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Bright Earth: Art and the Invention of Colour [Paperback]

Philip Ball
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)

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Book Description

19 May 2003
If you want to know why a good blue was so hard to find for so long, or why printed reproductions rarely match the colour of the originals, or why Rothko's canvases have changed colour in only 40 years, or just about anything else about the art and science involved in creating and using colour, "Bright Earth" is the book for you. From Egyptian wall paintings to the Venetian Renaissance, impressionism to digital images, Philip Ball tells the fascinating story of how art, chemistry and technology have interacted throughout the ages to render the gorgeous hues we admire on our walls and in our museums.

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Product details

  • Paperback: 424 pages
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press (19 May 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 9780226036281
  • ISBN-13: 978-0226036281
  • ASIN: 0226036286
  • Product Dimensions: 22.9 x 15.2 x 3.1 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 497,780 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Philip Ball is a freelance science writer. He worked at Nature for over 20 years, first as an editor for physical sciences (for which his brief extended from biochemistry to quantum physics and materials science) and then as a Consultant Editor. His writings on science for the popular press have covered topical issues ranging from cosmology to the future of molecular biology.

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About the Author

Philip Ball majored in chemistry at the University of Oxford and received a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Bristol. He is a writer and consulting editor for "Nature" and a regular contributor to the scientific and popular press, including "New Scientist" and the "New York Times." Ball is the author of six other books, including "The Self-Made Tapestry: Pattern Formation in Nature and Life's Matrix: A Biography of Water."

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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars History of paint 7 Dec 2007
Format:Paperback
Colour is easy to take as grant. However, the great painters of the history worked often with a very limited palettes, as good pigments simply weren't invented. The best blues and reds were very valuable, which defined the ways they were used in medieval painting. There's plenty of detail in the history of art that can be explained by the economics and chemistry of paint.

Philip Ball is a chemist and painters will learn a lot of chemistry from this book. Chemists will learn about art and painting and curious reader will learn both. The book is clearly written, entertaining and educational: an excellent example of good popular science. There are plenty of interesting details, as Ball goes through the history of art and pigments from the stone age cave paintings to modern art. (Review based on the Finnish translation.)
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Amazon.com: 4.2 out of 5 stars  24 reviews
100 of 102 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Diverting re-imaging of art history 24 Feb 2002
By Royce E. Buehler - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Philip Ball presents us with the thesis that the coloring materials available to painters have constrained and inspired them down through the whole history of Western art, and that understanding how each of those materials appeared, and how artists and their patrons received them, has a surprising degree of explanatory power.
He amply supports this modest thesis. But fortunately for the reader, he is less interested in pushing a point than in telling a story. It's also a stroke of our good fortune that he rambles as he tells it. Ball is first of all an accomplished science writer, but his interests are very wide. Yes, he tells us all we need to know about the physics of light, and the inorganic and organic chemistry that have made the painter's palette steadily more vibrant with the passing centuries. He also gives us the technology behind the colors, and with this book as a key one might, if one had to, reconstruct many of the most important, and often closely guarded, color recipes of the ancients and the Old Masters. But he also limns the rise and fall of many of the strongest currents in Western art; painting's interaction with religion and commerce, and how its schools rose and fell and squabbled. Nor does he neglect philology; I loved learning where all those strange names on the tubes of oil paint come from.
The secret life of pigments is a rich subject, of which Ball has clearly made himself a master. Fascinating facts and boldly drawn connections tumble after one another, and there's not a single ounce of padding anywhere.
You'll learn what "cobalt" blue has to do with Kobolds: miners in Saxony who dug cobalt-zinc oxides for the color felt the ore to be in league against them with the wicked spirits of the mines, because it ate away their hands and feet if they weren't careful to keep them dry.
You'll learn why the Virgin Mary came to be dressed in blue; the tradeoffs a Renaissance artist had to make deciding whether to work in tempera, size, oils, or "distemper"; how old paintmakers' recipe books provide a Rosetta stone into some of the arcane symbolism of the alchemists; how the philosophical war between Florence and Venice over the relative virtues of color and line may have been influenced by Venice's shipbuilding industry; what Seurat was trying to accomplish with all those tiny dots, why he was able to attract an entire school of pointillists to his cause, and why it failed.
There are chapters on the physiology of color perception and the physics of color, on how colors deteriorate and what can and can't be done to restore them, on the invention and refinement of photography and color printing. But for all the byways he pursues, Ball never strays far from the thread of his main narrative: the accelerating pursuit of new materials, so that the colors on the physical surface can more brightly and accurately reflect the colors in the painter's mental eye.
It's worth noting that, compared to conventional pictures of art history, the one that emerges here is curiously foreshortened: since most of the colors on the palette have appeared since 1850, the Impressionists mark the midpoint of this version of the story.
There's so much here that almost every reader will find new and diverting ideas, whether their initial interest is in art, or in chemistry, or in cultural history. Not everything that dazzles illuminates; but "Bright Earth" does both.
31 of 31 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Cinnabar, Orpiment, Lapis lazuli, Ocher, Realgar 4 May 2002
By Bruce Crocker - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Bright Earth: Art and the Invention of Color by Philip Ball is an amazing mix of color, art, chemistry, and mineralogy. Ball takes the reader on a field trip through the history of pigments and the paintings painted with them, with a strong emphasis on the chemistry that he knows well. The underlying thesis of the book is that the pigments available at a particular moment in history had a strong influence on the art made with them and, based on extensive empirical evidence presented in the book, I would say that Ball has made his case. If you aren't prepared for large amounts of well-written detail, stay away from this book. As a geologist turned high school chemistry and earth science teacher with a love of art, I found much to like about Bright Earth. My only complaint is that the book makes mention of hundreds of works of art, but only presents pictures of a small precentage of them. This book would benefit from a coffee table-type treatment with a more extensive gallery of the mentioned works of art. That said, the book is far enough past 4 stars to give it a full 5.
35 of 36 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars La cage aux fauves..... 30 Mar 2002
By Dianne Foster - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
In BRIGHT EARTH, Philip Ball says, in the early 20th Century, Louis Vauxcelles, the art critic, on viewing Florentine-inspired sculptures standing in the midst of an exhibit of paintings that included the works of Matisse, Kandinsky, Braque, and others of their ilk is reported to have said, "Look, Donatello in a cage of wild beasts" (dans la cage aux fauves)--giving this group of artists the sobriquet by which they are known. Vauxcelles comment was prompted by his reaction to what he perceived to be an enthusiastic use of colors. Ball says the Fauvists were inspired by Van Gogh and Gauguin--the late impressionists, and in turn they inspired Picasso and the modern art movement of the 20th Century which Ball says was largely driven by color.
I had read Vauxcelles' comment elsewhere, but in Ball's retelling, the quip makes complete sense. The cages are the framed canvases. The colors are wild like the exotic beasts brought to Europe from faraway places. These colors were virtually unknown before the late 19th Century and the rise of the petrochemical industry. Like Van Gogh and Gauguin before and Picasso after the Fauvists used these pigments in unnatural ways.
Generally, art histories divert one into a discussion about lighting, atmosphere, iconography, brush stokes, or composition. Color is discussed but usually as an adjunct or afterthought. In BRIGHT EARTH, color IS the organizing principle--and it makes all the difference. The light in Monet's boating scene bounces off the water because the waves are composed of tiny flecks of violet and yellow. Van Gogh's Sunflowers have the tone they do because he liked to experiment with color and he used an unstable lemon-yellow pigment that has deteriorated over time. Rembrandt was brilliant not only because he created classic compositions and used deft brush strokes to do so, but because he understood how to use pigments that would stand the test of time.
What is color? I once visited a museum in Chicago which had an interior room filled with white canvases. Each canvas may have had a small black mark on it, I don't remember. What I remember is a completely white room which was supposed to be devoid of stimulation--but I found the room very stimulating. Is white a color or isn't it? Ball debates both sides of this argument. I find it amusing that over the millenia, artists, weavers, and other have found the non-color white one of the most difficult colors to acquire. Ball says that at the end of the 20th Century, the nine-volume publication entitled, "Color Index International", includes 9,000 pages of "colorants" and the pigment produced in the greatest numbers is white. White is the most "widely preferred veneer for our synthethic environment." One has only to think of paper towels, napkins, toliet paper, toothpaste, bread, and a variety of material goods that are made white so that consumers will buy them.
BRIGHT EARTH is an incredible and comprehensive book covering painting from Altimira to Hockney, pigments from Madder Red to Cadmium Red, art works from Greek vases to Miro tapestries, and chemicals from organics such as Woad and Indigo, to the enamels used by artists who no longer can be divided into categories such as scuplter, painter, weaver. Ball has skillfully handled a plethora of complex material. He is an incredibly well organized researcher and this is a well written book.
I have only one criticism of Ball's book. In his effort to concentrate on color relative to the visual arts of painting, photography, and print making, he has failed to include much material about textiles (some, but it won't be enough if this is your medium), and he virtually omits discussion of ceramics and pottery, and garden design. Because of this, he cannot clearly frame the future of art which most assuredly will include both visual and tactile dimensions. In Ball's defense, if he had covered these other arts his book would have been 9,000 pages long and filled nine volumes.
37 of 39 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An essential book for artists 15 Feb 2002
By John Seed - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
I was able to get a review copy of "Bright Earth" and found it a remarkable book. I have been a painter for over 20 years, but only after reading this book do I feel that I have begun to grasp not only the crucial role of color in art, but also the remarkable scientific and cultural aspects of color.
In particular, I now understand how 19th century breakthroughs in color science were crucial to Modern Art.
The pages of this book hold one revelation after another... you won't skip a chapter.
21 of 23 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars color the old fashioned way 5 May 2002
By drollere - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
ball's theme is disarmingly simple: that the history of western art can be illuminated by the history of the physical substances used to create color.
ball explains very early that his materialistic approach has often been disparaged by artists, who do not want to be seen as mere craftsmen but as visionaries and poets. his reply is simply that the luxury of buying premade paints is a relatively new phenomenon; before this century artists almost always made their own paints and for that reason understood in great detail the best ways to use them for permanency and color effects. ball describes these uses in great detail, in artists as diverse as titian, cezanne and yves klein, and the insights he provides into painting techniques are fascinating.
trained as a physicist and chemist, ball understands the scientific aspects of color perception and pigment manufacture, and has mastered the basics of how these are used in artworks; better yet, he can describe all these facts clearly and enjoyably, with vivid images and graceful writing. i found a few details that struck me as inaccurate or incorrectly interpreted, but as a whole the book is extremely reliable and informative, a testament to careful research and editing.
ball's book is well worth reading along with john gage's "color and culture" (a book ball quotes with approval), which focuses on the social and intellectual aspects of color in art. ball's title might be "pigment and technique," since he shows that the continual appearance of new pigments opened up new technical problems, and technical possibilities, for artists to work on. this is still a relatively new approach to art history and art interpretation, but it is gaining influence: see for example james elkins's "what painting is" for a free interpretation of the parallels and points of contact between painting and alchemy.
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