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Bright EarthReview - Bright Earth
Art and the Invention of Color
by Philip Ball
Farrar Straus & Giroux, 2002
Review by April Chase
Mar 15th 2003 (Volume 7, Issue 11)

The world is a brightly colored place, full of variations, shading and patterns. All the hues of the color wheel surround us – blue sky, brown earth, green leaves, red sunset. Just about everybody has a favorite color, and color can even symbolize who we are; brides wear white and widows wear black and Buddhist monks wear saffron-colored robes. But what is color, actually? What makes it? Why does it affect our emotions? Why do artists show color like they do? These are but a few of the questions that Philip Ball tackles in this impressively broad work.

Color, Ball tells us, is not a universal concept. Different cultures perceive and label colors in different ways. The color wheel, with its blue-red-yellow primary base, is a relatively modern invention, courtesy of Isaac Newton. The ancient Greeks thought of color as a linear spectrum with white at one end and black at the other. Although this seems at first a minor sort of difference – after all, does it really matter in what order colors are arranged? – it really means that they saw the world in a whole different way. Their primary color words were light and dark, and there was little linguistic distinction between words that nowadays are very different, like black and blue. Blue was considered a variant of black; if black was dark, blue was sort of a medium-dark. Therefore, when searching ancient texts for hints about their art forms, it is difficult to form an accurate impression.

And that, however strange to us, is one of the more easily surmountable cases. "Some languages have only three or four color terms," Ball writes, citing Hanunoo, spoken by a tribe in the Philippines, which "has four color terms: 'dark' and 'light,' which we can equate readily enough with black and white, but also 'fresh' and 'dry' (insofar as they can be matched with English words at all). Some prefer to ally these two with green and red, but they seem to allude to texture as much as hue. There is no Hanunoo word meaning 'color.'"

Even words we think we clearly understand have evolved over time, Ball notes. Scarlet, for instance, once referred to a particular type of cloth that was often dyed red, then evolved to mean the color later. And the word "miniature," which most people believe has to do with smallness, like minimum and miniscule, is actually from a wholly different root word, "miniare," which means to mix. Early paintings called 'miniatures' may have been any size; the writer referred to the technique with which the paint was prepared.

Ball's work hits upon the use of color in society in general, with mention of textile dyes, house paints and other industrial and practical usages, but he is fundamentally concerned with color use by artists. However, he cautions that the function of the artist has changed over time, as has the cultural role of art, and the materials and methods available. In the middle ages, the artist was a craftsman. "The artist was valued not for his imagination, passion, or inventiveness but for his ability to do a workmanlike job."

Likewise, color was not necessarily supposed to look lifelike. Early paintings, which dealt almost exclusively with religious themes, were usually commissioned by wealthy patrons, who would give the artist specific instructions on which materials to use. By using the most expensive materials in the largest possible areas, the patron's great wealth and piety were made apparent to all, even if that meant that the sky turned out gold. The paintings were also limited somewhat by the number of pigments available to the artists.

"That the invention and availability of new chemical pigments influenced the use of color in art is indisputable," Ball writes. The industrial revolution and subsequent advances in science yielded many new colors for artists, and more hues meant more artistic possibilities. By the eighteenth century, art had been elevated from trade to profession, a respectable academic sort of career. Then, a new breed of artists, "painters whose priorities were neither commercial nor academic," began to emerge. "Among the inventions of the nineteenth century – aspirin, plastics, the laws of thermodynamics – is the image of the artist as a lone, misunderstood genius." These artists explored new subjects – everyday life, landscape – using bold new colors in ways that simply, technologically were not possible in earlier eras, eventually giving rise to the multitude of abstract, color-based art forms seen today.

These new colors were not without their hazards, though, and Ball devotes considerable discussion to those risks. Earlier paints degraded over time, too – especially if improperly mixed or if the artist purchased inferior materials from unscrupulous dealers. However, the old paints were often relatively non-complex mixtures that had centuries of testing and tradition behind them. The new colors were placed on the market by merchants eager to start reaping their financial rewards, often with little or no testing – and many artists learned the hard way that they disintegrated or changed color quite rapidly. Some paintings were completely ruined, whereas some just developed oddly colored areas, such as the bluish leaves left behind when the yellow pigment in a green mixture faded. Aging, pollution and restoration or repainting also may alter how a painting looks. Therefore, we must use a certain amount of caution in evaluating paintings from the distant past: Were they really prone to using dark, bland colors, or have the pigments faded? Is that the original face or the "improvement" of a later restorer?

Finally, he deals with the modern proliferation of computers, sophisticated photography equipment, and new, constantly improving technology. How will the artists and students of the future view our techniques?

Ball presents many fascinating facts about painting and color, and provides lots of food for thought in regard to how and why we perceive colors and art like we do, how their purpose has changed over time, and why the whole question is important, anyway. Although the book is quite technical in parts  - especially the chapter that discusses what color is, which gets into light refraction and molecules and the structure of the human eye – it is lightened by witty touches throughout. There are excellent color reproductions of many of the paintings discussed in the text, and an extensive index with plenty of notes for further information, making the book a useful research tool. The frequent mention of color words and artistic vocabulary will make Bright Earth just as fascinating for the linguistically inclined as for students of art. This book is sure to become a classic in the field of color research. Recommended!



© 2003 April Chase


 April Chase is a freelance journalist and book reviewer who lives in Western Colorado. She is a regular contributor to a number of publications, including The Business Times of Western Colorado and Dream Network Journal.


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