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Colour: Travels Through the Paintbox (2002)

by Victoria Finlay

Other authors: See the other authors section.

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingMentions
1,897267,132 (3.89)98
Part travelogue, part narrative history, Colour unlocks the history of the colours of the rainbow, and reveals how paints came to be invented, discovered, traded and used. This remarkable and beautifully written book remembers a time when red paint was really the colour of blood, when orange was the poison pigment, blue as expensive as gold, and yellow made from the urine of cows force-fed with mangoes. It looks at how green was carried by yaks along the silk road, and how an entire nation was founded on the colour purple. Exciting, richly informative, and always surprising, Colour lifts the lid on the historical palette and unearths an astonishing wealth of stories about the quest for colours, and our efforts to understand them.… (more)
  1. 30
    Bright Earth: Art and the Invention of Color by Philip Ball (EveleenM)
    EveleenM: The style of this book is dryer and more technical than that of Finlay's book, but I strongly recommend it for those who want more detailed background about the science of colour and pigments.
  2. 10
    The Lost Painting: The Quest for a Caravaggio Masterpiece by Jonathan Harr (fyrefly98)
    fyrefly98: Both fall into the category of "art history that's accessible to readers that know next-to-nothing about art history."
  3. 10
    A Perfect Red: Empire, Espionage, and the Quest for the Color of Desire by Amy Butler Greenfield (EveleenM)
    EveleenM: This is a similar book, dealing specifically with cochineal red rather than a range of colours.
  4. 10
    Black: The History of a Color by Michel Pastoureau (Tanglewood)
  5. 00
    Verf (500.000 jaar verf en schilderkunst) by Monica Rotgans (EMS_24)
    EMS_24: History of the colors
  6. 00
    The Materials and Techniques of Medieval Painting by Daniel V. Thompson (waltzmn)
    waltzmn: A much more technical work than Finlay's, and now sadly dated from a scientific standpoint, Thompson's book, despite being rather short, is an easy-to-read and amazingly useful compendium of most of the materials used to draw and decorate the treasures that are our ancient and medieval manuscripts.… (more)
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» See also 98 mentions

English (25)  Dutch (1)  All languages (26)
Showing 1-5 of 25 (next | show all)
To research the history of color is brilliant like a box of sixty-four. Who, for example, has thought about from where ochre originated? According to Finlay, ochre is the first color(s) of paint. I did not know that and to be totally honest, nor have I ever thought about ochre in this way. [My only thoughts in ochre were to be confused about what shade of yellow, red, or brown it is supposed to be.] Did you ever wonder what the HB on a pencil meant? Hardness and blackness. How about the origin of the phrase, "cut through all this red tape"? Who knew? Apparently, Finlay. That's who. She took the time to travel the globe looking for answers about color: Australia for ochre, England for black and brown, China for white, Chile for red, Italy for orange, India for yellow,...I wanted to make a map of all her travels. On the heels of reading Travels in a Thin Country I couldn't stop comparing Sara Wheeler's adventure to that of Victoria Finlay.
There is a fair amount of humor in Color. To see what I mean, find the section where Finlay describes the interesting practice of boiling cow urine after the bovine have been fed a steady diet of mango leaves for two weeks straight. ( )
  SeriousGrace | May 4, 2022 |
I absolutely loved this.

Might not be for everyone but for a watercolorist who adores color - and fascinating history brought to life - it felt like you were right there, trotting around the globe, real-world verifying the backstories, vetting the myths and chasing elusive clues of the resplendent colors of your imagination (and palette).

I learned so much and was so inspired. It added a whole new natural grounding dimension to art for me.
( )
  HeatherHale | Apr 1, 2022 |
Dyes and pigments have been fairly interesting and important to me for a while--growing up, I lived pretty close to a Williamsburg-like living history museum, where I learned a fair bit about using natural dyes like black walnut and goldenrod that could be found or grown at the museum. Having appreciated them then and having read a book several years ago about the history of (in particular) the red cochineal dye, I was really excited when I learned about this book a while ago.

I definitely learned quite a bit about the history of dyes and similar materials from this book. It's arranged thematically by color, which chapters for all the colors of the rainbow as well as brown, black, and white. I think my favorite chapters were probably green, indigo (which has also always been one of my favorite materials to dye with), and purple. The purple chapter, right at the end of the book, was especially interesting to me because I'd known that snails were used for Roman dyes for a long time, and I really enjoyed learning about the process here.

Perhaps a major caution or just fyi that I'd like to add to this book, though, which keeps me from wanting to rate it higher is that not all of the book is quite what I'd expected--I'd gone into the book expecting information on the history of colors, which there definitely was, but the book was really more properly half history, half travelogue. Very substantial portions of each chapter are about the author traveling to India or Lebanon or Mexico or China or other places to physically visit places important in the history of different colors' dyestuffs. While I did enjoy parts of this, it really wasn't what I was expecting from the book, and I think I'd have been perfectly happy with a bit more focus on the colors and dyes themselves. ( )
  forsanolim | Jun 12, 2020 |
Some passages are infectious with her fascination for the colors (pigments) and the histories. However, there was a lot of fanciful "What if"-ing, when the facts were not available. Also, the huge chunks of history could have been broken down into something easier to digest. The section on lapiz lazuli in Afghanistan was such a terribly dry read.

---

Almost half a year later, finally finished reading this. Often found myself glossing over paragraphs, and had to take breaks to get my concentration back. Now and then my efforts would be rewarded with a dinner conversation-worthy fact. "Did you know that some sacred Jewish vestments are dyed with a pigment from un-kosher sources?" "Did you know that Victorian wallpaper had arsenic?" It's like sifting through so much river silt, to find the occasional shiny nugget. A little patience is required.

All in all, it certainly makes one pause before being able to answer the question, "So what's your favorite color?" I think out of all the histories presented here, my favorite would be the Red chapter, then section on gamboge, but probably because of its exposure on Radiolab. ( )
  mrsrobin | Jun 24, 2017 |
From the first evidence of art on Paleolithic cave walls using natural ochres to the complex processes of concocting dyes and pigments from insects, poisonous elements, rare minerals and mollusks, humans have been manipulating natural resources to create color. Author Victoria Finlay journeys the world over in search of the sources and stories of and processes used to create the traditional hues we have used in artistic expression and to brighten the world around us for millennia.

Fascinating and informative, this was a perfect -- though unintentional -- companion read to Bill Bryson's At Home. ( )
  ryner | Feb 22, 2016 |
Showing 1-5 of 25 (next | show all)
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» Add other authors (4 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Finlay, Victoriaprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Dingler, C. LindaDesignersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Möllemann, NorbertÜbersetzersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Snijders, MeileTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Epigraph
Dedication
For my parents, Jeannie and Patrick, who first showed me the place where light dances
First words
It was a sunny afternoon that still sparkled after earlier rain when I first entered Chartres cathedral.
ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
I had thought, when I set out on my travels—when I first tumbled through that paintbox—that I would somehow find, in the original stories of colors, something pure.
Quotations
There was once in China a secret color. It was so secret that it was said only royalty could own it.
(p. 245; chapter 7, "Green")
Last words
(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
Disambiguation notice
UK title: "Colour: Travels through the Paintbox;" US title: "Color: A Natural History of the Palette"
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Wikipedia in English (4)

Part travelogue, part narrative history, Colour unlocks the history of the colours of the rainbow, and reveals how paints came to be invented, discovered, traded and used. This remarkable and beautifully written book remembers a time when red paint was really the colour of blood, when orange was the poison pigment, blue as expensive as gold, and yellow made from the urine of cows force-fed with mangoes. It looks at how green was carried by yaks along the silk road, and how an entire nation was founded on the colour purple. Exciting, richly informative, and always surprising, Colour lifts the lid on the historical palette and unearths an astonishing wealth of stories about the quest for colours, and our efforts to understand them.

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