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Bright Earth: Art and the Invention of Color Paperback – April 15, 2003

4.2 out of 5 stars 29 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

The making of a painting relies on inspiration, craft, practice, and vision. But, observes the noted science writer Philip Ball, it also hinges on science: "For as long as painters have fashioned their visions and dreams into images, they have relied on technical knowledge and skill to supply their materials."

In this lively study, Ball examines some of the tools and materials that chemists have added to the palette over the centuries. He also takes his readers on a learned tour of what science has taught us about vision, the nature of light, and the physical and cultural factors that condition our perceptions of color (the ancient Romans, he notes, had no term for brown or gray, but that does not mean they didn't use earth pigments in their work). Whether writing of matters scientific or artistic, Ball is a technologist but not a determinist. In the end, he writes, art depends not on science but on artists, and "each artist makes his or her own contract with the colors of the time."

Readers with an interest in science, art, and the crossroads where they meet will relish Ball's erudite travels across the spectrum of light. --Gregory McNamee --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

British science popularizer Ball (Stories of the Invisible; Life's Matrix) is part of the excellent new breed of explainers who produce imaginative and vivid prose in magazines like Nature and New Scientist. With academic degrees in chemistry and physics, Ball is also coordinator of an offbeat theater company called Homunculus. Here he applies his considerable energies to the study of how color developed in art and science from ancient history to the present. He has clearly spent time looking at art, and his range over these 14 chapters encompasses prehistory, Tintoretto and Gauguin. What painters have produced over time, Ball shows, has always been connected to the colors available to them. Major styles of painting, from the Venetian Renaissance to French impressionism, can be associated with innovations in pigment manufacture. Scientific discoveries, business imperatives and the history of art are all linked via colors on the painter's palette. In an intriguing chapter on the color in art restorations, for example, he notes, "I have often felt mystified at why Van Gogh's `Sun Flowers' 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 ochres were once bright." Boasting a full and useful bibliography, this book even ventures some predictions about artists' use of color in the future, such as "pigments that change hue as we change our viewing angle." Readers will find the pigments here bright, varied and attractive. (Feb.)Forecast: A good bet for the scientifically inclined who want a grounded entry point to the arts, this book will also stretch out to art fans who want writing well-versed in art's physical bases. It's a rare example of a crossover study where an author really seems to grasp both domains.

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 382 pages
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press (April 15, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0226036286
  • ISBN-13: 978-0226036281
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.3 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.5 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (29 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #288,470 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
Philip Ball presents us with the thesis that the coloring materials available to painters have constrained and inspired them down through the whole history of Western art, and that understanding how each of those materials appeared, and how artists and their patrons received them, has a surprising degree of explanatory power.
He amply supports this modest thesis. But fortunately for the reader, he is less interested in pushing a point than in telling a story. It's also a stroke of our good fortune that he rambles as he tells it. Ball is first of all an accomplished science writer, but his interests are very wide. Yes, he tells us all we need to know about the physics of light, and the inorganic and organic chemistry that have made the painter's palette steadily more vibrant with the passing centuries. He also gives us the technology behind the colors, and with this book as a key one might, if one had to, reconstruct many of the most important, and often closely guarded, color recipes of the ancients and the Old Masters. But he also limns the rise and fall of many of the strongest currents in Western art; painting's interaction with religion and commerce, and how its schools rose and fell and squabbled. Nor does he neglect philology; I loved learning where all those strange names on the tubes of oil paint come from.
The secret life of pigments is a rich subject, of which Ball has clearly made himself a master. Fascinating facts and boldly drawn connections tumble after one another, and there's not a single ounce of padding anywhere.
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Format: Hardcover
Bright Earth: Art and the Invention of Color by Philip Ball is an amazing mix of color, art, chemistry, and mineralogy. Ball takes the reader on a field trip through the history of pigments and the paintings painted with them, with a strong emphasis on the chemistry that he knows well. The underlying thesis of the book is that the pigments available at a particular moment in history had a strong influence on the art made with them and, based on extensive empirical evidence presented in the book, I would say that Ball has made his case. If you aren't prepared for large amounts of well-written detail, stay away from this book. As a geologist turned high school chemistry and earth science teacher with a love of art, I found much to like about Bright Earth. My only complaint is that the book makes mention of hundreds of works of art, but only presents pictures of a small precentage of them. This book would benefit from a coffee table-type treatment with a more extensive gallery of the mentioned works of art. That said, the book is far enough past 4 stars to give it a full 5.
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Format: Hardcover
In BRIGHT EARTH, Philip Ball says, in the early 20th Century, Louis Vauxcelles, the art critic, on viewing Florentine-inspired sculptures standing in the midst of an exhibit of paintings that included the works of Matisse, Kandinsky, Braque, and others of their ilk is reported to have said, "Look, Donatello in a cage of wild beasts" (dans la cage aux fauves)--giving this group of artists the sobriquet by which they are known. Vauxcelles comment was prompted by his reaction to what he perceived to be an enthusiastic use of colors. Ball says the Fauvists were inspired by Van Gogh and Gauguin--the late impressionists, and in turn they inspired Picasso and the modern art movement of the 20th Century which Ball says was largely driven by color.
I had read Vauxcelles' comment elsewhere, but in Ball's retelling, the quip makes complete sense. The cages are the framed canvases. The colors are wild like the exotic beasts brought to Europe from faraway places. These colors were virtually unknown before the late 19th Century and the rise of the petrochemical industry. Like Van Gogh and Gauguin before and Picasso after the Fauvists used these pigments in unnatural ways.
Generally, art histories divert one into a discussion about lighting, atmosphere, iconography, brush stokes, or composition. Color is discussed but usually as an adjunct or afterthought. In BRIGHT EARTH, color IS the organizing principle--and it makes all the difference. The light in Monet's boating scene bounces off the water because the waves are composed of tiny flecks of violet and yellow. Van Gogh's Sunflowers have the tone they do because he liked to experiment with color and he used an unstable lemon-yellow pigment that has deteriorated over time.
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Format: Hardcover
I was able to get a review copy of "Bright Earth" and found it a remarkable book. I have been a painter for over 20 years, but only after reading this book do I feel that I have begun to grasp not only the crucial role of color in art, but also the remarkable scientific and cultural aspects of color.
In particular, I now understand how 19th century breakthroughs in color science were crucial to Modern Art.
The pages of this book hold one revelation after another... you won't skip a chapter.
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