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Bright Earth: Art and the Invention of Color

Bright Earth: Art and the Invention of Color

by Philip Ball
384 pages
Full-color illustrations throughout
© 2002 Farrar, Straus & Giroux
ISBN: 0-374-11679-2

"That the invention and availability of new chemical pigments influenced the use of color in art is indisputable."

- Philip Ball in Bright Earth

In Bright Earth: Art and the Invention of Color author Philip Ball lifts the conceptual blinders of our time -- blinders arising from the fact that our paints come prepackaged, ready in a kaleidoscope of enduring synthetic color at the nearest art supply shop -- to reintroduce the heritage of our artistic forerunners, and the important idea that the materials available to artists affect the art they are able to make, and have done so since Neolithic man melded powdered hematite to binder to paint horses and bison on the interiors of caves. Bright Earth is a chemistry lesson, a history of art, a bestiary of color: and most of all, a worthwhile work bound to engage both the professional and the layman. It reveals that the pigments of art themselves have as complex a history as the art from which they are made, and indeed, influence subtly and thoroughly the art which can be made.

At its most basic level, Bright Earth studies the 'stuff' of color, the real-life, physical medium daubed from palette to canvas to satisfy an artistic intent. Howard Becker states in his sociological study of art-making, Art Worlds:

"Making art works of any kind requires resources. What resources depends on the medium and the kind of work being made in it... As artists contemplate the making of a work, they think about where and how they can get such resources. Are such resources available at all? Does anyone make that material? Are there any people trained to do what I want done? ...Whether artists need specialized materials that no one else has any use for, or whether they can use standard materials easily available, affects the work they do. What materials are available, and on what terms, depends on the way the society organizes productive economic activity."

Becker's question "Are such resources available at all?" describes the crux of Philip Ball's study. Paints and pigments were for centuries the by-products of industrial applications or industrial chemistry; thus, the technological accomplishments of the time limited the materials available to the artist. Ball notes:

"The chemical technology that existed for color making in ancient times was not developed specifically for that purpose. The necessary ingredients and skills were fostered by more prosaic crafts, such as glassmaking, pottery glazing, and soap manufacture. In other words, pigment manufacture in antiquity was an offshoot of a large and thriving chemical industry that transformed raw materials into the substances needed for daily life. ...this situation obtains throughout the ages: pigment manufacture has been made both economically viable and technologically possible because of its embedding in a much larger landscape. Art speaks to the spirit but feeds on the mundane."

To state it another way, you cannot handle portions of your palette without fear of poisoning if the industrial revolution has not yet forced development of an alternative to lead white (the sole white pigment from Egyptian times to the 1800's, whose toxicity became an extreme problem when mass-production became the norm); nor can you slosh gallon cans of housepaint across a mural-sized canvas if the changing demands of commerce have not yet brought housepaint into being.

"The reds, oranges, purples, and greens
of William Holman Hunt's Valentine Rescuing
Sylvia from Proteus
(1850-1851) belong
emphatically to the new era of color chemistry."
-- Bright Earth

In dealing with this topic -- technology as pigment -- Bright Earth delves into historic chemistry, trade, industry, even linguistics as it tracks the development of pigments through the ages, and how their industrial origins, provenance, quality, availability, price, toxicity, and aesthetic value modeled their histories as individual substances and the art which could be made from them. Skillfully knit into a narrative, these create a multidimensional experience, a fascinating glimpse into pigment history antique and modern. Bright Earth discusses chemical compositions and the reactions creating and degrading the pigments; the language roots of pigments' common names (crimson and carmine, for example, both come from kermes, "from the Sanskrit word kirmidja, 'derived from a worm' " as the red compound was originally "extracted from a wingless scale insect"). The book also describes specific colors through time (lake colors in antiquity; traditional blues in the Middle Ages; the switch to oils in the Renaissance); the effect of dyestuffs and the textile industry on the dyeing trade, and thus, on painting; the creation of the first synthetic pigments; the 20th-century appropriation by artists of household paints, whose gallon quantities and flowing textures permitted the likes of Jackson Pollock's (1912-56) splatter works; and much more.

Bright Earth goes on to note what the artist has done with these materials down through time and why, discussing the intents and values involved in the creation of a work, and the palette considered 'appropriate' for the time. As an example, the Middle Ages: though the painter of the time had a number of blue pigments available from both mineral and plant sources (ultramarine, azurite, indigo, and woad -- of varying costs and qualities), "To use ultramarine [the most expensive] was not only to display wealth but -- more important in the sacred works of the Middle Ages -- to confer virtue on the painting." Blue was both "symbol and substance" (both the qualities it embodied in sacred art, and the extreme expense of it as a pigment). Its very preciousness glorified God. By the Renaissance, ultramarine had a more secular aspect: its preciousness was paean to, and symbol of, the deep pockets of the patron commissioning the work. In the mid-1800's the first synthetic ultramarine was developed, costing 100 to 2,500 times less than the 'real thing,' a significant impact on the artist's choice as delineated by his pocketbook -- "By the 1870s, artificial ultramarine was the standard blue for painters." The distinction of "substance" (precious, expensive) vanished, but the "symbol" remained, as exemplified in the quest of Yves Klein (1928-62), "attracted by something more abstract, an idea of blueness that would draw the viewer beyond any superficial splendor," which led to the development and patenting of International Klein Blue in 1960.

The above is a mere glimpse into the multitude of pigment histories to be found in the book. Red, gold, purple, blue and other colors are discussed in depth as individual hues and as the pigments used to create them in art: organic and inorganic, mineral- and plant-sourced, alkyd and acrylic. Bright Earth also affords a significant art history lesson as painters and their palettes are explored, in terms of their artistic visions and in conjunction with the available art materials of their times.

In addition to a lively discussion of pigments, the book notes that not only do available technology and prevailing aesthetics influence the work which can be made, they continue to affect the work once it is done. Chemical pigments continue to be 'living' substances long after a painting is complete, experiencing degradation and photosynthetic reactions "as greens darken to black and reds fade to pink," or in the case of Mark Rothko's (1903-70) Harvard murals, where the "dark pink and crimson...have turned light blue." Of van Gogh's (1853-90) Sunflowers, Ball comments:

"I have often felt mystified at why van Gogh's Sun Flowers (sic) commands such high regard -- it seems a drab, lackluster piece, uncharacteristic of the artist. But that is because we are not seeing what the artist painted. Those dirty ochers were once bright, but the pigment (chrome yellow) has degraded over time, and we are left with a shadow of the true painting."

Not only time may cheat us of the artist's vision: even well-meant restorative efforts can alter and distort. In a description of 19th-century 'restoration' performed on Cosimo Tura's (c. 1430-95) Allegorical Figure (painted c. 1459-1463), Ball alerts us to "extensive repainting," and the application of a brown-tinted varnish to bring the lively painting into alignment with muted tastes of the time.

"Jan van Huysum's Flowers
in a Terracotta Vase
seems to depict strange blue leaves.
They were once green, but the
yellow lake has faded." -- Bright Earth

The knowledge in Bright Earth is thus, in addition to an education in chemistry and the material aspects of the artist's craft, an invitation to a more educated detective's eye when viewing art works. What colors did the artist choose, and why? What pigments were available at the time, and which did the artist choose, and why? To what extent have time and handling retained the 'truth' of the original colors? How accurately does what we see depict the artist's vision? Beginning to ask such questions, artist and art lover can bring a new and interesting understanding to reviewing a favorite piece, ancient or modern.

Capping the discussion of color in its many guises, Bright Earth includes chapters on the physics of light and color; on man's attempt to develop various theories and organizational patterns of color; on color as language, speaking to man through his senses; and, digressing a little on the theme of pigments and painting, but still well within the realm of art, on the development of color in printing and reproduction, photography, and in modern technology such as digital color.

It is fortunate that a book so rich with information is also a pleasure to read. Philip Ball's talent is to provide organized knowledge and to make it interesting, to both layman and professional. As noted in his biography for Nature (http://www.nature.com/nsu/profiles/aboutus.html) (Ball is a consultant editor), he has written other "scientific books for the lay reader" and in 2001 received an award for Best Communication of Science in a Non-Science Context. In Bright Earth, chapter subheadings help organize material; lively quotes open each chapter, providing a bit of witty gilding and additional interest to the text. As a practical reference, the book includes a comprehensive notes section, and a bibliography; its final version (this review is of an advance copy) is, according to the table of contents, to also include an index (one hopes for artists, art works, and pigments all listed by name). The finished book is also to be furnished with full-color illustrations.

By recalling the chemical and technical knowledge essential to artists of other times, simply to have the raw materials with which to paint (never mind subject, composition, skill!), and placing such information in its context sociologically and aesthetically, Bright Earth restores knowledge which is as essential to the appreciation of a painting as the understanding of its historical period or symbolism. Whether the work in question is a Lascaux bison, a Rembrandt, a Pollock, or a print of Sunflowers, Bright Earth invites us to examine its heritage of pigments, the 'stuff' of which it is made; it opens one's eyes to the "living world" on the museum and gallery walls. A rich mix of practical chemistry, physics, history, art history, sociology, and artistic detective work, Bright Earth offers a world of understanding in a compact, well-written package.

Bright Earth: Art and the Invention of Color will be released in February 2002 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

Author's Addendum:
For this review we were privileged to have an advance copy of an uncorrected proof, which, though textually complete, did not include illustrations. Bright Earth, as finally published, exceeds expectations. In addition to numerous black and white illustrations throughout the text (e.g., color wheels; the visual system of the human eye; the layers in photographic film; etc.), the book includes 66 plates in lavish color, most of them of works of art illustrating and illuminating comments in the text. These plates have the additional pleasure of subtitles which, in explaining, enhance one's understanding of what the eye is perceiving. Two selections from the finished book have been added to this review. -- KRL, February 28, 2002.

--Katherine Rook Lieber

Katherine Rook Lieber has edited ArtScope.net's Visual and Performing Arts reviews since 1998. Ms. Lieber is Editor and Associate Producer for ArtScope.net.

Editorial Note: Books mentioned in www.artscope.net reviews may be purchased through this site's Amazon.com link. All quotes, unless otherwise identified, are from the reviewed book itself. Howard S. Becker is quoted from Art Worlds (University of California Press:1982), an analysis of the social organization of art and its making.

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