Chromatopia: An Illustrated History of Color

Image of Chromatopia: An Illustrated History of Color
Release Date: 
January 7, 2019
Thames & Hudson
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“New colors are created every day and their future longevity will still hinge on reducing toxicity, discovering renewable sources, and finding new applications in both the arts and the sciences.”

Color is that one character that is perennially relegated to a supporting role. With the exception of the Color Field artists of the 1950s and 1960s such as Clifford Still, Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko, Morris Louis, and Helen Frankenthaler—whose entire focus placed color as the leading subject matter of their paintings—color is usually just another member of the crew like lines, tone and composition in the production of an image. But for David Coles, a master paint-maker, color is the main event.

Coles lends color “an important part in recording the history of mankind . . .” Each color has a story to tell. Each story spans hundreds if not thousands of years, multiple continents, and is cross-disciplinary in nature. “From the ancient world to the present day, tales of dragons and beetles, alchemy and poisons, slaves and pirates…” Coles has dug through it all to present color with all of its symbolic, emotional, and practical uses.

Chromatopia is a beautiful primer (double entendre intended!) on the evolution of color particularly in the realm of oil paint and fine art. Starting with the basics of the primary and secondary colors (blue, purple, red, green, yellow, green), each color is given a brief introduction. Primary colors, incidentally, have not always been red, yellow, and blue. This designation varied throughout history and often included black and white as colors.

Part history, part art, part science, and part recipe book, Chromatopia brings so much to ponder. At the same time the reader is scratching their head with the absurdity of squeezing one single drop of dye from 250,000 Bolinus brandaris sea snails just to extract one ounce of Tyrian Purple, their eyes will feast on the stunningly beautiful photographs that accompany each page. Adrian Lander’s photographs deserve Coles’ praise as “a tour de force of visual decadence.” Actually, that compliment is an understatement making this book also part fine photographic monograph.

Reading through the ages from ochres, orpiment, azurite, kermes, bistre, cochineal, gamboge, manganese, zinc and titanium whites, YInMn Blue, etc, it becomes apparent the vast range of trial and error that has occurred over the centuries. Massive numbers of people died as a result of producing and applying many of these colors, natural resources were plundered, politics were tense on the value of the pigment trade, and economies hung breathless waiting for a ship to arrive safely in port. Creating paint was (and still is) a treacherous, tedious, and tender endeavor, and Coles relays fascinating facts and anecdotes on every page.

Bizarre ideas, originally the alchemist’s precedent, continue their reign in our modern chemistry labs. The reader will revel in the creativity of humans and the extent they have gone to to find that perfect, non-poisonous, light-fast, chemically-stable, easily manipulated, and readily portable color.

If harvesting 14,000 female cochineal insects off of prickly pear cactus plants to make 100 grams of carmine lake blood red pigment (an Aztec practice from 700 BCE) or ripping off the wrappings and bones of ancient Egyptian mummies to make a transparent rich brown (a 16th century practice) weren’t crazy enough, today’s concepts still demonstrate the ingenuity of a novel approach and a penchant for technical experimentation.

Take Vantablack, aptly titled “one of the strangest pigments ever created.” Vanta stands for Vertically Aligned NanoTube Arrays. The nanotubes are super small with one billion fitting in a one square centimeter space and are made by a chemical vapor deposition process. Light gets trapped, deflected, and absorbed by the tubes making an incredibly dark black that is useful when used in telescopes in space to absorb light that would interfere with other instruments, but completely destroyed with just one touch. Otherwise, original concept notwithstanding, highly fragile Vantablack is about as practical as Tyrian Purple.

Coles’ pioneering entrepreneurial spirit and exuberant inquisitive mind shine through in his crash course in the history of color and the manufacturing of paint; Chromatopia will quickly bring the reader up to speed, but the story of color is far from finished. New colors are created every day and their future longevity will still hinge on reducing toxicity, discovering renewable sources, and finding new applications in both the arts and the sciences. No doubt Coles will be on top new developments with continued enthusiasm.