Sunday, November 26, 2017

Books I'm Reading: The Secret Lives of Color

Author Kassia St. Clair has converted a passion for color and a regular column about colors in British Elle Decoration magazine into The Secret Lives of Color (Penguin, 2016), a volume covering 75 colors of note. Some of these are as familiar as beige, others are as obscure as mummy, which was, yes, made by grinding up Egyptian mummies. The main entries, each two- to three-pages long are grouped by hue and the pages are edged in the hue under discussion so that the book from the side looks like a package of construction paper in assorted colors. Another 120 or so colors are given one- to two-line mentions in a "Glossary of Other Interesting Colors" at the back of the book. There are fairly extensive notes, recommendations for further reading, and a good index as well.

When I hear the word "color" I think in terms of pigments, but St. Clair uses "color" in the vernacular sense of a hue or shade. Thus, while many of the colors discussed are, in fact, pigments (white lead, Prussian blue, and vermillion, for example), as many or more in the book are not—colors such as "acid yellow," "fluorescent pink," and, more tamely, "taupe." As the authors puts it, "Some are artists' colors, some are dyes, and others are almost more akin to ideas or sociocultural creations."

Pigments tend to be constants; we know white lead (lead carbonate) today is the same shade it was hundreds of years ago. Vermillion (mercury sulfide) is always vermillion. Hues are more slippery and for a variety of reasons. The color associated with a particular name may change over time or be different in different cultures using the same root word. Names themselves change over time. I thought it interesting to learn that both "russet" and "scarlet" (and apparently "blanket") were originally terms for types of cloth rather than colors, and that russet today is a shade rather redder than it would have been understood to be even 100 years ago (when it denoted a range of dull brownish, grayish colors). Some colors become lost entirely, for technical reasons, and, when revived, there is no way to know for certain if we've produced the lost shade; Tyrian purple, made from the bodies of a certain sea snail in the genus Murex, is the classic example of a lost color, but Egyptian blue was lost as well, and no one makes mummy any more. Even indigo is not as certain as it may seem; some 30 plants are known to be a source of natural indigo, but different plants and different processing techniques may create subtle differences of hue, and today most indigo is entirely synthetic. Then there is the difference between subtractive (emitted color) color and additive (reflected) color. In short, color is a complex subject and the stories of virtually all colors are rich in historical, social, and scientific nuance.

However, being something of a pigment nerd and an artist who has used inks and paints since childhood, much of the information in The Secret Lives of Color was familiar to me already. I would have welcomed a deeper dive into the technical side of things, but St. Clair is writing for a more general audience. Her essays, she says, are intended to be "something between a potted history and a character sketch" for each color. And so they are. They are light enough to be easily read and entertaining yet they have enough technical information to make the book a useful quick reference. That said, reading The Secret Lives of Color left me wanting to indulge in something like Artists' Pigments: A Handbook of Their History and Characteristics (Barbara Berrie, editor), a multi-volume compendium costing hundreds of dollars and full of all the trivia I so love when it comes to pigments. It's on my Christmas list.

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