When British journalist Victoria Finlay began her research into the history of color, she didn't expect to unearth stories of corruption, poisoning, killing and politics. But that's precisely what she found.
It turns out that colors ochre, black, brown, white, red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet, hues used on everything from canvas to cloth are not as easy to come by as they might seem. The glossy shades that modern-day artists casually squeeze from tubes have been a source of heartache and controversy, even death, for centuries.
In Color: A Natural History of the Palette, Finlay explores the physical makeup of colors, as well as the social and political meanings that different hues have come to represent. For her research, Finlay spent years traveling through mountains, deserts, caves and villages in countries such as Afghanistan, Indonesia, China and Australia to piece together a thorough history of each color's origins and development. The result is quite an accomplishment: a 448-page volume about color that reads like an adventure novel. Inspired by the human quest for color, this is a book full of stories and anecdotes, histories and escapades mostly in art, but also in fashion and interior design, music, porcelain and even, in one example, pillar boxes. Many revelations in Finlay's "paintbox journeys" are fascinating. Take, for example, the fact that carmine one of the reddest dyes the natural world has produced is made from the blood of cochineal beetles harvested on plantations in Chile. The additive is used today in cosmetics, soft drinks, paint and many other products. Finlay also tells how steaming piles of manure were used by the Dutch to make lead for white paint during Rembrandt's time, and how Egyptian corpses were a key ingredient in a brown pigment called mommia, or "mummy." (One 19th-century artist is said to have given his tubes of brown paint a proper burial when he found out.) Written with a sense of humor and wonder, Finlay's first book is a captivating journey that entertains as much as it teaches. Rebecca Denton is a freelance writer and reporter in Nashville.