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Our main job as Explore Volunteers is engaging with visitors in the galleries. At National Museum Cardiff we primarily use three carts; one for natural science, one for evolution, and one for art. The art cart is a particularly fun experience, as it’s more about encouraging visitors to share their own impressions and experiences of art. This cart contains several interesting things, and one in particular is our range of colour filters. 

It seems simple enough at first glance; five transparent filters of different colours. However, when applied to the paintings in our galleries they offer entirely new perspectives on each one. Since a single painting often contains more of a particular colour, viewing it through different filters will produce different results. If you view a painting through a filter of its dominant colour, the effect produced is much more dramatic. Through this visitors can get new insight on how artists constructed their best works.

My go to example for visitors is always Monet’s San Giorgio Maggiore by Twilight in Gallery 16. Viewed without the filters the painting is dramatic enough. On closer inspection you can see that Monet used a strong under-layer of purple for the monastery, with small flecks of purple in the water around it. When viewed through the purple filter, the painting takes on a completely different dynamic. Not only is the monastery more pronounced and the sunset more dramatic, it looks like the cover of a psychedelic rock album. On the other hand, when viewed through the red or orange filters, the already fiery sunset becomes more pronounced. I’ve seen many visitors young and old amazed and impressed after viewing this painting through the filters. 

The filters will affect different paintings in different ways. Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s La Parisienne (also known as The Blue Lady) is a classic case in point. Since the subject, Henriette Henriot, is dressed entirely in blue, when viewed under the blue filter the colour is amplified. However the other filters can produce interesting results. The area of shading around Henriette is somewhat grey, with elements of blue and yellow, so when viewed under the yellow filter it produces a greenish effect. This happens not just in the outline around Henriette, it also blurs her face, making it appear hazier. The yellow filter also makes the golden frame around the painting a lot brighter. Since The Blue Lady is without a doubt one of the most popular paintings in the museum, it’s good to have visitors looking at her from a different perspective.

A similar effect happens with our other famous resident of Gallery 16, Landscape at Auvers in the Rain by Vincent van Gogh. In speaking to visitors it seems that when viewing the painting they don’t often notice the rain at first. The dashes crisscrossing the canvas are long, thin and faint compared to the landscape behind it. Looking at these lines through a blue filter makes the scene feel more like a rainy day, but when viewed under the yellow filter the lines suddenly become more pronounced. The rain appears to be falling faster when viewed under this filter, with the field in the foreground becoming more pronounced. Many visitors I’ve demonstrated this to have been amazed by the effect.

The filters are a great way for Explore Volunteers to interact with visitors. Not only does it encourage visitors to share their impressions of art, it also allows them to see art in a new way and spot things that may escape them at first glance. There are still many paintings I haven’t tested the filters on yet, so watch this space for more forays in filtering in the near future.

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