Colour By Victoria Finlay
Sub-titled "Travels through the Paintbox" it is just that. A voyage of discovery about colour - how it is made, where it comes from, and what had to happen to make it available to us. This book is "full of stories and anecdotes, histories and adventures inspired by the human quest for colour" and the author, Victoria Finlay is indeed an intrepid traveller as she travels the world in search of the fascinating history of colour - including dashing off to Afghanistan during the reign of the Taliban in search of a lapis lazuli mine. Early on she mentions The Craftsman's Handbook, written in the 1400s and still used as an art student's text book, along with The Artist's Handbook of Materials and Techniques. I would add this book to the list of required reading for any art student. Before the mid-seventeenth century, painters and other artists knew how to mix colour - they knew the formulas and the methods of creating the colours that they worked with. A generation later much of that knowledge was lost by painters, as there were "colourmen" who mixed colours into paints - watercolours and oils - and sold them to painters. They became craftsmen - the colour makers - and artists - the painters. This is when the paint companies of Winsor Newton and Reeves were established.
Victoria Finlay follows a rainbow of colour through the spectrum. We begin with ochre and travel to Australia - to learn that some pigments change colour when heated, yellow ochre becomes English red - as sienna when heated becomes - yes - burnt sienna. In Australia, in the "middle of nowhere" she finds a "dried up creek bed…it had dozens of colours - dark red haematite, lemon yellow, white pipeclay and black manganese… coloured stones... you could pick up any of them and you had paint in your hands."
We move on to black and brown, and travel to France to look at cave paintings and the origin of charcoal. And then graphite - I learned that there were green painted pencils made in England during WWII containing tiny silk maps and even a tiny compass hidden under the eraser, for use by airmen flying over enemy territory - invented by Charles Fraser-Smith, who was the inspiration for the character Q in the James Bond movies! This book is chock full of this sort of wonderful information. At this point, I am only about a quarter of the way into this book.
Colour was an important commodity - the British had cornered the world on graphite, the French on conté. I learned that ink is made from soot. We know that lead was used in many colours, and we know it is a poison. But, it was a poison that artists were reluctant to give up. When white lead is used for priming a canvas it is believed to give it a more luminous surface and was mixed with other pigments to lighten them. Whistler, who could have used zinc by the 1860s continued to use lead, all the while complaining of malaise. Napoleon who died at the age of only 51, in 1821 may, in fact, have been the victim of the interior decorating - green lead paint, and wallpaper which released arsenic as it moulded in the damp.
Some of the colours I knew about from time spent dying yarn - cochineal - a tiny insect that lives on the prickly pear cactus provides a brilliant red. I also travelled to Oaxaca to find cochineal - but I didn't know that up until 1951 it was used as the dye for the scarlet broadcloth for British officer's uniforms. Indigo is also found in the Oaxaca area, where weavers have been using it for centuries. Although as Victoria Finlay discovered, the natural dyes have mostly been replaced with less expensive - and easier to use - synthetic dyes by most weavers. Many weavers have in fact lost the knowledge of their ancestors about how to use indigo and cochineal, although there is now interest by some to learn the traditional methods.
The author goes on to travel to Turkey seeking rose madder - and returns to England to visit the Winsor and Newton factory to tour the "madder room", but is not allowed to see the whole process, which is still a secret. She travels to Spain and Iran in search of saffron; India and China; to Lebanon seeking purple. We end with Pantone colour standards where colour is all about precision. But as Victoria Finlay concludes "I felt glad that I made my paintbox journey when I could explore the worlds of approximation and poetry, before the colours began to lose their words."