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Bright Earth: The Invention of Colour by Philip Ball

Book cover

Bright Earth

Philip Ball’s Bright Earth is a confluence of science, history and art. It explores what colours have been available to artists at different points in history and how their choices have been influenced by availability but also culture mores. The Virgin Mary wearing blue because it was the most expensive colour? Broadly yes and, when you see a medieval depiction using a different colour, you can be fairly certain that it was another pigment worth its weight in gold.

Ball also discusses the ravages of time. Not all colours last as well and most artists have had some appreciation of this and tried to paint works that will survive. It hasn’t always been successful and the chemistry of some paints has let the painters down as centuries have unrolled. Others have been less careful – Van Gogh is a case in point, some of whose paintings were still more vibrant when created with the mere passage of a century or so passed by. Thank heaven’s for digital preservation available to us now, except of course that has issues of what is lost in translating from one system to another.

The greatest weakness of the book is its focus on western art and science. For example, neither China or Japan merit even a mention in the index despite their venerable and colourful history of art. The Japanese prints, which Ball does note inspired Van Gogh and his contemporaries, don’t have any discussion about the trials and tribulations of their pigment science and colouring choices. I was also hoping for a bit more about what goes into the pigments available to me now although I think it is more justifiable not to include that in the scope of what is already a fairly hefty tome.

Above all, the book does make me aware of just what a privileged age I live in. I can order a huge variety of high quality paints which will keep well in storage and last well in use. They might seem expensive but I could invest less than a days wage and get enough to keep me going for much longer. No need to find a wealthy patron to invest in tubes that would have Titian in ecstacy! Despite the shortcomings, this is still a valuable read for those who have history and science and art flowing through them.

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