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Color: A Natural History of the Palette

Color: A Natural History of the Palette by Victoria Finlay (2003: 464p)
Library ILL - checked out 8 Dec 2005; due 24 Jan 2006. Started 20 Dec 2005; finished 6 Jan 2006.
Recommended by gobear (SDMB) and haardvark (UnaBoard).

In an impressive mix of history, science and travelogue. Ms. Finlay shares with her readers the results of her worldwide search for the pigments and dyes and that humankind has used over the ages. Each color (including black and white) is represented in a separate section, where she weaves stories of fictional and real-life people into her research with entertaining results.

From Australian sacred ochers to Phoenician royal purple; from Incan reds to Chinese imperial greens - this book literally covers a rainbow of topics. The narrative thread is spider-silk thin for most of the book, and occasionally the reader is overwhelmed with the amount of information presented; but the overarching theme of the discovery and use of color is carried well throughout.

Not only is this book accessible to the general reader, there is considerable scholarship in its pages. The bibliography covers 6 pages, with the notes section (broken down by chapter) is another 13. She also includes a list of illustrations, credits and an index. I found myself filling a notecard with my comments, as well as noting some Further Reading references.

Recommended to anyone with an interest in the artistic side of history and science.


Ochres = sacred to Australian aborigines. Use acrylics in commercial paintings = less sacred.
Black - difficult to achieve a permanent black - esp dyes.
Mummy brown - made from real Egyptian mummies in the 1800's.
White - pigments often poisonous. White lead = acid +metal. Radiography of old paintings depends on amount of lead used. Also can show changes made to painting over time.
Some artists (JMW Turner) may have chosen pigments for current effect, not caring how well/poorly the paintings would age.
Cochineal = crimson. Insect grows on prickly pear - originally New World dye. Spain had monopoly until late 1700's -- used to dye British army uniforms until 1952.
Kermes insect = Old world equivalent of cochineal. Alum used as mordant to make dye "bite" into fabric.
Scarlet - originally a type of cloth - later became the color.
Red - same word as "color" in Zapotec language. Comanche - "red" "circle" and "world" = all same word.
Vermilion - made from cinnabar = mercury+sulfur.
English Post Boxes - traditionally painted red for visibility.
Safflower = "bastard saffron" -- yellow (alkali-process) or pink (acid-process)
Mastic - tree gum found in Mediterranean island - used in varnish. Doesn't mix well with oil = artistic disasters in the making.
Madder - formerly used for orange, now more commonly a pink dye. 1899 - Alizarin (dyestuff in madder) produced synthetically.
Orpiment = "gold pigment" - contains arsenic, therefore poisonous.
Gamboge - yellow plant resin collected in Cambodia - victim of war
Celadon - glaze had supposed anti-poison properties - bowl would crack if food was poisoned.
Copper arsenic (poisonous) = bright green. Used in wallpaper- possible cause of death for Napoleon.
Malachite = natural green from stone.
Verdigris = "Greek green" - used in van Eyck's The Andolfini Marriage -- corrupted metal = allegory?
Washington remodeled Mount Vernon while at war through lengthy series of letters - bright wallpaper in fashion.
Green = holy color in Islam (color of Mohammed’s cloak)
Robin Hood's "Lincoln green" actually quite expensive - was used to show off vs. camouflage?
Ultramarine ("from across the sea") = lapis lazuli from Afghanistan.
Blue - "the most holy hue, but also the color of pornography"
France & Spain - parents of ill children would pray for the Virgin Mary's intercession - promising to dress the child all in blue when he or she recovers.
Cobalt (from German for "goblin") - attracts arsenic - therefore dangerous to mine.
Woad - naturally astringent & helps in healing wounds - is this why the Bretons painted themselves for war?
Indigo ("from India") - had to contend with native European woad - held monopoly til mid 1660's. The Blue Mutiny in 1860's India - natives forced to grow indigo vs. rice to feed families = revolt
Synthetic violet dye discovered while looking for substitute for quinine.
Purple - color of mourning in UK until at least 1950's
Japan - purple = color of victory/high rank.




A History of Makeup - Margie Angeloglou
Foreign Devils Along the Silk Road - Peter Hopkirk (1979)
Mauve - Simon Garfield
Madder Red - Robert Chenliner
The History of Colour - Manlio Brustatin
Skin Deep: The Mystery of Tattooing - Ronald Scutt
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