A Journey Through History, Science, Art, and the Paintbox – A Review of Color: A Natural History of the Palette by Victoria Finlay

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Colors fascinate us. Most of us can name a short list of favorite colors, often trying to surround ourselves in them so we may experience them on a regular basis. We may be drawn to something because of its color: a flower in a vase, perhaps, or a cake in a display case. Certain combinations may be off-putting (some neon colors slapped together give the fashion police conniptions), while others are soothing, or exciting, or surreal. So much of our daily experience comes through the eyes, after all, more than any other sensory organ, so it should come as no surprise that color is important to us – more so than some of us might think.

As a matter of fact, color has been important throughout history. There have been regulations and prohibitions and prescriptions and proscriptions about what colors can and cannot be used, by whom, and when. Colors are also often associated with certain concepts and socio-cultural norms, used as a kind of shorthand, even though they are actually quite arbitrary. Why is black so often associated with death, when in China and Japan they wear white to funerals? Why is red linked to carnal sin, while blue is linked to virtuousness? Why is yellow linked to cowardice, and green to envy? And why does orange not rhyme with anything, anyway?

Perhaps such questions can be answered by finding out where the colors come from in the first place. Wars have been fought over purple, and blue was, for a time, one of the most expensive colors in the world. Yellow, too, was held in high esteem – high enough that in China, only emperors could wear it. And while white was valued, it was also notoriously deadly.

These questions – and more – were raised and some were answered in Color: A Natural History of the Palette by Victoria Finlay. She doesn’t cover all the colors, of course, simply choosing a set all readers know and recognize: the seven colors of the rainbow, but also including black, brown, white, and – surprisingly – ochre, with which she begins the book. After that, she moves on to black and brown, so often linked with death and the earth; then to white: also linked to death, though for other reasons. From there she goes into the rainbow colors, telling stories of bugs, violins, spices, porcelain, gemstones, weeds and seashells. In the epilogue, fittingly enough, she takes us to the Pantone headquarters in New Jersey, showing us the future of color in an increasingly digital world.

The good thing about this book is that each individual section on each color can be read on its own. While it’s obvious that the history of some colors intertwine with each other, Finlay is capable of keeping the strands separate, so that the reader can easily hop on over to read about a specific color without having to go through the rest of the book. Of course, doing so would leave out some very interesting stories – and, strangely enough, the most interesting stories belonged to the colors that I assumed would be the least interesting.

Take, for example, the story of ochre, which is the first color discussed in the book, and which, Finlay says, launched her on this grand quest to begin with. Beginning on a cliffside in Italy, she eventually finds her way to Australia and to the Aborigines, for whom ochre is not just a color, but a representation of everything that they are. In this chapter Finlay tells a heartbreaking story of how Aboriginal art is slowly being commercialized, and how valuable ochre mines – one of which is the only source of a particularly special type used in secret ceremonies and equally secret artwork of the Dreamtime – has become nigh-on inaccessible due to politics and greed. In this chapter the loss of a color is depicted as the loss of a culture, and it is incredibly heartbreaking.

In the chapter for black and brown, Finlay loses the thread a bit, jumping all over the place as she describes the different uses for black, framing it around a legend told of the first painting. For some strange reason this just wasn’t as interesting as the story of the Aborigines and their ochre, maybe because the tales about coal and pencil leads just wasn’t as interesting as the story of an ongoing cultural loss. To be sure, getting black isn’t as easy to create as the reader might assume, especially when trying to get it to stick, or fix, to fabric, but even that supposed difficulty made for rather uninteresting reading. When sepia was brought up I was hoping for some investigation into that particular brown color, but it didn’t quite materialize. This chapter was weak, unfortunately, especially in comparison to the one before it.

The chapter for white proved a bit more intriguing, on one hand because it turns out white is a difficult color to make, and on the other because it’s so deadly. The most popular white paint is made of lead, and it’s been used by painters because it has a very specific quality to it that’s much admired and much desired by artists. Today most commercially accessible white paint is made with titanium, which is much less dangerous than lead, but lead white is still available: carefully controlled, and rather expensive to boot. It also dips briefly into other kinds of white that were less dangerous, but which didn’t catch on because lead white was so popular, at least until the introduction of titanium paints. This chapter waxes nostalgic quite often, about how things just aren’t quite the same anymore, and how sometimes, the old things are just better than the new things – even if they are deadly.

The chapter on red (one of my favorite colors) was another disappointment, though for different reasons than the chapter on black and brown. It used to be that red was a deadly color, made as it was from cinnabar, from which mercury is extracted. Synthetic reds served for a time, and still do in certain applications, but have proven too harsh for makeup. It wasn’t until the reintroduction of carmine for commercial purposes that people could slick their lips with red again, or paint their nails with it without doing damage to themselves in the process. Finlay does go and look into carmine production, starting with the bug from which the color is made, but when she describes the process of crushing hundreds of thousands of cochineal beetles to make the color, she does so with a certain amount of guilt, and no small amount of cringing. I found this odd, to say the least – or perhaps I could care less. The cochineal beetle isn’t about to go extinct anytime soon, after all, so I do not feel the least bit guilty knowing that a hundred thousand beetles died to make my favorite lipstick this exquisite shade of slightly brick-like red, or my favorite nail polish the same shade as a Ferrari sports car. Also, carmine production has significantly improved the livelihood of those who produce it, especially since it can be made on what would otherwise be land unsuitable for any other agricultural purpose. I rather hoped Finlay would celebrate that uplifting aspect of carmine production, but she doesn’t quite do so, which is unfortunate.

The next chapter, which tackles orange, surprised me the most. I wasn’t quite sure where Finlay would begin her journey to understand this color with a name that does not rhyme with anything, so for her to start in the Italian town of Cremona, and with the famous violins made there, was rather surprising. But Finlay was on to something: by trying to understand the mysterious varnish used for the Cremonese violins as they were made by Stradivari and the Amatis, she hoped to trace the story of the color she intended to tackle in this section. This she did, with a certain degree of success, but I thought the color was made more interesting by the fact that, as with the story of ochre, she connected it to another interesting story: that of the mysterious Jewish luthier who first brought the art of making stringed instruments to Cremona, and who likely taught apprentices who would, eventually, perfect their craft – and their varnish – to produce the legendary Stradivari and Amati violins. It concludes on a bittersweet note: how the art of violin-making is no longer as admired as it once was in Cremona; and how the power of music is capable of taking things as insubstantial as memory and emotion making them so concrete the listener can almost taste them. As a fan of violins, violinists and violin music, the concluding portion of this section was quite beautiful to read.

The chapters for yellow and green felt more or less similar, though Finlay’s search takes her to very different parts of the globe. In yellow she traces the path of saffron, which is not only an excellent spice but also produces a beautiful yellow dye that has been used for centuries. Green, on the other hand, traces the path of Chinese celadon, in an attempt to understand why this particular type of porcelain is so special. The chapter on yellow was somewhat more interesting to me than the chapter on green, mostly because food is intertwined in the story of saffron, and that’s a topic I will always find interesting, wherever I can come across it. Finlay’s quest for celadon is interesting in its own way too, involving as it does secret chambers and buried treasure, but that’s not quite so appealing to me as a cup of saffron tea, said to be capable of making one cheerful even if one is in the blackest of moods.

The chapter for blue tells the story of the color framed in another heartbreaking story: that of art as casualty in wartime. In an attempt to track down the source of the lapis lazuli that was once ground by Renaissance artists to make ultramarine, Finlay passes through Taliban-controlled territory in Afghanistan (the trip was done just before 9/11), and relays her encounter with the giant Bamiyan Buddhas, which were destroyed by the Taliban scant months after her visit. Her quest is interesting, to be sure, but I find her stories of pre-war, Taliban-controlled Afghanistan to be more intriguing than her attempt to reach the mines where the lapis is pulled from. It was not as bad as some Americans made it out to be, in those crazy years immediately following 9/11, but neither was it all sunshine and butterflies, either. The latter end of the chapter was interesting as well, because it dealt with stained glass – specifically, the blue in the stained glass windows of Chartres Cathedral. It corrected me on something I thought was factual: the recipe for that particular shade of blue is indeed known, and can even be replicated, if a glassmaker so chose. The problem, however, is that there is a certain shimmer in the glass, a certain refraction of light within it that gives medieval stained glass a magical quality unique to it, and that is what modern glassmakers can never hope to reproduce. Something about production during the medieval period created imperfect – but magnificently beautiful – glass, and those imperfections, no matter how desirable, are impossible to replicate.

The last two colors, indigo and violet/purple, are caught up in the idea of conquest and colonization. In the chapter for indigo Finlay briefly goes into woad as a source of blue before tackling indigo, which was a primary crop in India and the Caribbean – both colonized by European powers. The story surrounding indigo in those areas of the world is a sad one, filled with all the tragedies that accompany slavery and plantation-style agriculture. As for purple, Finlay goes all the way to Tyre, thinking to find the original source of “Tyrian purple,” but fails to do so, heading instead to Mexico, where colonialism almost killed a tradition of creating purple from seashells that are held sacred by the Mixtec, and who care for this source of color more greatly than the Japanese industrialists who almost rendered the species extinct.

As with the case with many nonfiction books, the success of Color rests on its ability to tell a good story while delivering excellent researhc. For the most part, Finlay manages to do so, though it’s not quite so even. In the chapters for black and brown, as I mentioned earlier, Finlay seems unable to find a truly compelling story for these colors and so hops and skips around, going from the cave paintings in Altamira to the Greek legend about the first painting, and from there to the Puritans and back to the Greek legend, and so on. But when she has a compelling story, she uses it successfully: the chapters for ochre and orange are prime examples of this. It really depends on what the reader finds interesting, so reactions to the individual chapters will vary. Fortunately, as I mentioned earlier, the chapters are not connected to each other, so it’s possible for a reader to skip over something without missing out on too much.

Overall, Color: A Natural History of the Palette is an entertaining and interesting read. The research is well-done, and there will be quite a bit here that the reader may find surprising, especially if he or she hasn’t really looked into the origins and histories of the colors discussed. Finlay can tell a good story, but only as long as she has one: if she doesn’t have one, she can get a bit scattered, which may make some readers lose interest and skip on ahead. Doing so, though, would be a pity, because the book as a whole is well-written and organized, and Finlay’s research seems quite sound. Some patience may be required in some parts, but on the whole, it’s worth that patience.

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