If you’ve been enjoying Dr Helen Czerski’s BBC4 series Colour: The Spectrum of Science (and why would you not?), then I find a cluster of related books on the shelves chez Oikofuge, all of which I can recommend.
Philip Ball is a popular science writer of long experience, and his Bright Earth: Art And The Invention Of Colour (2001) is very much up to his usual standard. At core, it’s a history of paints, from the first smears of coloured earth on cave walls to the rich palette provided by modern chemistry. But it’s also a brief history of painting, and an investigation into the problems of preserving and reproducing painted artworks.
Of his other works, I also own and recommend his trilogy on patterns in Nature, Shapes, Flow and Branches; and his H2O: A Biography Of Water, which will tell you more astonishing things about water than you imagined possible. And I have Universe Of Stone: A Biography Of Chartres Cathedral on my wish-list. I know absolutely nothing about it apart from the title and the fact it’s written by Ball, but that’s enough to have hooked me in.
Victoria Finlay takes a more personal approach to some of the territory covered by Ball in her book Colour: Travels Through The Paintbox (2002). She takes Newton’s traditional seven rainbow colours, adds in the non-spectral hues black, white, brown and ochre, assigns a chapter to each, and sets off on various personal journeys to chart the history and production of each pigment. She’s an amiable travelling companion, with a sharp ear for an engaging story. In the USA, the same book goes under the title Color: A Natural History of the Palette.
Also recommended is her later work, Buried Treasure: Travels Through The Jewel Box, which does the same job on a selection of gemstones. Again, it has a different title in the USA—Jewels: A Secret History. I must say I prefer the British titles in both cases.
Finally, and on a slightly different note, I offer Andrew Parker‘s Seven Deadly Colours: The Genius Of Nature’s Palette And How It Eluded Darwin (2005). Parker is a zoologist at the Natural History Museum in London. His book devotes a chapter to each of seven colours exhibited by animals and plants. (It excludes Newton’s spectral indigo, which never seemed much of a colour anyway, and replaces it with the evolutionarily important ultraviolet.) Each chapter then describes a particular mode of colour production—pigment, diffraction, iridescence, and so on. Along the way, there’s a dissertation on evolution.
Also highly recommended is Parker’s previous book, In The Blink Of An Eye: The Cause Of The Most Dramatic Event In The History Of Life, about the evolution of vision. These two were advertised as part of a planned trilogy, and I awaited the third with great anticipation. I was a little taken aback when the third volume appeared in 2009, entitled The Genesis Enigma: Why The Bible Is Scientifically Accurate, a topic that seemed to come distinctly out of left field, given what had gone before. I confess I haven’t read it.