In Life’s Matrix: A Biography of Water (2000), polymath Philip Ball gave himself no less challenging a task than to explain the physics, chemistry, mythology, sociology, psychology, and politics of water from the beginning of time to the present. His goal for his latest book, Bright Earth: Art and the Invention of Color, is scarcely less ambitious: to trace the history of Western art from cave painting to the ancient Greeks to the artists working with computers at the turn of the twenty-first century, and to do it through the lens of chemistry. Ball looks at color in a painting as a substance that must be produced and manipulated and shows how many of the choices made by painters through history were guided not only by aesthetics but by what materials were available at a given time. Trained in chemistry and physics, Ball is also passionate about art, announcing early on, “I relish paint and pigment as materials, with appearances, smells, textures, and names that entice and intoxicate.” While the focus of the book is on the chemistry of color, Ball also delves into “its historical traditions, its psychology, its prejudices, its religiosity and mysticism.”
The word “invention” in the title is not casually chosen. Ball shows how the naming of colors—even the understanding of what is meant by color—is neither universal nor fixed. Before the appearance in common consciousness of the color spectrum, cultures were just as likely to distinguish colors by their intensity, or brightness or lightness, as they were to choose hue as the primary feature, and many different systems still exist for naming and distinguishing colors. The ancient Greeks certainly lived in the same world of color that readers of Ball’s book inhabit, yet they mention only four colors in descriptions of their painting: black, white, red, and yellow. The medieval word sinople was used to refer to red or to green, with no apparent distinction. Latin has no word for gray. Certain Asian languages do not distinguish between blue and green. On one level, then, the word “invention” refers to the fact that notion of color itself is a social construct. At what point does red become orange become yellow? The answer has been invented differently for different cultures.
The other level on which “invention” functions is at the heart of the book. Art and its demands for new pigments and dyes spurred developments in alchemy and chemistry, just as the invention of new pigments and other materials gave rise to innovation in art. The shifting territory between art and science, between creation and invention, is the realm Ball explores in Bright Earth. Admirers of Ball’s previous work will recognize the theme underlying this volume. His fascination with the history of science, with the story of how certain men of science (and they were mostly men) set about to look for one thing and found another, and with how seemingly small incremental steps have led to sudden leaps, forms a thread that also runs through Designing the Molecular World: Chemistry at the Frontier (1994) and Life’s Matrix. The idea that art and science inform each other is another repeated theme in Ball’s work, and it is the central theme of this book.
Assuming a reader who knows something of art history but little about science, Ball begins his book with a science lesson. The first two chapters explore the changing notions of color and describe from the viewpoint of physics what scientists past and present have understood color to be. He explains the concepts of subtractive mixing (by which red and yellow pigment can combine to form orange) and additive mixing (by which red, blue, and green light can combine to form white light), reviews the rods and cones of the human eye, and wonders where brown and pink, which do not appear on the spectrum, originate. The book’s sixty-six color plates and several black-and-white diagrams illustrate the concepts that words alone cannot convey.
With the third chapter, Ball begins a chronological survey of Western art history, beginning with the ancient world. As he moves forward in time, he describes what is known about the materials used in each region and age and how the availability of different materials informed the use of color. The Roman Empire, for example, reserved robes of rich purple for the emperor and others of high rank...
(The entire section is 1793 words.)