Bright Earth

by Philip Ball

Cover image

Publisher: University of Chicago
Copyright: 2001
Printing: 2003
ISBN: 0-226-03628-6
Format: Trade paperback
Pages: 337

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The subtitle Art and the Invention of Color does a good job advertising the topic of Bright Earth: a history of the creation of color pigments for art (specifically European painting; more on that in a moment). It starts with a brief linguistic and scientific introduction to color, sketches what's known about use and creation of color pigments in antiquity, and then settles down for serious historical study starting in the Middle Ages. Ball catalogs pigment choices, discusses manufacturing methods, and briefly surveys the opinions of various schools of art on color from before the Renaissance through to the modern art of today. He also takes two fascinating (albeit too brief) side trips to discuss aging of pigments and the problem of reproducing color art.

This is one of those non-fiction books whose primary joy for me was to introduce me to problems and constraints that were obvious in retrospect but that I'd never thought about. If someone had asked me whether painters were limited in their subject matter and methods by the colors available to them, I probably would have said "huh" and agreed, but I never thought to ask the question. Like a lot of people of my age in the US, I grew up watching Bob Ross's The Joy of Painting and its familiar list of oil paints: phthalo green, alizarin crimson, and so forth. But of course that rich palette is a product of modern chemistry. Early Renaissance painters had to make do with fewer options, many of them requiring painstaking preparation that painters or their assistants did themselves before the popularity of art and the rise of professional color makers. They knew, and were shaped by, their materials in a way that one cannot be when one buys tubes of paint from an art store.

Similarly, I was familiar with additive color mixing from physics and from computer graphics projects, and had assumed that a few reasonable primaries would provide access to the entire palette. I had never considered the now-obvious problem of subtractive mixing with impure primaries: since the pigments are removing colors from white light, mixing together multiple pigments quickly gets you a muddy brown, not a brilliant secondary color. The resulting deep distrust of mixing pigments that dates back to antiquity further limits the options available to painters.

Ball's primary topic is the complicated interplay between painting and science. Many of the new colors of the Renaissance were byproducts or accidents of alchemy, and were deeply entangled in the obsession with the transmutation of metals into gold. Most of the rest were repurposed dyes from the much more lucrative textile business. Enlightenment chemistry gave rise to a whole new palette, but the chemistry of colors is complex and fickle. Going into this book, I had a superficial impression that particular elements or compounds had particular colors, and finding pigments would be a matter of finding substances that happened to have that color. Ball debunks that idea quickly: small variations in chemical structure, and thus small variations in preparation, can produce wildly different colors. Better chemistry led to more and better colors, but mostly by accident or trial and error until surprisingly recently. The process to make a color almost always came first; understanding of why it worked might be delayed centuries.

In school, I was an indifferent art student at best, so a lot of my enjoyment of Bright Earth came from its whirlwind tour of art history through the specific lens of color. I hadn't understood why medieval European paintings seem so artificial and flat before reading this book, or why, to my modern eye, Renaissance work suddenly became more beautiful and interesting. I had also never thought about the crisis that photography caused for painting, or how much that explains of the modern move away from representational art. And I had seriously underestimated the degree to which colors are historically symbolic rather than representational. This material may be old news for those who paid attention in art history courses (or, *cough*, took them in the first place), but I enjoyed the introduction. (I often find topics more approachable when presented through an idiosyncratic lens like this.)

Ball is clear, straightforward, and keeps the overall picture coherent throughout, which probably means that he's simplifying dramatically given that the scope of this book is nothing less than the entire history of European and American painting. But I'm a nearly complete newcomer to this topic, and he kept me afloat despite the flood of references to paintings that I've never seen or thought about, always providing enough detail for me to follow his points about color. You definitely do not have to already know art history to get a lot out of this book.

I do have one caveat and one grumble. The caveat is that, despite the subtitle, this book is not about art in general. It's specifically about painting, and more specifically focused on the subset of painting that qualifies as "fine art." Ball writes just enough about textiles to hint that the vast world of dyes may be even more interesting, and were certainly more important to more people, but textiles are largely omitted from this story. More notably, one would not be able to tell from this book that eastern Asia or Africa or pre-colonial America exist, let alone have their own artistic conventions and history. Ball's topic is relentlessly limited to Europe, and then the United States, except for a few quick trips to India or Afghanistan for raw materials. There's nothing inherently wrong with this — Ball already has more history than he can fully cover in only Europe and the United States — but it would have been nice to read a more explicit acknowledgment and at least a few passing mentions of how other cultures approached this problem.

The grumble is just a minor mismatch of interests between Ball and myself, namely that the one brief chapter on art reproduction was nowhere near enough for me, and I would have loved to read three or four chapters (or a whole book) on that topic. I suspect my lack of appreciation of paintings has a lot to do with the challenges of reproducing works of art in books or on a computer screen, and would have loved more technical detail on what succeeds and what fails and how one can tell whether a reproduction is "correct" or not. I would have traded off a few alchemical recipes for more on that modern problem. Maybe I'll have to find another book.

As mentioned above, I'm not a good person to recommend books about art to anyone who knows something about art. But with that disclaimer, and the warning that the whirlwind tour of art history mixed with the maddening ambiguity of color words can be a bit overwhelming in spots, I enjoyed reading this more than I expected and will gladly recommend it.

Bright Earth does not appear to be available as an ebook, and I think that may be a wise choice. The 66 included color plates help a great deal, and I wouldn't want to read this book without them. Unless any future ebook comes with very good digital reproductions, you may want to read this book in dead tree form.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2019-01-09

Last modified and spun 2019-01-10