Bright Earth: Art and the Invention of Color


From Egyptian wall paintings to the Venetian Renaissance, impressionism to digital images, Philip Ball tells the fascinating story of how art, chemistry, and technology have interacted throughout the ages to render the gorgeous hues we admire on our walls and in our museums.

Finalist for the 2002 National Book Critics Circle Award.

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From Egyptian wall paintings to the Venetian Renaissance, impressionism to digital images, Philip Ball tells the fascinating story of how art, chemistry, and technology have interacted throughout the ages to render the gorgeous hues we admire on our walls and in our museums.

Finalist for the 2002 National Book Critics Circle Award.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Paint is bright earth -- a material substance defined by chemistry. Throughout the ages, artists have been limited in their expression by the properties of the paint avaliable to them, and often the original intent is lost as time transforms the original color, just as rust wears away iron. You'll never look at art the same way after reading Philip Ball's lively explanation of how artists' relationship with their medium has developed over the centuries.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
British science popularizer Ball (Stories of the Invisible; Life's Matrix) is part of the excellent new breed of explainers who produce imaginative and vivid prose in magazines like Nature and New Scientist. With academic degrees in chemistry and physics, Ball is also coordinator of an offbeat theater company called Homunculus. Here he applies his considerable energies to the study of how color developed in art and science from ancient history to the present. He has clearly spent time looking at art, and his range over these 14 chapters encompasses prehistory, Tintoretto and Gauguin. What painters have produced over time, Ball shows, has always been connected to the colors available to them. Major styles of painting, from the Venetian Renaissance to French impressionism, can be associated with innovations in pigment manufacture. Scientific discoveries, business imperatives and the history of art are all linked via colors on the painter's palette. In an intriguing chapter on the color in art restorations, for example, he notes, "I have often felt mystified at why Van Gogh's `Sun Flowers' commands such high regard it seems a drab, lackluster piece, uncharacteristic of the artist. But that is because we are not seeing what the artist painted. Those dirty ochres were once bright." Boasting a full and useful bibliography, this book even ventures some predictions about artists' use of color in the future, such as "pigments that change hue as we change our viewing angle." Readers will find the pigments here bright, varied and attractive. (Feb.) Forecast: A good bet for the scientifically inclined who want a grounded entry point to the arts, this book will also stretch out to art fans who want writing well-versed in art's physical bases. It's a rare example of a crossover study where an author really seems to grasp both domains. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Trained as a chemist and physicist, British science writer Ball (Life's Matrix: A Biography of Water) here examines the physics of artists' pigments, from antiquity to the present and just beyond. He looks at the basic structures of pigments available to artists and at the art these pigments made possible (or not) at any given time. It is refreshing to see art, chiefly paintings, viewed by someone with a starting point outside of traditional art history or even the new art history. But the topic is complex, and Ball's sometimes unclear writing style will limit full access even to readers who are well grounded in the discipline. While his insights are frequently fresh, and he has spent time looking at art with the naked eye as well as through a microscope, Ball perhaps values his conclusions too much in isolation. His work is more focused on the actual chemistry than are the few other considerations of this topic available, such as John Gage's Color and Culture or Color and Meaning. Nonetheless, this rare treatment of a central issue in artists' work is recommended for advanced collections. (Illustrations not seen.) Jack Perry Brown, Art Inst. of Chicago Lib. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Great art requires talent, hard work, and a singular vision-and it doesn't hurt to have a chemistry set nearby.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226036281
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 4/28/2003
  • Pages: 434
  • Sales rank: 520,836
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

Philip Ball majored in chemistry at the University of Oxford and received a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Bristol. He is a writer and consulting editor for Nature and a regular contributor to the scientific and popular press, including New Scientist and the New York Times. Ball is the author of six other books, including The Self-Made Tapestry: Pattern Formation in Nature and Life's Matrix: A Biography of Water.

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Read an Excerpt




"The starting point is the study of color and its effects on men."
—Wassily Kandinsky (1912), Concerning the Spiritual in Art

"Then the man in the blue suit reaches into his pocket and takes out a large sheet of paper, which he carefully unfolds and hands to me. It is covered with Picasso's handwriting — less spasmodic, more studied than usual. At first sight, it resembles a poem. Twenty or so verses are assembled in a column, surrounded by broad white margins. Each verse is prolonged with a dash, occasionally a very long one. But it is not a poem; it is Picasso's most recent order for colors . . .

"For once, all the anonymous heroes of Picasso's palette trooped forth from the shadows, with Permanent White at their head. Each had distinguished himself in some great battle — the blue period, the rose period, cubism, 'Guernica' . . . Each could say: 'I too, I was there . . .' And Picasso, reviewing his old comrades-in-arms, gives to each of them a sweep of his pen, a long dash that seems a fraternal salute: 'Welcome Persian red! Welcome emerald green! Cerulean blue, ivory black, cobalt violet, clear and deep, welcome! Welcome! ' "
—Brassaï (1964), Picasso and Company

I believe that in the future, people will start painting pictures in one single color, and nothing else but color." The French artist Yves Klein made this remark in 1954, before embarking on a "monochrome" period in which each work was composed from just a single glorious hue. This adventure culminated in Klein's collaboration with Paris paint retailer Édouard Adam in 1955 to make a new blue paint of unnerving vibrancy. In 1957 Klein launched his manifesto with an exhibition, "Proclamation of the Blue Epoch," that contained eleven paintings in his new blue.

By saying that Yves Klein's monochrome art was the offspring of chemical technology, I mean something more than that his paint was a modern chemical product. The very concept of this art was technologically inspired. Klein did not just want to show us pure color; he wanted to display the glory of new color, to revel in its materiality. His striking oranges and yellows are synthetic colors, inventions of the twentieth century. Klein's blue was ultramarine, but not the natural, mineral-based ultramarine of the Middle Ages: it was a product of the chemical industry, and Klein and Adam experimented for a year to turn it into a paint with the mesmerizing quality the artist was seeking. By patenting this new color, Klein was not simply protecting his commercial interests but also hallmarking the authenticity of a creative idea. One could say that the patent was a part of his art.

Yves Klein's use of color became possible only when chemical technology had reached a certain level of maturity. But this was nothing new. For as long as painters have fashioned their visions and dreams into images, they have relied on technical knowledge and skill to supply their materials. With the blossoming of the chemical sciences in the early nineteenth century it became impossible to overlook this fact: chemistry was laid out there on the artist's palette. And the artist rejoiced in it: "Praise be to the palette for the delights it offers . . . It is itself a 'work,' more beautiful, indeed, than many a work," said Wassily Kandinsky in 1913. The Impressionist Camille Pissarro made the point forcefully in his Palette with a Landscape (1878), a pastoral scene constructed directly on his palette by pulling down the bright colors dotted around its edges.

The Impressionists and their descendants — van Gogh, Matisse, Gauguin, Kandinsky — explored the new chromatic dimensions opened up by chemistry with a vitality that has arguably not been equaled since. Their audiences were shocked not only by the breaking of the rules — the deviation from "naturalistic" coloration — but by the sight of colors never before seen on canvas: glowing oranges, velvety purples, vibrant new greens. Van Gogh dispatched his brother to acquire some of the brightest, most striking of the new pigments available and wrought them into disturbing compositions whose strident tones are almost painful to behold. Many people were dumbfounded or outraged by this new visual language: the conservative French painter Jean-Georges Vibert rebuked the Impressionists for painting "only with intense colors."

It was a complaint that echoes back through the ages, to be heard whenever chemistry (or foreign trade, which also broadens a culture's repertoire of materials) has made new or superior colors available to painters. When Titian, Henry James's "prince of colorists," took advantage of having the first pick of the pigments brought to the thriving ports of Venice to cover his canvases with sumptuous reds, blues, pinks, and violets, Michelangelo remarked sniffily that it was a pity the Venetians were not taught to draw better. Pliny bemoaned the influx of bright new pigments from the East to corrupt the austere coloring scheme that Rome inherited from classical Greece: "Now India contributes the ooze of her rivers and the blood of dragons and of elephants."

That the invention and availability of new chemical pigments influenced the use of color in art is indisputable. As art historian Ernst Gombrich says, the artist "cannot transcribe what he sees; he can only translate it into the terms of his medium. He, too, is strictly tied to the range of tones which his medium will yield."

So it is surprising that little attention has been given to the matter of how artists obtained their colors, as opposed to how they used them. This neglect of the material aspect of the artist's craft is perhaps a consequence of a cultural tendency in the West to separate inspiration from substance. Art historian John Gage confesses that 'one of the least studied aspects of the history of art is art's tools." Anthea Callen, a specialist on the techniques of the Impressionists, makes a stronger criticism:

Ironically, people who write on art frequently overlook the practical side of their craft, often concentrating solely on stylistic, literary or formal qualities in their discussion of painting. As a result, unnecessary errors and misunderstandings have grown up in art history, only to be reiterated by succeeding generations of writers. Any work of art is determined first and foremost by the materials available to the artist, and by the artist's ability to manipulate those materials. Thus only when the limitations imposed by artists' materials and social conditions are taken fully into account can aesthetic preoccupations, and the place of art in history, be adequately understood.

One might expect the "craft" aspects of art to suffer less neglect when the use of color is under discussion, for surely the nature of materials should then come naturally to the fore. But it is not always so. Faber Birren admits in his classic History of Color in Painting that "the choice of colors for a palette or palettes is not in any way concerned with chemistry, or with permanence, transparency, opacity, or any of the material aspects of art." This extraordinary omission of the substantial dimension of color is surely the precondition for such absurdities as Birren's assigning cobalt blue to the palette of Rubens and his contemporaries almost two centuries before its inventions. In view of the attention that Birren gives to the hues required for a "balanced palette," it is indeed odd how little concerned he is with whether artists of different eras had access to them.


Every painter must confront the question: What is color for? Bridget Riley, one of the modern artists most concerned with color relationships, has expressed the dilemma very clearly:

For painters, colour is not only all those things which we all see but also, most extraordinarily, the pigments spread out on the palette, and there, quite uniquely, they are simply and solely colour. This is the first important fact of the painter's art to be grasped. These bright and shining pigments will not, however, continue to lie there on the palette as pristine colours in themselves but will be put to use — for the painter paints a picture, so the use of colour has to be conditioned by this function of picture making . . . The painter has two quite distinct systems of colour to deal with — one provided by nature, the other required by art — perceptual colour and pictorial colour. Both will be present and the painter's work depends upon the emphasis they place first upon the one and then upon the other.

This is not a contemporary conundrum but one that has confronted artists of all eras. And yet there is something missing from Riley's formulation of the artist's situation. Pigments are not "simply and solely colour" but substances with specific properties and attributes, not least among them cost. How is your desire for blue affected if you have just paid more for it than for the equivalent weight in gold? That yellow looks glorious, but what if its traces on your fingertips could poison you at your supper table? This orange tempts like distilled sunlight, but how do you know that it will not have faded to dirty brown by next year? What, in short, is your relationship with the materials?

Raw color supplies more than a physical medium from which artists can construct their images. "Materials influence form," said American artist Morris Louis in the 1950s; but influence is too weak a word when we are faced with the explosive vibrancy of Titian's Bacchus and Ariadne (1522-1523), Ingres's Odalisque with a Slave (1839-1840), or Matisse's Red Studio (1911). This is art that follows directly from the impact of color, from possibilities delimited by the prevailing chemical technology.

But although technology made Yves Klein's monochromes possible for the first time, it would be meaningless to suggest that Rubens did not paint them because those colors were not available to him. It is equally absurd to suppose that, but for a technical knowledge of anatomy and perspective and the chemical prowess to extend the range of pigments, the ancient Egyptians would have painted in the style of Titian. Use of color in art is determined at least as much by the artist's personal inclinations and cultural context as by the materials at hand.

So it would be a mistake to assume that the history of color in art is an accumulation of possibilities proportional to the accumulation of pigments. Every choice an artist makes is an act of exclusion as well as inclusion. Before we can gain a clear understanding of where technological considerations enter the decision, we must appreciate the social and cultural factors at work on the artist's attitudes. In the end, each artist makes his or her own contract with the colors of the time.

*Endnotes have been omitted

Copyright © 2001 Philip Ball

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Table of Contents

1. The Eye of the Beholder
The Scientist in the Studio
2. Plucking the Rainbow
The Physics and Chemistry of Color
3. The Forge of Vulcan
Color Technology in Antiquity
4. Secret Recipes
Alchemy's Artistic Legacy
5. Masters of Light and Shadow
The Glory of the Renaissance
6. Old Gold
The Revival of an Austere Palette
7. The Prismatic Metals
Synthetic Pigments and the Dawn of Color Chemistry
8. The Reign of Light
Impressionism's Bright Impact
9. A Passion for Purple
Dyes and the Industrialization of Color
10. Shades of Midnight
The Problem of Blue
11. Time As Painter
The Ever-Changing Canvas
12. Capturing Color
How Art Appears in Reproduction
13. Mind Over Matter
Color as Form in Modernism
14. Art for Art's Sake
New Materials, New Horizons

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Interviews & Essays

Exclusive Author Essay
It was time to go to the Gallery again. I'd been to the National Gallery in London several times before, and if I am honest about it, I'd struggled. The medieval works, with their cartoonish disregard for proportion, perspective, and anatomy baffled me. The ample fleshiness of Rubens seemed peculiarly garish; Constable and Gainsborough were drab and staged.

But now it was different. I'd been working on Bright Earth for several months, and to my surprise and delight I found I had begun to learn a language. It is by no means the only language through which one can understand art; rather, it is one door among many. They all lead to another place -- a place where, for the first time, one can start to see. What I saw on that visit astounded and thrilled me.

The language I'd studied was color. Not the color of the rainbow -- not red, orange, yellow, and so forth. Color in painting is not an abstract thing. For what is a painting, after all, but patches of paint on a canvas, a board, a wall? And what is paint? "Colored dirt," according to U.S. artist Philip Guston. That is to say, paint is bright earth. And this is what I could now see in the works of Van Eyck, Titian, Turner, Renoir. This robe is not dark blue; it is precious ultramarine, worth more than gold itself, carried on a fantastic journey from Afghanistan to Venice, ground and washed by the tired and toiling hands of studio apprentices. That orange? Realgar, a poisonous compound of arsenic, made in an alchemist's crucible, feared by many painters lest it curtail their career most horribly.

Until the past two or three hundred years, painters had to be chemists of a kind. They may not have understood their pigments in the way modern chemists do, but they knew how to prepare them from raw materials and how to combine them in mixtures without incurring reactions that discolored the blend. The German painter Lucas Cranach, for example, owned a pharmacy, which is perhaps why he is one of the few northern Europeans of the Renaissance to use the rare yellow pigment orpiment, a hazardous relative of realgar possibly manufactured by his own hand. To a trained chemist like myself, this is a tangible handle on art. I have written previously about chemistry (Designing the Molecular World) and the creation of new materials (Made to Measure) and have noticed how quickly chemical technologies cease to be visible once their products have become assimilated as social artefacts. No one now wonders where paper comes from, or Lycra, shatterproof glass, or light-emitting diodes. But the materials of the medieval artist were not sitting there waiting for him or her on the shelf of some paint shop -- the artist had to make them.

I was set wondering what these materials actually were after hearing a couple of talks by chemists involved in the production and analysis of pigments. One of them explained how his analysis of the colored materials in an Egyptian papyrus had revealed it as a fake, since the pigments were unknown before the 19th century. He mentioned how the palettes of some artists from long ago had been at the mercy of their local geology, which determined the availability of minerals suitable for grinding into pigments. I had never before considered this link between chemistry and art, and I began to ask questions. How has the evolution of chemical skills affected the colors that artists use? Can we, indeed, read the history of chemistry in the paintings of other ages?

The more I looked, the clearer the story became. There has never been a time when artists have not depended on chemistry of some description, even if it be so seemingly simple a matter as burning wood or bones into charcoal and mixing the black powder with animal fat to make marks on a cave wall. But there was more to this story than a technological history. New colors have prompted new painting styles. And through the materials of painting, the work comes alive with the presence and the environment of the artist. We can sense the workshops bustling with assistants mixing gesso to coat the wooden panels, the goldbeaters hammering out gold leaf from fine Florentine ducats, the rabbit skins being boiled to make size and glue. Even the very names of pigments conjure up another world. Vermilion, the finest red of the Middle Ages, a synthetic compound of sulphur and mercury beloved by the alchemists. Indigo blue, imported among rare spices from the East. Giallorino, the medieval yellow reputedly found on the slopes of Vesuvius. Arzica, a yellow lake pigment made from wild flowers, recalling how the tenth-century monk Heraclius tells the color maker that he "must wander over the cornfields early in the morning."

And the language of color shows us more in a picture than the eye could ever see. The curious brown-black foliage in Antonio del Pollaiuolo's Apollo and Daphne was never intended by the painter -- but he made the mistake of using "copper resinate" green, a treacherous pigment that often darkened and discolored over time. Why did the 18th-century Dutch artist Jan van Huysum paint blue leaves? Well, he never did; but the yellow that he mixed with blue has faded. (An organic plant extract like arzica, it could not survive long under bright light.) Every painting, even a modern one, requires a translation, a mental reconstruction of the artist's intentions from what is left of them on the canvas. You cannot do that without knowing the language of color's materials.

Does all this richness in picture making vanish when commercial paints become available in the 19th century, packaged in tin tubes and with the color range vastly expanded by the innovations of chemists? No; it is simply that the visions change. The new synthetic colors are so gorgeous that iconoclastic young artists fall head-over-heels for them and use them unmixed, just as medieval artists would never have dreamed of adulterating ultramarine. Cobalt blue gleams in Renoir's rivers and Monet's snows. Chrome orange becomes the color of Impressionist sunlight; viridian green conjures up Cézanne's hillsides. Without the beautiful new colors discovered in the 19th century, it is hard to imagine Matisse and the Fauves, Klee's glowing chromatic patchworks, Kandinsky's explosive color-music.

It may seem strange to explore art through its materials. We have become accustomed to the idea that art is about aesthetics and abstractions, not "colored dirt." But artists seldom see it that way, because they are the ones who must apply the stuff. Physical intimacy with paint itself drove Titian to work in later life "more with his fingers than with his brushes," just as it impelled Jackson Pollock to stand astride his canvas and dispense modern enamel paints with controlled frenzy. The French academicians of the late 18th century tried to hide the fact that their pictures had been "painted" at all, creating a smooth, glossy and ultimately sterile surface free from brushmarks. In contrast, when paint remains just paint, art is honest, vibrant and immediate. As abstract artists came to acknowledge explicitly, there is no point in trying to deny that a painting is, in the end, marks on canvas: not a depiction of something else but a thing in itself.

Once you begin to see that, art will never look the same again. And maybe then you will agree, as I do, with Paul Klee: "The picture has no particular purpose. It only has the purpose of making us happy." (Philip Ball)

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