Tag Archives: color

Western Skies: Sunsets

After a year in New Mexico, some things grow familiar. Red or green chile goes with everything, in the morning there’s probably a hot air balloon somewhere, and at night I will hear people gunning their engines on Route 66. But the New Mexican sky still amazes me. Whether its the stars at night, the distant rain, or the views of mountains for miles, it’s so different than the skies I have lived under for the rest of my life. In Missouri and Virginia, the sky was overhead. In New Mexico, it wrap around you like a bowl, a massive semi-spherical window into the universe.

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The impermanence of color: the treachery of entropy

Color seems like an easy, marvelous thing when you get that 64 color box of Crayolas as a kid. 64 sticks of pure color. But, of course, color is complicated. It can be impermanent, difficult to obtain, and toxic. To understand the life and chemistry of colors is to peek under the hood. It’s not what catches your eye, but it’s the heart of the drama.

Many paintings are known to be fading; it’s the newer paintings that draw the most concern. To some extent, the older paintings had probably already faded, but the older paintings also used old tried-and-true methods. The works of Jan van Eyck (1390-1441) are considered to be about as colorful today as when they were painted. Van Gogh’s daisies are fading. Renoir’s red has been digitally re-envisioned to show its pre-faded look.

The 1800s were a boom time of chemistry and industrialization, and the art world participated in this expansion too. 12 elements, including sodium and potassium, were discovered between 1800 and 1810. As Chemistry exploded, and new colors exploded. Mauve, the first synthetic dye, was produced in 1856 from coal tar. Renaissance painters (or their apprentices) prepared their own dyes and pigments (think of those scenes from “The Girl with the Pearl Earring” where Scarlett Johansson is grinding various things); 19th century painters bought paint from chemists. Like the disintegrating trade paperbacks of the early 1900s, when industrialization took over an old process, it was faster and cheaper, but took a while to match other characteristics. Books from the early 1800s are often far more intact than the wood-pulp books that followed them.

Artists like Van Gogh knew the strengths and limitations of their new tools. Van Gogh wrote to his brother, noting that the Impressionist paints “fade like flowers,” so he used the brightest colors he could, doing what he could to counteract impermanence. Even now, not all paints are equally durable; here’s a table for watercolors including such measures.

Today, scientists are studying the precise chemistry that causes fading using X-rays. So far, nothing can be done to stop or reverse the fading; they can only be kept away from light. At least we have the tools to imagine their former glory.

Further reading: Victoria Finlay’s Color is a great read on the chemistry of color without diving too deep technically. I reviewed it on this blog a couple of years ago. This article about the history of oil colors is also really fascinating. And finally, if you’re a chemistry buff, the scientific article about Van Gogh’s fading yellow is open source, and available to the public here.

 

 

Balloonatics

Guess what I’ve been doing all week? Crippling my computer with photo editing! Yesterday the 44th annual Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta closed. And what a spectacle it was. No small wonder it’s sponsored by Canon. I would say more or describe more, but I am running on empty. So let these amazing images do the talking for me.

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A million views and a thousand balloons

Early this morning, my Flickr page crossed over the one million views threshold. Which is pretty exciting! I started my Flickr page almost exactly eight years ago, just after I got my first DSLR. Since then, I’ve taken a lot of pictures and learned a ton, and had a blast doing it.

million views

And early yesterday morning, I biked to the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, one of the biggest hot air balloon gatherings in the world. It. Was. Amazing. The bike ride, the balloons, the launches, EVERYTHING. It was one of the most fun things I’ve done, and easily one of most exciting things to photograph. I took about 1500 photos (though a lot of them were duplicates to hedge my exposure bets). It’s been a wonderful weekend!

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It’s February and I need some greenery, despite the tyranny of groundhogs

And the day after the Super Bowl. So, I need a pick-me-up to start the week and I bet a lot of other people do too. And thus, a tropic sunset. (If my title doesn’t make sense to the international set, google groundhog day, our least-satisfying holiday.)

florida-03657 florida-03671 florida-03703 florida-03753And after the sun set, the moon came out. The awesome fast sensor on my new camera makes a night shot look like a day shot without graininess distorting the beauty. ISO 2500 and still looks great!

 

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.

 

Color

Color runs through our lives in many ways– it’s how we pick out the ripest strawberries and cherries, it’s how we put together an outfit, it sets a mood and conveys symbolism. Red is passion and blood, white is purity, blue is serenity or even depression.

Colors are human. We see only a tiny range of electromagnetic waves, and the colors we see depend upon the frequency of that light. The colors of the world are there because our brains and eyes interpret them into the tints we see. Our brains give us that beauty.

Human history is full of color. Painters strive for vibrant shades that withstand the degradation of time. We use colors in food, makeup and clothes. Often, though, we don’t consider the origins of color, and how we obtained these colors throughout history. Many were toxic, such as lead white and red cinnabar (a combination of mercury and sulfur). They chemicals were so valuable and prized that people used them even for makeup. Today, we still use eyeshadow and cherry sodas with crushed bugs, which while slightly icky, is vastly safer.

Although we have many more synthetic compounds and colors, these old colors are still sometimes the best. The titanium white we use today is more opaque and less lustrous than lead white, and some suggest it may not hold up as well over time. Red cinnabar used in Roman art retains its color 20 centuries later. In the last two centuries, we have discovered a whole new range of color compounds with the advent of chemistry and globalization. But our goals are always the same, to stimulate the part of our brain that sees color in wiggles of light.

Colors!