This Study Day explores the art, science and history of the three Cardinal Colours, red, yellow and blue.

Lecture 1 – Introduction to colour theory and the use of yellow in painting

We look at the history of colour theory, starting with the first colour wheel made by Sir Isaac Newton in 1706. Discuss human perception of colour. What is the difference between coloured light and chemical colours?

Sunflowers by Van Gogh - used in Alexandra Drysdale's study day on the subject of cardinal colours - Sunflowers use a lot of yellow

How Cardinal Colours have been used and their symbolism in painting from Renaissance to 20th century art movements, German Blue Rider, Russian Constructivism, Dutch De Stijl.

Yellow: the history and use of yellow pigments, cultural meanings of yellow, and yellow in European painting.

Lecture 2  – Red

Red is the most powerful of all the colours and its range of expression is extreme, from demonic scarlet to angelic pink. Pure red is the colour of passion because of its association with blood and fire. When we fall in love our blood is on fire! Like blood and fire, passion can be both creative and destructive. We will look at the way artists have used red to express these opposing energies.

The Madonna - an early painting

Some artists use red for purely aesthetic reasons, typically done to draw attention to a small detail, other times red is used to express emotion or to symbolise social status or a religious idea. We shall look at the history and use of red pigments and red’s relationship to the other two primaries, yellow and blue.


Lecture 3 – Blue

Have you ever wondered where the blue in medieval illuminated manuscripts came from, or how chemists of the nineteenth century invented synthetic blues?

La Vie, Pablo Picasso, used within Alexandra Drysdale's art history lecture on the use of the colour blue in art

The Ancient Britons tattooed their bodies in a blue dye, and, two thousand years later in a Parisian art gallery Yves Kline in a public performance painted his nude models blue and imprinted their bodies on his canvasses.

Why does the Virgin Mary wear blue and what is significant about the blue used by Gainsborough in his portrait “The Blue Boy”? These are some of the questions that I will be addressing.

The story of blue takes us from the lapis lazuli mines in Afghanistan to the studios of Titian, Vermeer, Hokusai, Picasso and Matisse. The spirituality of Blue led Kandinsky and Franz Marc to name their art movement “The Blue Rider” in 1911.