Book: Bright Earth: Art and the Invention of Color

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Bright Earth: Art and the Invention of Color

Author: Philip Ball
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

A fascinating study of the evolution of color in art and science from antiquity to the present.

For art in the twentieth century, medium is the message. Many artists offer works defined by their materials. In no aspect is this more strikingly demonstrated than in the use of color.

Bright Earth is the story of how color evolved and was produced for artistic and commercial use. The modern chemical industry was spawned and nurtured largely by the demand for color as many of today’s major chemical companies began as manufacturers of aniline dye; advances in synthetic chemistry, both organic and inorganic, were stimulated in the nineteenth century by the quest for artificial colors. The future holds still more challenges for the color chemist, not only to provide new coloring materials, but also to replace old ones that will shortly become extinct, as concerns about the use of lead and cadmium pigments increase.

In Bright Earth, Philip Ball brings together the themes of art and science to show that chemical technology and the use of color in art have always existed in a symbiotic relationship that has shaped both their courses throughout history. By tracing their co-evolution, Ball reveals how art is more of a science, and science more of an art, than is commonly appreciated on either side of the fence.


The making of a painting relies on inspiration, craft, practice, and vision. But, observes the noted science writer Philip Ball, it also hinges on science: “For as long as painters have fashioned their visions and dreams into images, they have relied on technical knowledge and skill to supply their materials.”

In this lively study, Ball examines some of the tools and materials that chemists have added to the palette over the centuries. He also takes his readers on a learned tour of what science has taught us about vision, the nature of light, and the physical and cultural factors that condition our perceptions of color (the ancient Romans, he notes, had no term for brown or gray, but that does not mean they didn’t use earth pigments in their work). Whether writing of matters scientific or artistic, Ball is a technologist but not a determinist. In the end, he writes, art depends not on science but on artists, and “each artist makes his or her own contract with the colors of the time.”

Readers with an interest in science, art, and the crossroads where they meet will relish Ball’s erudite travels across the spectrum of light. —Gregory McNamee

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