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Making sense of art history
Making sense of art history

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5.5 Question 4: Are the colours largely bright or dull?

Two colours may have the same hue (for example blue) but one may be vivid and the other dull. Look again at The Dance (Plate 14). Here, the sky is depicted using both dull and bright blue colours. However, neither dull colours nor bright colours dominate the painting; rather there's probably an equal amount of each.

Plate 14

Paula Rego, The Dance, 1988, acrylic on paper laid on canvas support, 213 × 274 cm. (© The artist. Courtesy Tate, London, 2005.)

Having identified the extent to which dull and bright colours feature in a painting, consider the likely effects of this. For example, an art work with mostly bright colours can suggest a livelier mood than one where the colours are mostly dull. Regarding your reading of the painting, if both bright and dull colours are present, your eye tends to be drawn to the bright colours first. Bright colours can also give an artificial feel, as in Life by Gilbert and George (Plate 7), where intense reds, yellows, greens and blue are dominant.

Plate 7

Gilbert and George, Life from Death Hope Life Fear, 1984, handcolouredphotographs, framed on paper, unique. (Courtesy of Gilbert and George. © Tate, London, 2005.)

Activity 7: The use of brightness of colour in Paula Rego's The Maids

Timing: You should allow about 5 minutes

Look at again at The Maids (Plate 4) and add to your notes on the use of colour in this art work by responding to the question: are the colours largely bright or dull?

Plate 4

Paula Rego, The Maids, 1987, acrylic on canvas backed paper, 214 × 244 cm. (Courtesy The Saatchi Gallery.)

Again, you should consider the relationship between techniques and effects in the art work in terms of:

  • a.the mood conveyed by the colour in the work

  • b.the possible use of colour to control the way that you read the work.

You should add your response to this activity to your exsitng notes on the The Maids, perhaps by replicating the table below.

Table 3: Colour analysis table: use of brightness
Are the colours largely bright or dull?


In Activity 6, I noted that although a wide palette of colours has been used, Rego's painting is not particularly vibrant. I think that this is partly due to the quite extensive use of dull colours (for example, the large patch of dark yellowy-brown towards the bottom of the painting). This area appears to separate us (the spectators) from the main content of the painting and, in turn, seems to give the impression that the action depicted in the painting is taking place on a stage. It's also arguable that this quite empty area psychologically distances us from the people in the painting, as we're not really encouraged to feel that we are part of the action. Does the painting have these effects on you?

Again, your conclusions about the relationship between technique and effect in The Maids may have been very different. Please make sure you note your conclusions clearly as they will be valuable evidence upon which to base an interpretation of the meaning of the painting later in the course.