- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 28, 2002

By Philip Ball
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $30, 382 pages, illus.

Most of us, I suspect, when we view paintings in museums and galleries, take note of colors on canvases, but give little thought to what went into developing the multihued pigments before us. There is, in fact, a long history of collaboration between chemists and artists in the evolution of colors and their use in aesthetic endeavors.
The story is told in occasionally exhaustive detail in this fascinating book. In "Bright Earth: Art and the Invention of Color," exploring a relatively overlooked aspect of cultural history, Philip Ball delineates the role of technology in the creation of pigments and dyes and their influence on painting in particular, but also on fashion, merchandising and the chemical and textile industries. In examining the symbiotic manner in which technology and artists' uses of color have shaped advances in both fields, Mr. Ball suggests that "art is more of a science and science is more of an art than is commonly appreciated on either side of the fence."
Mr. Ball, an Englishman who trained in chemistry and physics and has written books on subjects ranging from chemistry and molecules to the saga of water, is well suited to the task. He brings to the project a thorough knowledge of the history of chemistry and a passion for fine art.
Given his scientific background, Mr. Ball underscores how little attention has been paid to ways in which artists obtained their colors, as opposed to how they used them. Neglect of this material aspect of the artist's craft is part of that little studied aspect of art history the artist's aesthetic preoccupations and place in history.
The book is filled with quotations from both famous and obscure sources. To amplify his points, Mr. Ball invokes the likes of Pliny, Rene Descartes, Isaac Newton, Goethe, and Friedrich Nietzsche, along with a string of European scientists whose names will be familiar to only a few readers. Some 60 well chosen reproductions of key works, in apparently accurate colors, help illustrate the text. They run the gamut from Spanish cave art dating to 15,000 B.C. to an Anish Kapoor painting of 1981. Inexplicably, the collections from which they were drawn helpful information for many reasons are not cited.
The book includes useful sections devoted to the history of man's passion for purple, problems in developing hues of blue, the degrading effects of time and environment on paint colors, and the dangers and rewards of various techniques for cleaning and restoring canvases. Examining the effects of the "democratization of art" through distribution of color reproductions of varying quality, Mr. Ball observes that "People now go to galleries not just to become informed about what artists have done but also to worship at the feet of familiar images."
The author's chronological treatment makes clear that for as long as artists have sought to turn their ideas and dreams into images, they have relied on techinical knowledge to provide their materials.
From the art of ancient Greece and Rome through the glories of the Renaissance to the breakthroughs of the Impressionists and on to the heady evolution of Modernism and beyond, technical especially chemical advances have played key roles in supplying new and more sophisticated ranges of colors to answer the insatiable demands of artists.
Up until the 18th century, most painters ground and mixed their own pigments, developing of necessity considerable skills as practical chemists. Painterly colors, we learn, have come from an astonishing array of sources: The purple of Imperial Rome emanated from shellfish; baroque painters utilized crushed beetles for red hues; Indian yellow was made from cows' urine, and Peruvian guano supplied the raw material for 19th-century purple dyes.
Systematic chemical production of color came of age in the early-19th century, animating the precise, glowing canvases of the British Pre-Raphaelites and the avant-garde pictures of the French Impressionists and Fauves. By the end of that century, the rise of the chemical sciences and respect for their products led painters to rely heavily on "colormen" to provide pigments for their work. Because some of these products were less than reliable, "the colors of some works of that period have weathered less well than the jewel-like fifteenth century paintings of Jan van Eyck."
The chapters devoted to color technology in antiquity, such as discussions of Greek and Roman art, and progressing through the roles of alchemists, monks and tradespeople in medieval times will be slow going for many readers. A sprinkling of factoids help move things along. Examining the special appeal of purple through the ages, Mr. Ball observes that "in the third century A.D., a pound of purple-dyed wool cost around three times the yearly wage of a baker."
Things pick up with the onset of oil painting in the Renaissance, with examinations of the color predilections of the Old Masters. Among those highlighted: Michelangelo, Caravaggio, Raphael and Leonardo da Vinci.
Jan van Eyck (c. 1390-14441), the esteemed Dutch painter, emerges as something of a hero for discovering how to release the true potential of oil-based paints. According to Mr. Ball, he "rescued oil painting from its unappealing reputation" as too slow drying, paving the way for the achievements of the Italian High Renaissance. "By building up layers of oil glazes, van Eyck produced saturated, jewel-like colors that look as sensuous today as they must have seemed at the time."
About a century later, Titian (c. 1490-1576) created "Bacchus and Ariadne" (1523), which Mr. Ball says "includes almost every pigment known to the sixteenth century." A master of color, Titian "knew how to extract the best from his materials." Even to jaded 21st-century eyes, the illustration of this masterpiece looks terrific.
In the age of the baroque, starting in the 17thh century, sobriety and control in color choices predominated in European art. Constricted by religious conventions, painters such as Rembrandt, Frans Hals, Van Dyck, Poussin and Claude Lorraine worked wonders with muted palettes and dark chiaroscuro. "They were aware," the author writes, "of the supreme achievements of their recent forebears, yet the rules according to which those works were constructed had vanished. From this confounding maze each indiviudal had to seek his own exit."
Mr. Ball's examination of a sort of Golden Age of chemistry, from the 1770s to the 1820s, which led to an "explosion in the production of new pigments for artists … [who found themselves] awash in choices," is educational but may prove hard going for many art lovers.
The author cites British titan J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851) as an artist who seized on the new pigments as fast as chemists could dispense them. Applying brilliant colors in daring ways to capture subjective, atmospheric qualities, Turner's work disconcerted Victorian sensibilities. It was, said one critic, "coloring run mad." Another, likening Turner's hues to exotic Oriental sources, said his paintings looked as if they were "done by a Rembrandt born in India." The role of Turner's colormaker, George Field, adds to our appreciation of the work that is today, as exemplified by the current exhibition at the Baltimore Museum of Art, widely admired.
Dramatic innovations in pigment manufacturing set the stage for the new directions of the French Impressionists. Their paintings "steeped in brilliance of color could never have been made without the right materials." Persevering in the face of harsh criticism from the art establishment, the Impressionists sought to convey the impression of the color of objects, rather than the colors themselves. Claude Monet, their leader, utilized contrasting, complementary colors to capture his visions of nature.
For some reason, Mr. Ball gives short shrift to the importance of the onset of the collapsible metal paint tube, invented in 1841 by American portrait painter John Rand. By providing a portable tool that saved pigments from drying out, paint tubes represented a key advance for Impressionists, who did much of their work outdoors.
Henri Matisse, appropriately labeled the great colorist of the 20th century, led the Fauves in the use of bright, joyful colors that have influenced artists for nearly half a century.
At the dawn of the 21st century, Mr. Ball notes, artists are employing new materials, techniques, and styles in a dizzying variety of ways. Their output underscores the central theme of the book, that "technology opens new doors for artists," and that talented artists will continue "to find ways to take advantage of what technology offers."
"The painter of the future," Vincent van Gogh once said, "is a colorist such as has never been seen before." Mr. Ball says he hopes that is so and so will most readers of his intriguing book.
Extensively researched and gracefully written, the book offers illuminating glimpses into an important and underappreciated facet of artmaking. It is likely to be the standard work on the development and myriad artistic and commercial applications of color for some time to come.
The author writes that the study of color made paintings in museums come alive for him, making them part of "a living world." One suspects many readers will feel the same way, making this a welcome addition to the libraries of both artists and art lovers.

Stephen May is an independent historian, writer and lecturer about art and culture in Washington, D.C.

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