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Making rainbows

Painting of horse and rainbow above
James Ward, 'Nonpareil' (RCIN 405018) ©

The sight of a rainbow can be so uplifting! After a rainy day, when the sun comes out and a rainbow appears, it can bring a smile and inspire hope.

Be inspired by some wonderful pictures in the Royal Collection that feature rainbows, and then use the activity sheet below to get some tips on making your own!

How is a rainbow formed?

Rainbows occur when rays of sunlight pass through raindrops, causing the light to bend and change direction.  

Sunlight always looks white to us, but it is actually made up of seven colours – red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet. If the sun is shining when it is raining, rays of sunlight will pass through the raindrops and be split into these seven colours, forming a curved rainbow. Red is the longest light and blue is the shortest light, which is why we see red at the top of the rainbow in the longer part of the arch and blue at the bottom.

A watercolour view of Coburg, with the towers of the Ehrenburg Palace and the Morizkirche seen rising above the trees and the Veste Coburg at the upper left. A double rainbow is also visible in the sky. Signed and dated lower right: am 25 Juli 1

A view of Coburg and the Veste Coburg, with two rainbows ©

This watercolour shows a double rainbow in Coburg, Germany, where Prince Albert was born.

A double rainbow happens when light is reflected twice by the same raindrop. This means we see two different rainbows, coming from two different angles. The second rainbow has its colour order reversed, so we see blue at the top and red at the bottom. It is higher in the sky and lighter in colour than the first rainbow. The artist who made this watercolour has recorded this accurately, by looking very carefully at nature.

Landscape with a rainbow over a lake surrounded by mountains; the sails of several boats are visible on the lake; in the foreground, on the right, a small herd of deer are standing on a rocky outcrop.
In April 1873 Doré spent a holiday in Scotland

Loch Carron, Scotland ©

The artist who painted this rainbow was invited to Scotland to take part in a fishing trip. However, he wasn’t a big fan of fishing and much preferred sketching the natural landscape and animals he could see from the river bank. This mountain landscape with a rainbow is the result of him recollecting his holiday near Balmoral.

Ward was a successful animal painter who gives his horses a nervous, highly-strung character often supported by an intense and dramatic landscape background. Ward was appointed Painter and Engraver in Mezzotint to the Prince of Wales in 1794 and executed

Nonpareil ©

Whatever you’re painting, adding a rainbow can help give a bit of extra colour and brightness. When George IV asked the artist James Ward to make a portrait of one of his favourite horses, the artist decided to include a large rainbow too. It arches high above the horse in the foreground, but have you spotted Windsor Castle in the background? Ward was particularly good at painting weather conditions, which can be hard because the weather can change at any moment. If you look closely, you can see that he has painted rays of light passing through the rain and clouds, illuminating the castle.

DM 355: Figures in a boat fishing in the River Alta in Norway ?.  A rainbow on the right.  The deepest canyon in Europe is seen in the distance.  P.Alfred ? in boat standing, casting the line.  About 3 am.  Signed.

A Salmon Cast on the Alten ©

It is believed that this watercolour depicts part of the Sautso, or Alta Canyon, in Norway. The canyon is approximately 12 kilometres long and about 300 to 420 metres deep, making it the largest in Northern Europe. In the foreground, a man is fishing for salmon using a very long fishing rod – it appears to be three times his height!

Rainbow activity sheet.pdf