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
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.