Bright Earth

EPUB EBook by Philip Ball

EBook Description

This review originally appeared in the San Jose Mercury News:

Whenever I tell people that I'm colorblind they want to talk about it, which can be frustrating. Bright Earth EPUB EBook What's it like? they ask. What's it like not being colorblind? I reply.

The best I can do is to explain that, no, the world doesn't look like a black- EPUBand-white movie to me. I'm mildly red-green deficient: For me, some pinkish beiges are identical to greenish ones; download; some purples are indistinguishable from bluish-gray.

You can see what I see if you go to and put your cursor over the word ''deutan'' between the pictures. But there's no way we can talk about what I see — or from your point of view don't see.

Language has always been a feeble instrument when it comes to color. Take Homer's famous image, the ''wine-dark sea.'' No wine I know of is the color of Homer's Aegean — unless it's some blueberry-flavored concoction from Boone's Farm.

Further linguistic confusion: If you look up the etymology of the word ''blue,'' you'll find that it derives from the Latin flavus, which meant ''yellow.'' Moreover, Philip Ball tells us, ''The Japanese awo can mean 'green,' 'blue,' or 'dark,' depending on the context. Vietnamese and Korean also decline to distinguish green from blue. Some languages have only three or four color terms.''

Clearly, language isn't the medium for color — that belongs to art. In ''Bright Earth: Art and the Invention of Color,'' Ball brilliantly traces the history of color from cave painting to abstract expressionism and beyond. Ball isn't an artist; he's a scientist, with an undergraduate degree in chemistry and a Ph.D. in physics. From his point of view, art is chemistry, and the history of art is the history of the technology of making color.

Until the 19th century, virtually all the pigments used by artists came from nature — from minerals, plants and animals, even from insects. And the technology early artists used to make these pigments was highly sophisticated: In 2500 B.C., the Egyptians were concocting a blue pigment by firing lime, copper oxide and sand in kilns whose temperatures were carefully maintained at between 1,470 and 1,650 degrees Fahrenheit.

The creation of these pigments grew out of the technologies devised for making practical things such as soap, glass and pottery, but the process works both ways. Ball explains: ''It seems likely that the developments in kiln technology afforded by the early manufacture of blue-glazed objects led to the discovery of copper smelting from its ore. A love of color ushered in the Bronze Age.''

In the Middle Ages, alchemists added to the palette with new discoveries. Medieval artists prized some colors less for their faithfulness to nature than for their preciousness — the more precious, the more likely they were to be used in sacred contexts. Thus blue became the color associated with Mary, the mother of Jesus, not because it was the color of the sky or for any symbolic reason, Ball says, but because it was expensive: Ultramarine — so called because it came from ''across the sea'' — was made by a difficult process that involved pulverizing lapis lazuli, the chief source of which was Afghanistan.

In the Renaissance, the focus of art shifted from the worship of God toward fidelity to the observed world. And because ''nature had more hues than the artist,'' there was a demand for new color technologies. One innovation caught on like crazy: the use of oil as a medium for pigments.

Medieval and early Renaissance artists worked in tempera, a tricky medium — some colors could not be used next to one another because they would react chemically. In the 15th century, Flemish painters, particularly Jan van Eyck, perfected a method of working with oil paints, which give a richer, less hard-edged finish to the painting, allowing for the illusion of depth and subtleties of shading. And the medium of oil, Ball explains, ''insulates'' the pigments from one another, so that ''pigments that react chemically with one another in tempera might be stably combined in oil.''

The age of exploration expanded the search for new pigments, leading to such oddities as ''Indian yellow,'' which became popular in Europe in the late 18th century. The raw pigment was ''sold in hard, dirty-colored, ill-smelling balls,'' but its source was mysterious until 1883, when it was traced to a village in India. A group of cattle owners had created the pigment by feeding their cows solely on mango leaves, collecting their urine and heating it to precipitate a solid that was pressed into balls and sold. Indian yellow disappeared from the market, not because people found the substance disgusting but because ''the practices of the milkmen were denounced as inhumane, and laws were passed to prohibit them.''

The technology of color expanded further with the Industrial Revolution in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The great experiments with color by Turner and Whistler, the Pre-Raphaelites, the Impressionists, Matisse, the Fauves, and other 19th- and 20th-century artists were made possible by the discovery that vivid colors could be made from coal tar derivatives.

And just as the desire for color may have helped usher in the Bronze Age, the demand for new colors helped create the modern chemical industry: The giant European chemical and pharmaceutical companies Bayer, Hoechst, BASF and Ciba-Geigy all have their origins in the demand for aniline dyes.

''Out of bright purples and lustrous reds, shocking pinks and brilliant yellows,'' Ball comments, ''emerged all that is good and bad in this most mercurial of modern technologies: cures for devastating diseases, cheap and lightweight materials, mustard gas and Zyklon B, enough explosives to fuel two world wars and more, liquid crystals, and ozone holes. The modern age, in other words.''

The downside for artists was that many of the new pigments proved unstable. Turner was one of the most avid users of the new colors, but, Ball tells us, ''by the end of the nineteenth century, the poor stability of some of the new pigments left several of Turner's works in sorry repair.'' Similarly, Van Gogh's sunflowers no longer have the brilliance originally promised by the pigment chrome yellow, which has deteriorated.

''Bright Earth'' is a treasure of anecdote and information, surveying not only the history of art, the growth of industries it has created, and the lives of the artists who have served it, but also the physics of light and the physiology of the eye. It also glances at the future, as new technologies — photography, color printing, digital reproduction — widen both the access to materials and the definition of art.

The book is generously illustrated, with 66 color plates, but Ball is such an engaging, lucid writer that it hardly needs them. For once, language is up to the task of talking about color.
Like this book? Read online this: Yellow Is My Color Star, Earth's Requiem (Earth Reclaimed #1).

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