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.
One thought on “Three books About Colour”
In the third episode of the TV series, it was good to see Czerski dealing with the alleged “mystery” of that black-and-blue dress (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-highlands-islands-31656935), probably the dumbest “Internet sensation” since lolcats.