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Bright Earth: the invention of colour – Philip Ball ***

It might seem that colour is too much of a physical property to be invented – but this is very much a subject open to debate, as the concept of colour – as opposed to the wavelength or energy of light – is certainly to a degree subjective. However Philip Ball’s chunky volume is not concerned purely with colour in an abstract sense but very specifically with the colour used by artists throughout the ages.
There is some fascinating stuff in here. For example, that until the 19th century ‘pink’ was not a colour at all, but was a type of paint in the same sense a lake (crimson lake etc.) was a type of paint. You could have green pink! But most of the pinks died out, leaving us with rose pink which is, of course, pink. How did little girls manage in pre-Victorian times without pink?
It is also sobering to the non-artist to realize just how much care has to be taken in the selection of pigments – and the nasty surprises that awaited artists who were too quick to try some new colour without being sure of its properties.
As always with Ball, this is a very detailed, scrupulously researched book. As if often the case with Ball’s work, the only problem is it tends to be just a bit too detailed, leading to sections that can be a trifle dull. It is indicative of the nature of popular science that when he is talking purely about pigments it’s quite easy to lose concentration, while he holds the reader much better when he is talking about particular artists.
This is without doubt a classic work on the subject (it is a re-issue: the book has been around since 2001), bound to be of interest to anyone who wants to explore the borderline between science and art, but I can’t give it any higher rating because it hasn’t quite got that page-turning zip of the best popular science.
Review by Brian Clegg


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