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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
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
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.
© 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.