Colour: A natural history of the palette
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Date: 8/20/2012 11:53:47 AM
Sometimes, we miss the forest for the trees. And sometimes, we miss the trees for the forest. Let me give you an illustration. Take a look at the painting below (click on the picture to see a larger view).
Source: The National Gallery, London
The painting is “Bacchus and Ariadne” by Titian and it was painted between 1520 and 1523. It depicts a tale from Roman mythology where Bacchus (the God of Wine) sees the mortal Ariadne and falls in love with her at first sight. He is so smitten that he jumps out of his cheetah-drawn chariot towards her. The painting has captured Bacchus in mid-leap as Ariadne shies away from him in alarm.
I saw this painting at London’s National Gallery in 2009. I had duly noted the story that the painting conveyed, the various characters in it, the lovingly painted animals, Titian’s trademark use of bright colours… and moved on to the next artwork. It was a nice painting, but not particularly impressive. Or so I thought. Today, I bitterly regret not really looking at the painting closely enough. In my looking at the painting per se, I had completely failed to notice the colours themselves, particularly the brilliant blue of the sky—a blue which came from the ultramarine paint made from the semi-precious lapis lazuli, mined hundreds of miles away in the Sar-e-Sang valley (in present day Afghanistan).
The lapis lazuli from these mines would have travelled through ancient trade routes to the colour maker in Italy, who would transform it into the very expensive ultramarine paint through a laborious process. First, the lapis lazuli would be finely powdered and kneaded into a dough with resin, wax, gum and linseed oil for 3 days, after which this dough would be put in a mixture of lye and water. Then, this mixture would be kneaded again, this time with sticks, to draw out the colour into the liquid. The blue-coloured liquid would be collected in bowls and allowed to dry and leave behind a powdery blue pigment, which is ultramarine. The process would be repeated with the “dough” to get different qualities and shades of blue (pg.290-291). These days ultramarine paint is made synthetically.
I read about all this and much more in Colour: A Natural History of the Palette (2004, Random House, pp.448) by Victoria Finlay. The book could be considered as a travelogue; it can also be considered as a book on art history. But for me, it is a book on the micro-history of colour as explored through an artist’s paintbox holding the colours of the rainbow and then some more — violet (or purple), indigo, blue, green, yellow, orange, red, ochre, white, black and brown.
In her attempt to trace and draw out the stories of how natural dyes, paints and colours were made for a European artist’s paintbox, Finlay travelled to Australia, England, China, Chile, Italy, India, Iran, Spain, Afghanistan and Lebanon.
As each story, myth, legend of the colours come into life, we realise that:
Art history is so often about looking at the people who made the art; but …. there were also stories to be told about the people who made things that made the art…. this book is full of stories and anecdotes, histories and adventures inspired by the human quest for colour — mostly in art but sometimes in fashion and interior design, music, porcelain, and even in one example, on pillar boxes. (pg.2-3)
Color: A Natural History of the Palette is an extremely well-researched book. In addition to the chapters on the various colours, it has a preface, an introduction, a bibliography, extensive endnotes, and an index. The book is a discovery of trade restrictions, secrecy, diplomacy, canny marketing, ecological disasters, inventions, desperation, loss and much more in the world of colours. Every colour is a journey into the past with stories just waiting to be told.
If you open up a box of paints, there are numerous such stories hidden inside it. There are stories of sacredness and profanity, of nostalgia and innovation, of secrecy and myth, of luxury and texture, of profit and loss, of fading and poison, of cruelty and greed, and the determination of some people to let nothing stop them in the pursuit of beauty. (pg.24)
For me, the book was a revelation about a world that I thought I knew in passing at least, but discovered that I actually knew nothing about. Let me share some interesting bits of information from the book here:
- According to Tibetan tradition, Monghyr (near Patna in Bihar) is the birthplace of painting itself. (pg.206)
- Ochre (or iron oxide) was the first colour paint and has been used on every inhabited continent since painting began. (pg.26) Think of pre-historic cave paintings anywhere in the world and you’ll know what I mean. Think of Bhimbetka in India.
- In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, graphite was worth hundreds of thousands of pounds and the operations of the graphite mines were kept secret in England as if it were a military base. (pg.86-87)
- It was the need to distinguish between different shades of brown that led to the invention of the world’s first colorimeter in 1885 by Joseph lovibund. It was later adapted to measure the three primary hues, red, blue, and yellow in the form of the Lovibund Colour Scale, thereby revolutionising colour testing itself. (pg.103) These days we have standardisation of colour in the form of Pantone colour. (p.394)
- The most extraordinary brown ever was called mommia or “mummy”, and it was, as its name promised, made from dead ancient Egyptians. (pg.104) Thankfully, these days they are made from synthetic pigments.
- The greatest white paint, and the cruellest, is made of lead. It has poisoned artists and factory workers, women looking for beauty fixes and even little children playing on slides who have been attracted to its strange sweet taste. (pg.109)
- Till mid-nineteenth century, experts thought that Greek Temples were white. Then it was discovered that they were covered with incredibly bright colors — while the columns were striped red and blue, the Ionic capitals sported gold as well. (pg. 126-127) See the picture on the right. The British Museum in London has a reproduction of this colour scheme and I had taken this picture on one of my visits there.
- The brightest red is produced from the blood of the cochineal beetle. On the day it is fresh, carmine (or cochineal or crimson; it has many names) is one of the reddest dyes that the natural world has produced. (pg.136) Even today, it is reported, that lipsticks contain the cochineal blood for that perfect red shade.
- The words carmine and crimson are derived from the Sanskrit word krimadja. (pg.145).
- Indian yellow is either one of the biggest myths or hoaxes in the history of colour or its recipe has been lost for ever. It is supposed to have been made from the urine of cows exclusively fed on a diet of mango leaves ! Go figure.
- Saffron mythology is as fragile as the plant itself: there are other stories to the effect that drinking a big dose of saffron would lead to an abortion and even larger dose could kill. (pg.233)
- Like white, green was also a poisonous colour as it contained arsenic. In fact, it is believed that Napolean died of arsenic poisoning from the green wallpaper in his prison room. (pg.264).
- Until the eighteenth century, blue was spelt as “blew” (pg.286).
- The earliest recorded use of ultramarine paint was in Bamiyan in Afghanistan, where the two giant Buddha sculptures were said to have auras around their heads, painted as frescos in ultramarine colour (see picture on right) (pg.291). Sadly, the sculptures no longer exist today, but perhaps the frescoes still do.
- Artists used two varieties of blue paints for different purposes: ultramarine to give height to the skies, and azurite to give depth to the seas. (pg.287)
- The magic of indigo is that the blue color appears only after the textile being dyed is taken out of the pot and meets the air. (pg.323)
- In the eighteenth century, English dyers classified indigo into many shades which included: milk blue, pearl blue, pale blue, flat blue, middling blue, sky blue, queen’s blue, watchet blue, garter blue, mazareen blue, deep blue and navy blue. (pg.340) And I thought there was only one shade of indigo !
- There are several hundred species of the indigo plant, of which 63 species are found in India. (pg.349-350)
- Purple is the colour that has been most legislated about, over the longest time. (pg.366) There have been periods when only the royalty could wear it, when only the clergy could wear it, and periods when everybody was forced to wear purple.
- When Julius Caesar defeated Pompey in a key battle in 49 BC, Cleopatra threw him a grand banquet on the theme purple. From the ship’s sails to the furnishings in the banquet room, everything was coloured purple. Caesar was so impressed that he decreed that henceforth purple was a royal colour and only he could wear it ! (pg.363-364)
This was just a sampling of the treasure trove of information that the book contains in a style that is conversational, serious and intimate at the same time. Every story, myth, or colour-making process is lovingly narrated. Take for example, the process to extract orange colour from the roots of the madder plant as observed by Finlay in the paint making factory of Winsor & Newton in the outskirts of London.
[It] involves washing the crushed roots in oak barrels and mixing the dye in alum and water until it looks like watermelon juice with a foaming cap. It is then drained through fine Irish linen for 5 days after which it feels like the most luxurious face cream — so silky it is barely tangible. The water is then squeezed out of it, with … [a] wooden press, after which it is sent to an oven. At no point can any metal touch the mixture, as it would react and change the final colour. (pg. 186)
Vermilion, a shade of red, is made from cinnabar, an ore of mercury. Finlay’s narration of the Greek naturalist and philosopher Pliny the Elder’s description of how cinnabar (see picture on the right) is formed is worth reproducing here.
[Vermilion is] the result of an epic struggle by an elephant and a dragon. These two trouble makers were always fighting, Pliny recounted, and the battle eventually ended with the dragon — evidently a rather snaky one — wrapping its coils around its heavy enemy. But as the elephant fell it crushed the dragon with its weight and they both died. The merging of their blood made cinnabar. (pg.163)
I read this book with increasing delight and wonder as I progressed from page to page, colour to colour, story to story, and history to history. It was a book that I could not put down and once I finished reading it, I read it again — it was that compelling a read.
It was also a book that exposed the severe shortcomings of the formal education I received as a post-graduate student of Geology. One of my papers was “Economic Geology” in which we studied the economic wealth of India in the context of minerals, gems, ores and mines. It was a boring subject as most classes were about which state in India had which minerals/gems/ores and how it was being mined or how it could be mined. I wish the course also had scope for their actual use culturally, historically and in current times.
It took me this book to connect 2 supposedly disparate things. The first was a visit to Malanjkhand, as part of an economic geology study tour in 1993, where the copper ores of malachite and azurite were being mined. The second was a visit to the Badami Cave Temples in 2010 where I saw the remnants of brilliant green colour on the ceiling of Cave 3 (see photo on right). The guide had idly mentioned that the green came from copper, a piece of information that my mind had filed away.
When I read this book, I discovered how copper lends itself to two important colours in an artist’s palette: green from malachite and blue from azurite. And voila ! I guessed that the green in the cave probably came from malachite. As to whether the malachite came from the Malanjkhand mines is something that can only be conjectured.
On the back cover of Colour: A Natural History of the Palette, a reviewer has said that “until I read this book, I was color blind”. And that is exactly what I feel like too. Reading this book has opened up a deliciously new world before me, a world that I am looking at through newly awakened eyes. It is a book that makes me want to explore the colours of the Indian palette. Colours that we consider sacred, and colours that we don’t really give a second thought to. For example, what gives the red to sindoor or kumkum? What is alta made of? How are kajal and surma made? And I am not talking about synthetic colours here.
Photo courtesy: Anuradha Shankar
Why is geru (a red ochre) or chemmann (as it is known in Tamil) so sacred? In fact, why is ochre so sacred across cultures?
The aboriginals of Australia derive their very existence from them, as to the native American tribes. The Warli tribes of Maharashtra cannot paint their distinctive art without the red ochre background (though these days synthetic colours are being used for commercial purposes). Festive kolams are not complete without the chemmann in them (see photo above). And temple walls in Tamil Nadu are painted in alternating stripes of whitewash and chemmann.
These are just a few colour stories that I want to explore to begin with. There are journeys that I want to undertake in my search for an understanding of colour. But first, I want to read Victoria Finlay’s Color: A Natural History of the Palette again.
And then maybe, once again. It is that kind of a book.
Filed under: Books, From My Bookshelf, History Tagged: Art, Art History, Bacchus and Ariadne, Black and Brown, Blue, Book Review, Book review essay, Color, Colour A Natural History of the Palette, Colours of the Rainbow, Green, Indigo, Lapis lazuli, Microhistory, Ochre, Orange, Paint, Purple and Violet, Random House, Red, Titian, Victoria Finlay, Visual Arts, White, Yellow