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Color: A Natural History of the Palette Paperback – December 30, 2003

ISBN-13: 860-1200384826 ISBN-10: 0812971426 Edition: Later Printing

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 448 pages
  • Publisher: Random House Trade Paperbacks; Later Printing edition (December 30, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0812971426
  • ISBN-13: 978-0812971422
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 1 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 13.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (131 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #17,673 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Defining color is a simple matter-visible light of a particular wavelength. Or is it? It turns out that the pigments and dyes responsible for hues have many remarkable characteristics, most of which we rarely ponder. Journalist Finlay's first book is a blend of travelogue and historical exploration about the myriad ways color takes on meaning for us, whether as a matter of aesthetics, economics, war or culture. The book has no overarching theme-it's all byways, an approach that works. Insofar as there is a thesis, it is that visual expression falls just behind procreation and the search for food and shelter as a fundamental human activity; countless peoples, Finlay reports, rank color and art among their primary concerns. During her journey, both literal and literary, Finlay learns of many little-known tribes and historical curiosities: too-trusting Puritans purchasing cheaply dyed black clothes destined to turn orange in a matter of weeks; the rise and heartbreaking fall of the art of the Pintupi tribe in barren central Australia during the 1970s; and the once-supreme economic clout of indigo from Bengal-to take just three examples among dozens. To delve into this book is to see the experimental, scientific side of the old masters and the artistic qualities of inventors and explorers. This is not a scientific work-those interested in rods and cones should look elsewhere. Thanks to Finlay's impeccable reportorial skills and a remarkable degree of engagement, this is an utterly unique and fascinating read. Illus., maps.
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

Journalist Finlay travels the world in search of ancient sources of natural colors, recounting along the way the surprising chemical processes by which everything from stones to insects to mummies have been transformed into precious pigments for paint, dyes, and varnish. In pursuit of art's first color, ochre, Finlay goes to Australia, offering, as she does in each location, an agile and entertaining then-and-now look at a place, a people, and a color and its uses and acquired meaning. Explication of red made from cochineal beetles inspires a compelling tale that stretches from Central America to Scotland, and wry humor abounds in her search for a yellow allegedly once made in India from the urine of mango-leaf-eating cows and coverage of sundry poisonous pigments. Her quest for blue brought Finlay to Afghanistan in 2000, where she was the first woman ever to tour a 7,000-year-old lapis lazuli mine, and one of the last Westerners to see the giant Buddhas of Bamiyan. Curious social mores, serendipitous science, and lots of skulduggery are all part of the rich spectrum Finlay so cheerfully illuminates. Donna Seaman
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

More About the Author

I've just finished a new book that was published in November (2014) by the Getty Museum in LA - called A Brilliant History of Color in Art. At the beginning we thought, oh that won't take much work as I've already written a huge book about Colour. But actually it's involved a whole load of new, (fascinating) research and ideas, and it took AGES to write (mostly between 1am and 6am when I look back at it). It's brilliantly designed, which I can say because I had very little to do with that except to coo with excitement whenever I saw one of the spreads arrive by email. And of course it's packed full of great Getty Museum (and other) images.

I first became fascinated with where colours came from when I was eight, and my father showed me aa stained glass window in Chartres cathedral and explained how the blue glass was made 800 years ago - and we were no longer able to make it. Many years later I gave up my day job as Arts editor at the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong - where I lived for 12 years - to write Color: A Natural History of the Palette. My second book followed in 2005, called Jewels: A Secret History.

In the course of my research, I travelled to the underground opal churches of outback Australia, interviewed retired pearl fishermen in Scotland, crawled through Cleopatra's long-deserted emerald mines, climbed the "blue mountains" of Afghanistan where Michelangelo's ultramarine paint came from, learned about medieval stained glassand tried my hand at gem cutting in the dusty Sri Lankan city where Marco Polo once bartered for sapphires. I moved back to the UK in 2003 and now live near Bath, in southwest England. I divide my time between researching her fourth book (the third was for the World Bank), working for an international environmental charity and writing for various UK and international publications.

The author photo was taken at the Getty when I was there researching in February 2013. I was SO happy to find that case full of pigment samples. The face-painting photo was taken on the Tiwi Islands in Northern Australia where Doreen Tipoulera created the Big Sheep, Little Sheep Dreaming in ochre on my face. I didn't wash it off for hours.And the Afghanistan picture was taken at a house in Sar-e-sang, where miners dynamited for blue. I had just noticed something metallic under the sofa. It was an AK47.

Customer Reviews

Highly recommend to anyone working in color.
Mary Jo
It is a fascinating story of how the author travels from country to country and to continents to discover the origins of color where the minerals came from.
The grandma artist
If you ever had a box of crayolas, love art, or just want a fascinating read - this is the book.
Amazon Customer

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

164 of 181 people found the following review helpful By racapowski VINE VOICE on September 24, 2011
Format: Paperback
Man, oh, man, did I want to love "Color," but it's bogged down by two major problems. The first is that it wants to be not only a) a history of dyes and pigments but also to some extent b) a history of various colors' cultural associations and c) a travelogue, and there just isn't room in this town for all three of those goals. Each chapter ricochets between the histories of several different types of dyeing materials, their cultural histories in their countries of origin, and author Victoria Finlay's modern-day adventures in those locales. Though the book is organized by the spectrum, with each color (plus black, white, and the first dye, ochre) receiving its own chapter, chasing Finlay's competing agendas makes the book overlong and trying to follow. The author just loses the thread too often.

The second is Finlay herself, who makes for a very trying narrator. She has an aggravating tendency to invent elaborate fantasies when facts fail her and expect us to invest in them throughout the chapter, when we just want her to get back to fact. She swears like Mark Twain thought all women did. Her scientific knowledge is lacking and apparently escaped fact-checking (her explanation of why the sky is red at sunset is wrong). Worst, however, is her unabashed colonialism; her globe-hopping quest for color often doubles as a tour of Britain's erstwhile empire, and there's a patronizing quality in Finlay's distanced view of these cultures that suggests a tyranny of low expectations.

Take the chapter on blue, which is in a way the book's strongest because it has a single long-term focus (a journey to a famed lapis lazuli quarry in Afghanistan) but is also one of the most amoral passages I've encountered in nonfiction.
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55 of 60 people found the following review helpful By David B Richman on June 16, 2004
Format: Paperback
This is a joy of a book. Victoria Finlay has taken a subject that is very important, but seldom discussed - namely how did we get the colors used by artists for painting - and wove it into a personal account of her travels to find their sources. In the process she introduces the reader to all manner of exotic and little-known, but delightful facts, peoples and places. From cochineal (I might note here that as an entomologist I was somewhat discouraged by her apparent inability to decide whether to call the source a beetle or a bug- it is a BUG! - the one clinker in an otherwise well done book), through madder as a source of orange, saffron for yellow, and on to lapis lazuli for blue, etc. The book is (as noted) also a personal travel narrative with lots of side trips. I found these to be fascinating and to add interest to a book that might have been a dry compendium of facts about chemicals.

"Color: A Natural History of the Palette" is a good book to curl up with at night or to read on an airplane. The reader will find enough local "color" and interesting tidbits to make the hours very pleasant indeed. This is, I think, especially true of artists who may not know much about the colors they use in their work.
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105 of 120 people found the following review helpful By Mr. DAVID Geer on January 2, 2003
Format: Hardcover
I thoroughly enjoyed this reportage, where Victoria tracks down the origns of so many colours I knew from my childhood paintbox and later days with an aniline dyestuff manufacturer. However good the book is, and I highly recommend this to anyone interested in colourants and their origins, I was left wanting upto date Part 2 please, to answer the questions that were left unanswered such as, "Is the lack of vivid bright orange just a reaction to the 60' & 70's overuse or is it still the case that cadmium orange (which does not get a mention) has not been replaced with anything quite as powerful? and what are the colours we now use in our paint boxes, wallpapers and so on?"
Why am I posing these questions, well Victoria is just the person to tell us auhtoritatively & accurately. I only had a few quibbles with the entire 400+ pages, one was an editor's slip that allowed India to be separated into Bangladesh, India & Pakistan in 1947! Which I am sure the author knows was not quite the instant route it seems (first it was the eastern half of the division known as Pakistan i.e. East Pakistan which then separated in 1971 I believe from West Pakistan and became Bangladesh). Another was the rather simlplistic way she refers to chemical formulas, yes of course AsS is a combination of 1 molecule each of arsenic & sulphur whereas As2S3 combines in the ratio of 2:3, however whether this means in fact the latter is any more poisonous than the former can not be assumed from the chemical formula....if I remember my chemistry correctly you need to understand which is more soluble in water or most readily adsorbed in the stomach (a solution of HCl I believe). If the author has confirmed this it was not clear from the text and copiuous and excellent notes.
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29 of 31 people found the following review helpful By C. B Collins Jr. on March 20, 2006
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
In some ways, this little book is hard to explain. Finlay is an excellent writer and thus much of the book is her exotic travels to seek the source of exotic colors from around the world. However, she also explores the history of certain pigments, paints, dyes, and other products. She also gives very interesting details on the production of these pigments,some of which required considerable costs and effort. Finally she gives interesting information about the pigment or product itself, focusing on various chemical properties, such as whether or not it is a poison or is light fast.

I enjoyed her early chapters on the production of paint, ranging all the way from ancient Roman encaustic painting, the hand ground pigments of the Renaissance, and the birth of more standardized paint products during the Industrial revolution.

It is fitting that Finlay starts her discussion with ocre, the most common of the dirt colors, which has given us such a broad range of tones through the centuries.

In her chapters on Black and Brown, we learn the origins of charcoal, pencil, and ink drawing instruements. In her chapter on White, we learn the terrible history of lead poisoing for those who wore White Lead makeup. In the chapter on Red we learn all about the cochineal beetle, that eats cactus, and has brilliant red blood - the color often called Carmen. We learn of other reds, such as Rose Madder, made from rose petals. Oranges may come from various plant sources and show up in varnish. We hear of brilliant yellows from the urine of cows fed mango leaves, or brilliant but poisonous greens - one of which is suspected of poisoning Napoleon with arsnic infused wallpaper.

Finlay goes to Afganistan to seek lapis blue and has some interesting tales to tell about the Taliban.
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