Bright Earth: Art and the Invention of Color by Philip Ball

“There are truths which are not for all men, nor for all times.”
— Voltaire

We have officially left the era of the weepy memoir (Drinking, a Love Story, I Hate Me: Memoir of an Angry Young Man in Canton, Ohio, et. al.) and, thanks to the dot-com days when computer geeks with gimlet eyes and pale skin had the need to sound learned and attractive at website launch parties, we have entered the era of all-encompassing “easy” science. We have books on salt, cod, water, the tank, and cryptography; books on everything except color. Well now we’ve got a book about color.

Philip Ball is a scientist who writes for laymen, a kind of Crocodile Hunter for the those less interested in reptiles and more interested in the odd effects of mercury poisoning. In his new book, Bright Earth, he delves into the wilds of artistic color and admits that even he, with his quantitative mind and careful prose, gets a kick out of pretty pictures.

Ball begins with a discussion of early colors, the ochres, yellows, reds, and whites that grace Greek pottery. Although the artists of the time believed that those basic colors were all they needed (each symbolized one of the elements, earth, wind, water, fire), the real reason Greek art was so boring is that they had not yet perfected blue, purple, or plaid.

It was the Romans who later mined azurite which allowed for the manufacture of cheap blue. Byzantine art used the blue to a rich advantage, clothing saints in blue (the color of Mary), bright red (suffering, blood, summer fun) and gilt which was beaten into thin sheets out of Italian ducats. Ball meanders through this history at an easy clip, dedicating much of the half of the book to pre-industrial colors.

Then came purple. Originally almost impossible to manufacture naturally, purple had long been the color of kings. Most early purple was made by squeezing Italian shellfish. However, in 1909, the same chemical in the shellfish dye was discovered in India clinging to the roots of reeds. The substance, called indigo, was used to a create a rich blue in the early years of color, but the chemists of the early 20th century derived a purple that was easy to mass produce. Other industrial dyes and paints followed, allowing for the democratization of color. Generally, anyone who wanted to complete a paint-by-numbers Last Supper wouldn’t have to grind up shellfish and dirt. Instead, they could pick up a smorgasbord of color from the local five-and-dime.

Bright Earth expects a lot of its readers. It’s a thick work full of tangents and an occasional jangle of jargon that pops up like a current of cold water. Ball’s other work also focuses on chemistry, but this one seems to be firmly rooted in the creative side to industrial solvents and dyestuffs. Obviously, the book does not lay lightly on the gut when digested too quickly.

However, those willing to wade through the chapters are in for a few treats. First, Ball’s prose is flip and at times funny. He also features a set of vibrant examples of this science, arrayed like specimens in formaldehyde: early cave art, Renaissance religious scenes, and modern work whose use of color vibrates on the page.

Overall, this book is a good read for an amateur artist or a washed-up reed farmer looking for a way to supplement their income. Stay far away if you don’t want to spoil the secrets of gilt painting and the real source of getting a nice white (think stale urine). Again, like most books of its ilk, Bright Earth is like watching the cook prepare your meal. It shatters the illusion of perfection by letting a you see the messy kitchen instead of the glory of the end product.