gallery wall
A bottle of red carmine pigment and artist brushes in a case
A gallery view of part of the 'Reframing Reynolds' exhibition at The Box

Throughout his career, Reynolds experimented with pigments, varnishes and waxes. He and his studio assistants made their own paints from pigments mixed with oil, wax or resin. The unusual mixtures occasionally led to problems such as cracking, flaking or fading. Sometimes paintings had to return to the studio for retouching. Despite this, Reynolds never seems to have settled on a fixed palette. He was known for his bold experimentation and always ready to try something new, even if it didn’t produce the right results!

Every picture of Sir Joshua’s was an experiment in art…

James Northcote (1746-1831) artist, Reynolds’ pupil and biographer

Colour was also a way for Reynolds and his clients to signal status. Blue was the rarest and most expensive pigment especially ultramarine which is made from lapis lazuli ground into powder. Some of the other pigments Reynolds used were linked to global trade. Carmine, a red pigment he favoured, is derived from the tiny cochineal beetle from Mexico. The deep red colour it creates became synonymous in Europe with the church, military, royalty and elite, but saw cochineal farmers exploited by colonial merchants to meet demand.

Cochineal beetles and carmine on a glass shelf with a magnifying glass
Prussian Blue, Lapis Lazuli and Smalt in bottles on a glass shelf
Limonite, Ochre, Sienna and Umber in bottles on a shelf
Vermillon, Carmine and Lake in bottles on a glass shelf

Reynolds highlighted the use of colour during his tenure at the Royal Academy too, where he discussed it in a series of lectures on art.

Grandeur of effect is produced by … reducing the colours to little more than [strong contrasts and] by making the colours very distinct and forcible... the distinct blue, red, and yellow colours which are seen in the draperies of the [Italian] schools…have that effect of grandeur that was intended.

Sir Joshua Reynolds PRA (1723-1792)

1746 self-portrait of Sir Joshua Reynolds and a new painting by artist Rana Begum hanging on a gallery wall

To discover even more about Reynolds and how fundamental colour was to him, visit our Reframing Reynolds: A Celebration exhibition (until 29 October). Take a look in our Bridge Gallery as well to see examples of pigments and information about artist Rana Begum, who has created three new works inspired by Reynolds’ use of colour in his 1746 self-portrait plus portraits of Elizabeth Field and Lady Ann Bonfoy.

Thanks to Terah Walkup, curator and Jo Clarke, marketing and communications officer