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Powells.com
Saturday, November 15th, 2003


 

Bright Earth: Art and the Invention of Color

by Philip Ball

Two Books about Color

A review by Doug Brown

Color is a fascinating thing. It is one of the first qualities of the world we become aware of, and many of the first adjectives we learn are the names of colors. And, yet while many aspects of color are quantitative, the perception of color is very qualitative. The cones in our retinas only absorb red, blue, and green wavelengths; combining the inputs from these three primaries in our brains creates all other colors we perceive. Further, many hues we see in the world are caused by white light scattering into its components, creating the illusion of color. The sky isn't really blue, for instance; it is transparent, as is obvious as soon as the sun goes down. The vivid iridescence of hummingbirds and peacock tails is caused by light scattering off tiny barbules on their feathers and then interfering with itself, resulting in a shimmering spectrum. Molecules called "pigments," which absorb certain wavelengths of light and reflect others, create much of the color we see in the world. We use pigments to dye our fabrics and to paint our canvases, homes, cars, and faces.

Most of Color: A Natural History of the Palette and Bright Earth are about color created by pigments. Finlay is a journalist who traveled around the world meeting people who work with paint pigments and dyes, so Color is more of a travelogue and cultural history. Ball is a chemist, and Bright Earth spends most of its time on pigments themselves and how they have related to the history of art. As such, these two books complement each other nicely.

Color is laid out by color, with each chapter devoted to the use of a particular color in dyes and pigments through history. Each chapter also usually includes a journey or two to places where these pigments are found. Finlay has no apparent shortage of traveling funds, and no fear of traveling alone wherever her whimsy takes her. To find the source of lapis lazuli, she travels into Taliban-era Afghanistan, and she journeys to northern Iran to find saffron. One sentence will have her examining a pigment in a Hong Kong shop, the next has her getting off a plane in Mexico, or driving across the Australian outback to try to get on sacred Aboriginal land. Sometimes ending without the goal being met, these trips nonetheless put a human face on pigment production throughout the world. Finlay also discusses representations of colors through history; how purple has denoted royalty in some cultures, how blue denoted wealth at times, and how yellow has been the most rarified (in China, where it was only worn by the emperor) and the lowest of colors (cowardice). Color divides its time equally with dyes for clothing and pigments for paint, where Bright Earth is primarily geared toward paint pigments with asides about dyes.

Ball approaches the subject from a slightly more technical standpoint, and his layout is more historical. Set roughly in chronological order, Bright Earth discusses how advances in chemistry (and alchemy) have shaped art, by making certain pigments available at certain times. The chapters covering fugitive colors (colors which fade) and art restoration give the reader an insight to the daily headache facing art curators the world over. Etymological asides pop up every few pages; for instance, "ingrained" doesn't refer to wood grain, but to a red dye that was called "grain" -- something dyed "in grain" would stay that way, hence the word came to mean anything unchangeable. Ball includes reproductions of many of the works discussed -- Bright Earth has three insert sections of color pictures, whereas Color only has one. Both Finlay and Ball are British, and London's National Gallery is the source of many works covered in the two books; several paintings discussed without illustration in Color are reproduced in Bright Earth. Ball extends his discussion into photography and computer art, raising the issues facing artists working in these media -- issues such as what constitutes an original when exact copies can be made, and does art need to be unique to be appreciated.

Finlay's writing captures scenes and people well. Although somewhat scattershot at times, Color is a more vivid read than Bright Earth. The latter has a greater density of information about color, however, and is better illustrated. If you are mildly interested in how people have used pigments through time, start with Color. If you want to know more -- or are already interested in pigments -- continue on with Bright Earth to deepen your appreciation.


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