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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1793

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.”

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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 because purple was difficult and expensive to produce. Purple came to represent royalty because of its rarity, not because of more ethereal associations. Similarly, medieval religious paintings of the Virgin Mary are striking for their conventional use of rich blue for the Virgin’s robes. This is not, as might be assumed, because of any symbolic association of blue with purity or the heavens. Rather, blue was chosen because it was the most expensive pigment, and nothing less would have been suitable for the mother of God. The cost of the pigment also explains the shimmering gold haloes that surround the heads of holy figures in these paintings; presumably, if orange or violet had been more costly to produce, saints would have been crowned with haloes of those hues. In fact, there is little pure orange or violet in painting before the nineteenth century, because no one knew how to make it.

Until the nineteenth century, when elements and molecules began to reveal their secrets, pigments and dyes were made exclusively from animal, mineral, and vegetable ingredients. In the 1850’s, however, while attempting to make a synthetic form of quinine to treat malaria, young William Henry Perkin accidentally formed a synthetic dye from an aniline compound. This section of the book shows Ball at his best and most enthusiastic, eagerly telling the tale of “how the eighteen-year-old young man launched the chemicals industry, experimenting at home like a teenager in his bedroom.” Perkin’s work led to a commercially successful mauve dye that not only revolutionized European fashion, but also showed that increasing knowledge of the physical properties of materials could enable scientists to predict the color of new compounds. Several large multinational chemical companies, including Bayer and BASF, got their start in the quest for synthetic dyes.

Another important way that art has changed over the centuries is that artists have become less intimately acquainted with their materials. Medieval and Renaissance painters made their own paints or supervised their making. Pigments were purchased in solid form and ground by hand into fine particles, which were then mixed with binder into the desired consistency. This laborious task, vividly brought to life for the generalist reader by Tracy Chevalier’s novel Girl with a Pearl Earring (1999), gave the careful artist a great deal of quality control, assuming the sources for the raw materials were reliable. The availability of ready-made paints, Ball shows, gave the artist both more freedom and less control. Landscape painting in the nineteenth century, for example, evolved not only because the Romantics offered new ways to think about the world, but also because the invention of metal tubes made it possible for the first time to carry paints outdoors for hours at a time without their drying out. Painters in the twentieth century could purchase literally hundreds of organic and synthetic colors ready for use, but artists no longer had to know much about their composition. Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) was among those who eagerly used every new paint that caught his eye, sometimes before they had been tested against time. His 1889 painting Sunflowers, Ball explains, is brownish and “a drab, lackluster piece, uncharacteristic of the artist” not because that is what van Gogh envisioned or created, but because “the pigment (chrome yellow) has degraded over time, and we are left with a shadow of the true painting.”

In addition to his unhesitating appreciation for beautiful art, another hallmark of Ball’s writing is his delight in the etymologies of everyday words. In Bright Earth, he explains the derivation of common color names and other terms. For example, his analysis of the Renaissance studio system of masters and apprentices reveals that the term “masterpiece” originally referred to the artwork submitted to the guild by an apprentice who felt ready to become a master—therefore, not an artist’s greatest work, but that artist’s first competent production. The term “pink” originally designated any pigment made up of an organic colorant with an inorganic base; most of the early pinks were yellow in color, but there were also pinks of green and brown and, eventually, rose. It was not until the nineteenth century that “pink” was used to name the color made by combining red and white. The volume is liberally sprinkled with anecdotes like these, unveiling the surprising histories of “carmine” (named for the insect from which it was made), “miniature” (named for the red pigment minium, which was often used in small paintings), and “scarlet” (at first the name for a particular type of woven cloth, which over time came to be frequently dyed a rich red).

In the final chapters, Ball examines art in the late twentieth century and peers into the future of electronic art. After going back in time to give a brief history of photography, he explains the difficulties of reproducing art in prints, writing straightforwardly of the limitations of his own book’s color plates. Even computers, which theoretically can display thousands of colors, have difficulty conveying the brightness of certain colors (particularly rich greens) because of the limitations physics places on the materials from which monitors are made. Ball concludes that there may never be a perfect way to reproduce color, and that “It is by no means obvious at this point that the new technologies will enhance the color range of on-screen images—possibly quite the opposite.” Furthermore, while artists who create their work on computers may be exhilarated with the range of colors available to them on- screen, the capabilities of printers continue to lag far behind.

The questions Ball raises in this study are fascinating, and even as he answers them his study raises a host of new questions. What might the same approach yield if applied to the making of stained glass, a completely different way of producing and combining color? What might the fields of psychology or cognitive science add to the discussion of how color is perceived and valued? Do academic art historians have the same view of the development of art as Ball? What will the future bring? The mark of a good book is just this: It leaves the reader satisfied, yet curious and hungry for more.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist 98 (January 1, 2002): 788.

Contemporary Review 280 (March, 2002): 191.

Kirkus Reviews 69 (December 1, 2001): 1655.

New Scientist 172 (November 24, 2001): 44.

Publishers Weekly 248 (November 26, 2001): 46.

Science 295 (March 8, 2002): 1841.

Scientific American 286 (March, 2002): 98.

Time International 159 (January 28, 2002): 54.

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