I came across Victoria Finlay's Color: A Natural History of the Palette when my husband and I spent the day at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC. We had just finished a couple of hours of looking at an exhibit of watercolors and we decided to check out the book/gift shop. The minute I saw this book, I was hooked - it was like something reached out and grabbed me and said you are not leaving without me. So begins my love affair with this book - I know that sounds crazy and a little bit silly - well maybe a lot silly - but I have loved this book - I have read it, and re-read it, and re-read it a third time. The book has suffered from my attention with bruised pages and spine but it does not care, it is well loved and that is all that matters.
Finlay, formerly a journalist for the South China Morning Post, and now with ARC: Alliance of Religions and Conservation, a secular organization that assists religions to find conservation solutions that fit within the teachings of their religious beliefs, begins her journey when as a child she and her father are looking at the stained glass blue and red panes of the Chartres Cathedral. The stained glass had been created some eight hundred years earlier and her father told her "and today we don't know how to make that blue." This statement completely upset Finlay's world view - you expect the world to advance, to build on the knowledge of the past and to always have access to the knowledge of the past - but that is not the case - knowledge is only as useful as long as it is preserved, shared, and embraced - the knowledge that went into making the shade of blue glass at the Chartres Cathedral is gone, forever. Anyway, Finlay continues her journey of learning about the colors of the palette when she stumbles upon Ralph Mayer's The Artist's Handbook of Materials and Techniques - a classic reference guide for professional painters and artists (check out Amazon's Inside the Book - to learn more about it ). From there she never looks back. In her beginning section "The beginning of the rainbow,"" Finlay promises that "this is a book full of stories and anecdotes, histories and adventures inspired by the human quest for color -- mostly in art but sometimes in fashion and interior design, music, porcelain and even, in one example, on pillar boxes" (p.3). She does not disappoint.
Her chapters are broken down into -- what else - the colors of the palette: Ochre, Black and Brown, White, Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, and Violet. Finlay travels the world to learn about the color and what makes the color - whether it is the earth -- in the case of ochre (red, yellow, and earthy brown) and blue (cobalt, malachite, and lapis lazuli), plants (madder, safflowers, mastic, woad, and mango leaves), insects (cochineal - red) and animals (mollusks- purple).
"Stories can only be told by being told, and journeys can only be made by being traveled."
Her stories and adventures capture the good and bad, the hopes and dreams, the loves and hates, the beautiful and the ugly, the religious and the secular. She shares with us the sacredness/secretness of red ochre and the "Dreaming" stories for the Aborigines of Australia, the ghoulishness of brown ink - (mommia or 'mummy' - the ink was made of "dead Ancient Egyptians"), the deadliness of white paint (lead white was one of the most important paints on the palette - widely used by European artists in their works. The paint worked so well, it was later added to cosmetics and make-up - countless women diligently applied the lead-tainted makeup to their skin and suffered the consequences of lead poisoning), the richness of Spanish red (made from the blood of the cochineal insect), the orange varnish used by Stradivari and Andrea Guarneri for their violins, the toxicity of orpiment (imagine a rich golden color but absolutely deadly - arsenic is a part of its chemical composition), the mysteriousness of Chinese porcelain or celadon (green), the blue of sky and sea (ultramarine -Italian for "from beyond the seas" and lapis lazuli which cames from Afghanistan), Indigo, which like ultramarine "refers to where the color historically comes from, rather than what the substance actually is" is translated from the Greek to mean "from India" and comes from the indigo plant, and lastly violet which is extracted from a mollusk or Murex brandaris and Murex trunculus.
The journeys she takes, the people she meets, and the little bits and pieces of information that she collects, gathers, and shares with us, make the book and enjoyable and memorable read. I have taken this journey with Finlay many times and each time I have learned something new about the natural palette - check out Color: A Natural History of the Palette, you will be glad you did.