Color: A Natural History of the Palette

Color: A Natural History of the Palette

by Victoria Finlay


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Discover the tantalizing true stories behind your favorite colors.
For example: Cleopatra used saffron—a source of the color yellow—for seduction. Extracted from an Afghan mine, the blue “ultramarine” paint used by Michelangelo was so expensive he couldn’t afford to buy it himself. Since ancient times, carmine red—still found in lipsticks and Cherry Coke today—has come from the blood of insects.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780812971422
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 12/30/2003
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 464
Sales rank: 140,490
Product dimensions: 5.47(w) x 8.18(h) x 1.01(d)

About the Author

A British citizen living in Hong Kong, Victoria Finlay has worked for Reuters and was the arts editor for the South China Morning Post for four and a half years before leaving to write this book. She writes regularly about arts and travel for Hong Kong newspapers and international media.

Read an Excerpt


"Art . . . must do something more than give pleasure: it

should relate to our own life so as to increase our

energy of spirit."

sir kenneth clark, Looking at Pictures1

In the lakelands of Italy there is a valley with ten thousand ancient rock carvings. These petroglyphs of Valle Camonica are signs that Neolithic people lived there once, telling stories and illustrating them with pictures. Some show strangely antlered beasts, too thin to provide much meat for a feast, and others show stick-people hunting them with stick-weapons. Another rock has a large five-thousand-year-old butterfly carved into it—although my visit coincided with that of a horde of German schoolchildren queuing up to trace it, and sadly I couldn't see the original through all the paper and wax crayons.

But in a quieter place, far away from the groups, I found a flat dark rock covered with fifty or more designs for two-story houses with pointy roofs. It didn't feel particularly sacred to me as I stood looking at it. It was more like an ancient real estate office or an architect's studio, or just a place where people sat and idly carved their domestic dreams. The crude carvings are not colored now, of course: any paints would have disappeared long ago in the Alpine rain. But as I sat there, contemplating the past, I saw what looked like a small stone on the ground. It was a different color from all the other mountain rubble—whatever it was, it didn't belong.

I picked it up and realized something wonderful. It didn't look promising: a dirty pale brown stub of claylike earth about the size and shape of a chicken's heart. On the front it was flat and on the back there were three planes like a slightly rounded three-sided pyramid. But when I placed the thumb and the first two fingers of my right hand over those three small planes, it felt immensely comfortable to hold. And what I realized then was that this piece of clay was in fact ochre, and had come from a very ancient paintbox indeed. I wet the top of it with saliva, and once the mud had come off it was a dark yellow color, the color of a haystack. When, copying the carvings, I drew a picture of a two-story house on the rock, the ochre painted smoothly with no grit: a perfect little piece of paint. It was extraordinary to think that the last person who drew with it—the person whose fingers had formed the grooves—lived and died some five thousand years ago. He or she had probably thrown this piece away after it had become too small for painting. A storm must have uncovered it, and left it for me to find.

Ochre—iron oxide—was the first color paint. It has been used on every inhabited continent since painting began, and it has been around ever since, on the palettes of almost every artist in history. In classical times the best of it came from the Black Sea city of Sinope, in the area that is now Turkey, and was so valuable that the paint was stamped with a special seal and was known as "sealed Sinope": later the words "sinopia" or "sinoper" became general terms for red ochre.2 The first white settlers in North America called the indigenous people "Red Indians" because of the way they painted themselves with ochre (as a shield against evil, symbolizing the good elements of the world,3 or as a protection against the cold in winter and insects in summer4), while in Swaziland's Bomvu Ridge (Bomvu means "red" in Zulu), archaeologists have discovered mines that were used at least forty thousand years ago to excavate red and yellow pigments for body painting.5 The word "ochre" comes from the Greek meaning "pale yellow," but somewhere along the way the word shifted to suggest something more robust—something redder or browner or earthier. Now it can be used loosely to refer to almost any natural earthy pigment, although it most accurately describes earth that contains a measure of hematite, or iron ore.

There are big ochre mines in the Luberon in southern France and even more famous deposits in Siena in Tuscany: I like to think of my little stub of paint being brought from that area by Neolithic merchants, busily trading paint-stones for furs from the mountains. Cennino Cennini wrote of finding ochre in Tuscany when he was a boy walking with his father. "And upon reaching a little valley, a very wild steep place, scraping the steep with a spade, I beheld seams of many kinds of color," he wrote. He found yellow, red, blue and white earth, "and these colors showed up in this earth just the way a wrinkle shows in the face of a man or a woman."

I knew there would be stories to be uncovered in many ochre places—from Siena to Newfoundland to Japan. But for my travels in search of this first colored paint I wanted to go to Australia—because there I would find the longest continuous painting tradition in the world. If I had been charmed by my five-thousand-year-old ochre, how much more charmed would I be in Australia where cave painters used this paint more than forty thousand years ago? But I also knew that in the very center of Australia I would find the story of how that ancient painting tradition was transformed to become one of the most exciting new art movements in recent years.

Before I left for Australia I called an anthropologist friend in Sydney, who has worked with Aboriginal communities for many years. At the end of our phone conversation I looked at the notes I had scribbled. Here they are:

* It'll take time. Lots.

* Ochre is still traded, even now.

* Red is Men's Business. Be careful.

I had absentmindedly underlined the last point several times. It seemed that the most common paint on earth was also sometimes the most secret. Finding out about ochre was going to be a little more complicated than I had thought.


Hetty Perkins, one of the Aboriginal curators at the Gallery of New South Wales, described the secrecy of indigenous traditions most vividly, as we drank coffee in the gallery garden after the opening of a major retrospective of Aboriginal art that she had organized.6 "This is a blanket," she said, putting her hand on a piece of white paper in my notebook, "and this is Australia," she continued, touching the wooden table. "You lift the paper, and it's all underneath . . . Many paintings are like the blanket . . . we don't understand the full extent of the meanings, but we know that they mean country." I was intrigued to know whether she had peeked underneath—at the table, so to speak. "It's not my privilege," she said. "That's why I'm careful. It's not my place to ask anyone what anything means. That will come later on."

So, effectively—I summarized for myself that evening—I was going to look for a pigment that in one of its incarnations I wasn't allowed to see, and which was used to paint secrets I wasn't allowed to know. And I respected that secrecy. But what then, under those rather rigorous conditions, would I find in the north and then the center of Australia to help me understand the appeal of ochre?


What I discovered was ochre itself. I found it immediately and I found miles of it. I had not quite appreciated how the Top End of Australia is a quarry of ochres—there is so much of it that people use it commercially for colored concrete. On my first morning in Darwin I went for an early morning walk along East Point beach, which is famous locally for its colors. The rocks were like raspberry ripple ice cream, as if some lazy Ancestral Being had been given the job of mixing up the yellow, white, orange and red ingredients into the brown color of proper cliffs but had been distracted by a passing possum and ended up leaving them to dry in unmixed swirls of color. The crimson hematite was splashed like spilt blood over the whiter rocks. When I ground the loose pebbles on the mortar of the rock, and added a drop of seawater, I found I could paint with them—on my skin and on the pale parts of the rock. But unlike my smooth Italian ochre these Australian pigments were gritty and flaked unevenly. You wouldn't travel miles for this paint, I thought. Although, of course, I realized, I just had.

To the east I could see Arnhemland being slowly illuminated by the sun. This was the Aboriginal homeland that outsiders can visit only if they are invited. When you look at some maps, it is almost a blank: a place you don't need to know about unless you have your own map already. As I sat on the stone slabs and watched the sun painting the sky pink, I wondered about the colors of Arnhemland. Where they came from, and where they went to.


There was a time when the whole of Australia was a network of trading posts.7 From Arnhemland in the north to the tip of southern Australia, from the west coast to the beaches of Queensland, groups would come together for corroborees and would barter prized items with each other. It was partly an important way of getting good tools and useful items; but it was also a way of articulating social networks in (mostly) peaceful ways. If you were accustomed to trading with your neighbors every wet season, then that was when peace treaties could be maintained, and rivalries resolved. People might swap a boomerang (boomerangs didn't come back in those days) for a spear or an axe for a grinding stone—with a corroboree ritual to celebrate the exchange. And ochre—really good ochre—was one of the most prized items of all.

Wilga Mia in the Campbell Ranges of Western Australia is one of the most sacred ochre mines in the continent. In 1985, Nicolas Peterson and Ronald Lampert8 described going there with some of the traditional owners from the Warlpiri tribe. They had to ask permission for entry—not only from the owners but also from the sacred beings who, it was believed, lived beneath its ancient chambers. "Don't be unpleasant to us," the men once prayed before they went in with their torches and metal axes, while on another occasion they cajoled the spirit of the mine, saying how they wanted only a small amount. Before the 1940s the ochre had been traded for spears with tribes to the south and for shields and boomerangs with those from the north.9 And—at least in the 1980s—it was still being mined and traded, although where once it had been collected in bark dishes, by the end of the twentieth century it was placed in plastic buckets.

Another famous deposit is in the Flinders Ranges of South Australia. For possibly thousands of years Aboriginal expeditions headed south into the area from Lake Eyre. In Goods from Another Country, Isabel McBryde writes about Diyari men taking two months to travel the thousand-mile round trip to collect their red gold from the Bookartoo mine at a place called Parachilna. They used to return home with 20 kilos of ochre each, already formed into baked round cakes. These would be carried on their backs in bags made of possum or kangaroo skin, and on their heads they would have huge seed-grinding stones from a nearby stone quarry. There would be seventy or eighty men travelling together: it must have been an impressive sight.

Then in 1860 the white farmers arrived, along with their sheep and their land registrations—and a series of skirmishes began. To the administrators in Adelaide these were known as the ochre wars, although the origins of the conflict had more to do with what happened on the way to and from the sacred mine than about what was found in it. The Aboriginals were not remotely interested in European notions of land ownership but they were interested in this new, bleating bush tucker. And when they made their yearly expeditions to Bookartoo they took what meat they needed for their journey. The white communities were quick in their reprisals (on the "hanging for a sheep or a lamb" theory), and these were followed by counterreprisals from the Aboriginals. A nineteenth-century settler called Robert Bruce, quoted by Philip Jones of the South Australian Museum in a paper written in 1983,10 wrote that "a solitary shepherd would have been about as safe [in the Flinders] as an unpopular land agent in Tiperary [sic] during the good old times."

In November 1863 the ochre wars became an ochre massacre. Jones noted that, more than a century later, the Aboriginal people in the local area still knew the precise place where scores of Aboriginals were killed by the angry settlers. It is near Beltana, about 540 kilometers north of Adelaide. Throughout the 1860s there was terrible violence from both sides and eventually someone in the South Australian administration suggested a solution. If they couldn't stop the men going to the mountain, perhaps they could bring the mountain to the men. How about moving the mine? he said, arguing that the black fellas wouldn't know the difference. And unbelievably, in 1874, this is effectively what the settlers did. But they moved the wrong mine.

The decision-makers in Adelaide couldn't persuade any transport company to take the red rocks all the way from Parachilna (it was an almost impossible route for bullock carts then), so instead they removed four tons of ochre from a traditional mine owned by the Kaura people by the coast, and organized for it to be carted up to Lake Eyre—it took weeks, but the roads were at least negotiable. Once they reached their destination, they persuaded the German missionaries to distribute it, in the hope that the resulting glut in supply would mean the ochre collectors would find other things to do.

It was a wasted effort. All the Kaura red ochre in the world couldn't dissuade the men of Lake Eyre from making their annual expedition—for three reasons. First it was a kind of pilgrimage. You can probably buy Lourdes water in London, but part of its appeal is the transformation that occurs when you make the journey yourself. The Aborigines had built elaborate ceremonies around collecting the red ochre and bringing it back. Trotting over to the mission to collect a little bag of free rocks rather missed the point. Stories can only be told by being told, and journeys can only be made by being travelled. Second, ochre was essential for bartering. Trading happens when one item is seen to be almost equal in value to another. What value did free paint have? It wouldn't have bought very many precious pearl shells from the Kimberley coast, nor would it have bought much of the pituri tobacco the Diyari people were so keen to buy from other tribes. The recipe for making pituri leaves into a super-narcotic was a secret, kept only by the elders of certain tribes, so swapping ochre for pituri was swapping a secret for a secret and therefore appropriate. If the Lake Eyre tribes were denied sacred ochre then it would mean they were not able to play their part in the complex trading network that Aboriginal tribes depended on.

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Color 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 26 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I liked it a lot. It was well written full of facts and anecdotes on the origins of colors in terms of dyes and pigments. I picked this up as just light fluffy reading and it has sparked a deeper interest in the origins of colors and meanings that have been attached to them. On the bad side I'm left with the feeling that there could have been more to it. I'm currently waiting for her second book to arrive so I can read that as well.
Valerius More than 1 year ago
This was a book club selection that I did not want to read, and ended up thoroughly enjoying. I had no particular interest in color history, but Finlay weaves such fascinating and informative stories and history around her topics that I've developed an interest, learned a lot, and been hugely entertained. I might compare her writing to Simon Winchester or Mark Kurlansky, but better.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I am very disappointed with this book.  It is less a history of the palette than a collection of historical or historically based tidbits, that go on for pages with no mention of the connection to color.  I believe there are books which tell more about color and culture without all the tales from Arabian nights. As others have posted, there could have been more to and then again less.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I did expect a little more in the way of "textbook"-type info about each color--then again, I sometimes have silly expectations :) Definitely some interesting stories connected to each hue and I am not sorry to have read it!
debnance on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Where do we get all the wonderful colors for dyes and paints? Yet another book I received too late and raced through, trying to catch up. I hereby resolve to not race through another book; reading too fast spoils the fun.
nicole_a_davis on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
One of the fastest, best non-fiction reads. I wish there had been more chapters, looking at more colors and facets of art and social history.
snash on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A very readable story of one woman's quest to learn the stories of the old dyes and pigments. In the process she uncovered the rise and fall of whole industries, cities built on a particular color, lives focused on a color. She also reveals the meanings and significance these various colors have had within cultures then and now. In many cases finding the stories involved a difficult wild goose chase. Surprising to discover that colors had an impact on trade and power approaching that of spices until the advent of synthetic colors.
bridgetZsweet on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
very interesting stuff, but painfully boring naration
devilish2 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Victoria Findlay is a journalist who takes us on a very entertaining journey through the rainbow of colours used by painters and dyers through the centuries (and millenia). She manages the right mix of history, social history and culture, chemistry, observation and personal anecdote. It reminded me a bit of Bill Bryson's writing, only her humour is gentler and she manages to sustain her tone for the whole book.
mamacate on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The material is fascinating enough to make the rather plodding writing worth following. The author clearly has passion for the subject, but somehow this gets lost in the rather dry prose. It could have been so much better.
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surprised to find it was in back and white. not sure if original was B&W, don't think it was accurate use of words.
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