Interviews April 2002

The Science of the Palette

Philip Ball, the author of Bright Earth: Art and the Invention of Color, talks about the intersection of art, science, and creativity
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Bright Earth: Art and the Invention of Color
by Philip Ball
Farrar, Straus & Giroux
382 pages, $30.00

On a wall in London's National Gallery hangs one of van Gogh's famous Sunflowers paintings—an understated arrangement of thickly layered ochres, muted oranges, and russet browns depicting a flower-filled vase against a brownish-yellow background. The thoughtful viewer might seek to analyze why van Gogh used such uncharacteristically subdued and harmonious colors. (Perhaps, one might guess, the painting was created during a period of respite from his notorious torment?) And the thick daubs of crudely applied paint might seem to suggest an impulsive approach on his part—a giving over to spontaneity in place of careful planning.

In fact, as pigment analysis indicates, van Gogh's painting today little resembles the way it looked more than a hundred years ago when it was first completed. The "chrome yellow" pigment that figures heavily in the work was, at the time, a vibrant, brilliant color—in keeping with van Gogh's more typically lurid color schemes. But over time it faded to the lusterless brown-yellow that it is today, transforming the overall feeling of the work. As for the thickness of the paint, that can be explained at least in part as symptomatic not of impulsiveness but of the artist's foresightful awareness that some of the pigments he was using might not stand the test of time because they had only recently been developed by the fledgling chemical industry. One might as well "lay them on ... crudely," he wrote in a letter to his brother, because "time will tone them down only too much."

As the science writer Philip Ball makes clear in his new book Bright Earth: Art and the Invention of Color, without a knowledge of the history, composition, and cultural conventions of painterly color, much can elude even the most observant and otherwise well-informed art critic. Inseparable from the story of art, he argues, is the story of the development of artistic color. Ball traces this development from the surprisingly sophisticated scientific capabilities of the ancient Egyptians—who created such pigments as Egyptian blue (from limestone, copper, and sand) and pale yellow (from lead oxide and chemically transformed minerals)—to the secret alchemical color recipes of the Middle Ages, the advent of oil painting in the Renaissance, the rise of the chemical industry, the birth of photography, and the dawn of the digital age.

The range of available artistic color, he emphasizes, plays a far greater role in the choices an artist makes than is often recognized:

How is your desire for blue affected if you have just paid more for it than for the equivalent weight in gold? That yellow looks glorious, but what if its traces on your fingertips could poison you at your supper table? This orange tempts like distilled sunlight, but how do you know that it will not have faded to dirty brown by next year?

In some cases, the sheer difficulty of creating a particular dye or pigment has given a color an aura of mystique or sacredness. The Virgin Mary, for example, was often depicted wearing a deep blue robe in medieval paintings, not because she was believed to have actually worn such a garment, but because the extremely complex and time-consuming process of deriving ultramarine blue from the rare stone lapis lazuli rendered the color off limits for all but the most precious of subjects. Indeed, the use of ultramarine or gold, Ball explains, "does not simply imply a wish to show piety by lavishing expense but reveals the hope that the supernatural potency of the work will thereby be enhanced."

As a scientist with a background in chemistry and physics, Ball has an in-depth comprehension of the dynamics of the substances he describes and of the scientific processes that affect how we perceive them. His explanations are thorough enough that one comes away from the book not only with a broad sense of how science and art intersect, but also with specific knowledge about light wavelengths, color chemistry, film and printing technology, and the mathematical rules governing digital color.

By educating ourselves about such matters, Ball suggests, we can transform our understanding of art itself. He describes his own awakening after having immersed himself in the study of color:

Where before there were two-dimensional images in gilded frames, there was now a living world. Each picture seemed as though it had just left the artist's workshop or studio, the paint's transition from palette to panel or canvas almost visible in the brush marks. Of course, time, too, has left its mark: paintings often need more decoding than the artist intended, as greens darken to black and reds fade to pink. In the end, learning the language of color is really about learning to see.

Philip Ball, who majored in chemistry at Oxford and has a Ph.D. In physics from the University of Bristol, is a writer and editor for Nature. His previous book, published in 2000, is Life's Matrix: A Biography of Water.

He spoke with me by telephone from London.

—Sage Stossel


Jonathan Coe
Philip Ball   

What inspired you to explore the subject of color?

It came from small beginnings. I attended a couple of lectures given by chemists who were exploring various aspects of color. In particular, there was a chap who studied pigments in manuscripts for the British Museum using a spectroscopic technique to verify that the pigments matched those that were available at the time.

To make sure they weren't forgeries?

That's right. And it set me thinking about the question of where painters got their pigments from. It's an aspect of art that I had never really considered before. One or two comments that he made about the broader context made me realize that in the past artists were very much limited by what resources were available—which minerals were in their local environment, or which trade routes were nearby. And the more I began to look into it, the more I realized that these were limitations that applied not only to the earliest of times, but also to relatively recent times.

In the preface, you mention that you spent two years immersing yourself in the subject of color and art. What did the research process involve?

I have training as a physicist and chemist, so I already had some familiarity with the components that were involved—the pigments and the dyes. But I had only a layperson's knowledge of art history and how those dyes and pigments fit into the art-historical context. It became clear to me very quickly that it would be a mistake to think that artists were making their choices solely on the basis of what the technologies could provide them with. Certainly the availability of various materials limited the choices they could make, but it wasn't always the determining factor. Sometimes artists limited their palettes by choice rather than because of technical constraints. For example, in ancient Greece many artists used a four-color palette even though there were more colors than that available to them at the time. It was an aesthetic choice rather than one forced upon them by technology. So the general social context within which art was created was something that I found I had to try to get to grips with.

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Sage Stossel is a contributing editor at The Atlantic and draws the cartoon feature "Sage, Ink." She is author/illustrator of the graphic novel Starling, and of the children's books  On the Loose in Boston and On the Loose in Washington, DC. More

On Election Day in 1996, TheAtlantic.com launched a weekly editorial cartoon feature drawn by Sage Stossel and named (aptly enough) "Sage, Ink." Since then, Stossel's whimsical work has been featured by the New York Times Week in Review, CNN Headline News, Cartoon Arts International/The New York Times Syndicate, The Boston Globe, Nieman Reports, Editorial Humor, The Provincetown Banner (for which she received a 2009 New England Press Association Award), and elsewhere. Her work has also been included in Best Editorial Cartoons of the Year, (2005, 2006, 2009, and 2010 editions) and Attack of the Political Cartoonists. Her children's book, On the Loose in Boston, was published in June 2009.

Sage Stossel grew up in a suburb of Boston and attended Harvard University, where she majored in English and American Literature and Languages and did a weekly cartoon strip about college life, called "Jody," for the Harvard Crimson. From 2004 to 2007, she served as Books Editor of the Radcliffe Quarterly

After college she took what was intended to be a temporary summer position securing electronic rights to articles from The Atlantic's archive for use online. Intrigued by The Atlantic's rich history and the creative possibilities in helping to launch a digital edition of the magazine on the Web, she soon joined The Atlantic full time. As the site's former executive editor, she was involved in everything from contributing reviews, author interviews, and illustrations, to hosting message boards and producing a digital edition of The Atlantic for the Web.

Stossel lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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