Two Inticing Paint Color History Books Reviewed

Yesterday I was going through my books preparing for the coming Book Arts RUSH and found again my current published books on pigment history. They are both books about early art material production. These books interest me because Medieval artists or their staff made their own paints. Knowing that paint production history enhances your color use when recreating illumination art.

These two books present you tantalizing background stories and trivia about the complete color creation processes.

The first book is… 

Color: A Natural History of the Palette by Victoria Finlay 

In this book, you read varied, interesting stories describing Finlay’s quest for the world’s historical pigments and dyes. Written as a travelogue through color history, her book takes you from Afghanistan to the Australian outback, to China’s ancient caves, and Spain’s saffron harvest. 

You read vivid stories, anecdotes, and adventures about the colors themselves. About Cleopatra’s saffron use for seduction. Historically expensive ultramarine blue production from lapis lazuli extracted from an Afghan mine. And how carmine red, still used today in lipstick, is made from the blood of insects.
I liked Finlay’s book for its intriguing historical information, especially the extensive notes in the back. Unfortunately, I lost interest and only skimmed through her detailed personal travel descriptions. Instead, I jumped to the color fact chapters labeled by their names.

Better yet is the next book I recommend …

Bright Earth: Art and the Invention of Color  by Philip Ball 

This book tells you about western art history through the physical substances used to create color. How art, chemistry, and technology interacted creating the gorgeous colors you see on our walls, in art galleries and illuminated manuscripts’ pages. 

The author is a physicist and chemist who understands sciences’ part in color perception and pigment manufacture. But he’s also able to describe its facts in vivid and enjoyable detail useful for an artist.

Ball’s book goes back to the Egyptians, but most of it is about the classic artists’ use of mediums and colors. He gives you intriguing insights into their fresco, tempera, and oil painting techniques

You read about the minerals, plants, and insects artists used to produce various colors. How early in history the color you needed perhaps didn’t even exist or was so expensive it was restricted to Saints’ paintings the most important thing artists then portrayed. And how their palette options changed from the middle ages to the present when manufactured hues revolutionized their choices. 

If you have a passionate interest in color history, pigment discovery and its detailed development Ball’s book is the one to read. 

As an SCA scribe and illuminator, I think knowing pigment sources, how paints are produced and the histories behind them add dimension to your creations. Both books tell well the miracle you have in your paint palette and tubes. 

Related Prior Post:

Why I’m Organizing The RUSH Book Arts Seminar 

The Best Beginner’s Paint Making Post  

Categories: Reviews

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