Customer Reviews: Color: A Natural History of the Palette
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VINE VOICEon September 24, 2011
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. Finlay reacts with nothing but annoyed confusion when Britain won't assist her in getting a visa (what do you mean, you don't recognize the Taliban as a legitimate government? What did they ever do to YOU?). Ultimately, she has to hitch a ride with a humanitarian organization that distributes clothes and stable currency dearly needed by Afghanistan's citizens; "irritated," Finlay expresses "fervent" hope that "[my ride] was not the cash van." A local professor is whipped by the Taliban for aiding her quest, but she cheerfully shrugs the incident off. She passes a girl's "school" devoid of books with students shrouded in burqas and praises it as "part of an idle dream"; burqas, after all, only "increase flirting." She then muses that the Taliban did the world a favor by blowing up the Buddhas of Bamiyan - they "reminded so many people in so many countries that nothing lasts forever." Because, y'know, Buddhism is all about impermanence, so why you gotta be so ungrateful, Buddhists?

Finlay wants us to think her journey daring and romantic, but I found it revoltingly vain and ignorant and just couldn't sign on to her idea that's it's OK - charmingly quaint, even - for Afghans to suffer abuse, because, you know, that's just what those people _do._ In her trips to Britain's former possessions, Finlay resembles an overbearing parent who insists on infantilizing her adult children; she visits to give her magnaminous blessing, unaware that they're grown up and don't need Mom (and, indeed, never needed "Mom" in the first place).

Chronicling a primal force greater than mankind with a universal sweep calls for a certain humility that's outside Finlay's wheelhouse; she wants to make it about the cars she drove, the mochaccinos she drank - her succulent, wild escapades with the wacky ol' Taliban. There's good in "Color" (a trek through an increasingly desolate outback for Aboriginal ochre; a quest for a legendary shade of green used in Chinese imperial pottery that has an odd payoff), but to access it, you have to approach the book in a different way that the author intended. Instead of as a definitive history of the development of the Western spectrum, see it as sort of a gestalt, a succession of smaller stories from around the world about certain uses of color that paint a larger picture (like Roger Deakin's excellent "Wildwood," if you've ever read that).

You also have to overcome the narrator's formidable obnoxiousness, and if that proves impossible for you, you have my sympathy.

(Note: A bit has been made of Finlay supposedly solving the mystery of the origins of Indian yellow, previously thought to have been derived from cattle urine but of dubious provenance. I have my doubts; Finlay lost her translator and went into India's state of Bihar alone, completely unable to speak the language and able to ask about the origins of the dye only in the most rudimentary terms. What I'm saying is: scientific breakthroughs are rarely made by those whose only means of communication are pissing noises.)
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on June 16, 2004
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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on January 2, 2003
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. Lead as usual gets a poor press, it would have been nice to see it labelled as harmless until compounds are airborne and/or actually disolved. Lastly I really enjoyed reading about FDA "enforced inks" (as in tattoo inks. In my days of permitted food & cosmetic colours the term was "FDA Approved", however the process of approval and batch certification would no doubt be viewed as enforcement by many I suspect!
Please don't let my minor quibbles spoil a interesting, unique and very accurate book which I found a delight to read and one I look forward to re-reading, somehting I hardly ever do - life is too short!

Hope this helps
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on March 20, 2006
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. She ends with Indigo and Violet to complete the spectrum.

Interesting reading, relaxed and tangential at times, but well researched and factual; every studio art and art history student should read it.
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Since I am such a visual person and an aspiring globe trekker to boot, the idea of a book about color - not how to use it but how it has evolved over time and from sources often faraway - fascinates me. British journalist Victoria Finlay doesn't let me down with her exhaustive, entertaining tome, as she explores the physical and historical makeup of colors, as well as the social and political meanings that different hues have come to represent. While I realize color has taken on certain significance in other cultures, what Finlay does here in a most compelling and conveniently consolidated fashion is open my eyes to how inextricably connected color is to people and that they value. Chapters are broken down by color - ocher, black, brown, white, red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet - and each has a vivid history beyond what stimulates the eye, even through its symbolism causing death.

The author has literally traveled the world to find these connections and unearth their histories, and she has come up with a treasure trove of stories and anecdotes that will make you look twice at colors you have taken for granted, even explaining common color-oriented imagery we use every day. For example, Finlay shares with us that bureaucratic "red tape" literally comes from ribbons dipped in a safflower-red dye that were used to tie bundles of legal documents in England. She is also quite the adventurer, as her travels took her to Afghanistan to the Sar-e-Sang mine three days after the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar fell in 2002. Prized by Osama bin Laden, the purest blue lapis on earth comes from this area, and ground to powder and mixed with oils, it renders the perfect azure of the sea, the Virgin Mary's robes, or heaven. Finlay can come across as quite the renaissance person, as she shows why red ocher is sacred among Australian Aborigines, then jumps quickly over to Renaissance Italy to muse on the unique blood-orange varnish that Stradivarius used to anoint his violins.

Some facts she presents are just interesting trivia - that carmine is made from the blood of cochineal beetles harvested on plantations in Chile, and today used as an additive in cosmetics, soft drinks, paint and many other products; or that the remains of Egyptian mummies produced a brown pigment called appropriately mommia, or "mummy" back in the 19th century but now has been superseded by what can be extracted by a lump of coal tar. But toward the end of the book, Finlay is understandably melancholy when she visits "Color King" Lawrence Herbert, whose New Jersey company, the well-known art-supply standby Pantone, has catalogued more than 15,000 shades of basic colors. But Herbert reveals sadly he's in the process of replacing his vivid color descriptions like barn red and sulphur spring with a generic, functional numbering system. The transition does indeed take the life out of the colors, but at least through Finlay's comprehensive study, the reader will discover stories of corruption and murder commensurate with any Shakespeare play and hopefully reawaken to their possibilities.
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on April 6, 2010
As a graphic designer and color enthusiast I was excited to dig into this book. The actual text however is 80% personal minutia detailing to the author's attempt to find relevant content to put into her book. Actual color history is very scanty. Overall, I found the book to be longwinded and self-indulgent--but most important, and it didn't deliver on its promise.

This book is not dissimilar to an Anthony Bourdain TV episode: "I'm riding in the taxi... it's a hot day... there's something playing on the radio... The taxi weaves in and out of traffic... We're going to meet X person... Will X person be able to tell me anything useful?... I'm nervous about meeting X person... I walk up a long narrow staircase to X person's office... " And so on... on and on and on. Again personal journaling comprises the vast majority of the content. If that's what you're looking for, great. But if you're looking for "A Natural History of the Palette"... not so much.
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on March 18, 2004
This is a book about writing a book about colors. The actual color information often gets lost in the oh-so-charming stories of how she researched the information. The author has a fine eye for the "telling detail." And often that's all you get - a string of telling details, without a backbone. And when she wanders off into "I like to imagine that..." I just want to throw the book across the room.
I think it's a fantastic idea for a book. And if it had more substance and less chatter, it would be a fantastic book.
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on September 12, 2004
The materials of art class I took at Berkley in the 60's, (Was the professor named Weber?), started a fascination with colors for me. I think that Findlay's book might do the same for others. It is both scholarly, and well written. She follows the trail of ultramarine blue by driving and hiking through warring Afghanistan to the mines high in the wild hills, and Tyrian purple from Tyre, around the Mediterranean to Mexico to England to find how sea snails can create two glorious purples. "Color" reads like a travelogue.

2 suggestions for later editions:

1. More color plates

2.The footnotes should have been at the foot of each page to make it easier for us to enjoy them in context.
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on January 24, 2005
I am a professional painter who is interested in the history of color. Victoria's book gives insight into the full spectrum. It gave me the presence of mind to look at my palette different and question what colors I used on a daily basis. It also made me think of the archival ness of my pigments and who will appreciate this in 200 years. This book is fact, fiction and fun. I would recommend this for every professional oil painter who takes their craft seriously, and any enthusiast who likes a good tale.
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on March 11, 2008
I am very interested in the subject of pigments and color and was disappointed at how tedious this book is. I'm not interested in the characters she meets in her travels. I'm not interested in her fantasies about what ancient people might have been like (or what their love life was like!).
I want to know about the history of pigments and paints. I want to know how one sort of pigment gave way to another or how it was improved or even how tastes shifted from one favorite to another...advantages and disadvantages of different pigments. This book has some of that (buried in travel anecdotes), but when those sorts of topics come up, she quotes "The Art Forgers Handbook" again and again. Seems like that's the book I really wanted.
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