Book Review: Color (Victoria Finlay 2002)

Rating: 3.5/5

Color by Victoria Finlay is about the history of various pigments and dyes. We learn about where and when colors arose and their influence on culture. This parts of the book devoted to color were totally and utterly fascinating, almost rapturous.

So why 3.5 stars? This book had two faces– one about the colors (which I loved), and another about the author’s travels to find these colors (which I didn’t love). I enjoyed this book, and would recommend it to others. But I have little interest in reading more work by Finlay. The history of color is in itself compelling, at times in spite of Finlay.

The details of Finlay’s travels really don’t inform the main interest, the colors; they seem more to congratulate her for traveling so well. The travel descriptions are not brief, and are at times she romanticizes them to a nauseating degree. In Taliban Afghanistan, she remarks that burkas (the type where even the eyes are covered by lace) seem to increase flirting. Well, isn’t that just quaint and lovely, then? A large portion of the chapter about blacks involves Finlay “imagining” what a woman from a Greek myth might have done with various black pigments. It was useless and nonsensical, solely there to add artsiness without substance. In the chapter on orange, she travels to the city where Stradivarius and others made fine violins, and asks the natives how they managed to be such a center for fine instruments. “I don’t know,” replied the clerk at the tourist desk, people in the street, and I asked myself why they ought to know, and why their uncertainty was worthy of including in the book.

These bits I mention so annoy me because the subject is excellent, and otherwise the writing is good. I learned a whole new appreciation for my paintbox and the paintings at the art museum. Much of the book highlights the difficulty in obtaining permanent and good color. In the search for attractive, permanent colors, people traveled the world, poisoned themselves, invented absurd multistep processes, spied, and died in mines. All of this for color, something that is only there in the frequency of light reflected by these paints, something whose value is really a function of our eyes and brains rather than nature.

Lead white was the main white paint for many years. As you might imagine, it was toxin. But more, it can turn black in the presence of certain chemicals. Cochineal red, used in make-up and cherry coke, is made of crushed bugs. Before this red, brazilwood was a common source of red, the namesake of Brazil. Brazilwood is still considered the best wood for the bows of string instruments, though now it is terribly rare.

Gamboge yellow comes from one specific tree in Cambodia, though it takes a whole year to collect the sap. Brilliant arsenic-based Scheele’s green may have killed Napoleon, leaching from his wallpaper in the humid air of St. Helena. Most of the lapis lazuli, and ultramarine paint, in the world comes from one little valley in Afghanistan.

It takes 17 steps to dye something Turkey Red, and no small amount of espionage went into learning this process. Before this book, I had no appreciation for the difficulties and sophisticated chemistry of dyeing something. Many pharmaceutical companies such as Pfizer started first as dye works. Black was a very hard color to make; in order for the puritans to have their modest black clothes, pirates had to transport trees from halfway around the world.

There were two aspects to this book, a beautiful wonderful one that inspired my curiosity, and a self-indulgent, tedious one that made me roll my eyes. I would have liked there to be more chemistry, but I understand that this doesn’t enhance the joy for most people, and I don’t state this lack as a negative. I learned a lot from this book and learned to see colors in a new light, and in all likelihood, you would too.

 

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