Bright Earth by Philip Ball

book review - art history


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Bright Earth : Art and the Invention of Color , by Philip Ball
Hardcover - 395 pages
First Edition, February 2002
Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux
ISBN 0-374-11679-2 / ISBN 0374116792

Bright Earth by Philip Ball is a unique guided tour through the history of art, hosted by a science writer who can point out the use of various artistic techniques and pigments as stopovers in the history of chemistry and optics.

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For example, only after emerald green paint was invented in 1814 [page 155] and cobalt blue in 1802 [page 159] could these raw materials be considered for use by artists, or discussed by critics in terms of the moods they set, their role in form and content. Even the discovery of the cones (color sensitive cells) on the retina of the human eye affected the techniques of artists.

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Philip Ball introduces the tour by echoing the lament of art historian John Gage that "one of the least studied aspects of the history of art is art's tools," [5] and the reminder of Impressionism expert Anthea Callen that "any work of art is determined first and foremost by the materials available to the artist, and by the artist's ability to manipulate those materials." [5] Then we travel through time and stop in various ages and cultures, to see how the science and technology available for artistic representation affects people's aesthetic perceptions, their felt closeness to nature, their believed values.

The brilliant plates have been carefully chosen. The book has three glossy inserts with a total of 68 color photographs. The text of the book prepared me well to appreciate Leonardo da Vindi's choices of color, shading and highlight in his Virgin on the Rocks (circa 1508), the use of a brilliant blue in the tomb of Pharaoh Sety I (c. 1290 BC) by means of a glaze made from glass treated with copper, and the revolutionary (for its time) representation in the ancient cave paintings found at Altamira, Spain (c. 15,000 BC). The book also has some black-and-white illustrations, principally diagrams and woodcuts.

A reappearance of a preference of bright colors coincided with the use of art's propaganda function when the Council of Trent (beginning 1545) issued a "codification" dictating rules for artists -- wings for angels, haloes for saints, etc. At the same time, there was to be no more nudity, and Popes Paul IV and Pius IV ordered artists to add clothing to the figures that Michelangelo had painted in the Sistine Chapel. [130]

The author occasionally applies modern concepts of right to past events, as when he points out that, during the Industrial Revolution, factory workers' health was sacrificed so that lead compounds could be manufactured, and artists for the first time acquired the lead white pigment. (The alternative, zinc oxide white pigment, was invented in 1782.) [150-151]

Even the law has affected art. For example, during several years following 1781, there were lawsuits in England to determine who was the rightful owner of the patent on a new shade of yellow, that is, paint containing lead oxychloride. [154]

There are several mentions in the book of a school of philosophy in ancient Greece which argued that painting is ennobled by restricting oneself to black, red and yellow, and cheapened by the use of any other colors. Lo, they didn't even have concepts of the many additional pigments that are available today off the shelf, those not having been invented, so we may benefit by pondering -- to what extent were these philosophers practicing the apotheosis of the practical, much as a culture that makes cows sacred just when it most needs the milk? Here, readers familiar with Marx's materialist conception of history will enjoy a deeper dimension of understanding. Engels said at the grave of Marx in 1883, in his usual one-long-sentence style:

"Just as Darwin discovered the law of development of organic nature, so Marx discovered the law of development of human history: the simple fact, hitherto concealed by an overgrowth of ideology, that mankind must first of all eat, drink, have shelter and clothing, before it can pursue politics, science, art, religion, etc.; that therefore the production of the immediate material means, and consequently the degree of economic development attained by a given people or during a given epoch, form the foundation upon which the state institutions, the legal conceptions, art, and even the ideas on religion, of the people concerned have been evolved, and in the light of which they must, therefore, be explained, instead of vice versa, as had hitherto been the case."

Therefore, chapter 7, The Prismatic Metals, is an untechnical look at the new science of chemistry that (pardon the pun) exploded around 1770 to 1820. "There will never be another fifty years in chemistry like those," Ball writes. [147] Briefly get to know Lavoisier, Boyle, Hooke, Priestly, and the other pioneer chemists.

Where useful, the author associates the history of developing pigments with other crafts, such as the technology of textiles.

Table of Contents
Bright Earth : Art and the Invention of Color
by Philip Ball
Table of ContentsV
PrefaceVII
  
1. THE EYE OF THE BELOLDER -- The Scientist in the Studio3
2. PLUCKING THE RAINBOW -- The Physics and Chemistry of Color24
3. THE FORGE OF VULCAN -- Color Technology in Antiquity50
4. SECRET RECIPES -- Alchemy's Artistic Legacy72
5. MASTERS OF LIGHT AND SHADOW -- The Glory of the Renaissance103
6. OLD GOLD -- The Revival of an Austere Palette128
7. THE PRISMATIC METALS -- Synthetic Pigments and the Dawn of Color Chemistry147
8. THE REIGN OF LIGHT -- Impressionism's Bright Impact168
9. A PASSION FOR PURPLE -- Dyes and the Industrialization of Color197
10. SHADES OF MIDNIGHT -- The Problem of Blue231
11. TIME AS PAINTER -- The Ever-Changing Canvas250
12. CAPTURING COLOR -- How Art Appears in Reproduction269
13. MIND OVER MATTER -- Color as Form in Modernism301
14. ART FOR ART'S SAKE -- New Materials, New Horizons316
  
Notes339
Bibliography355
Index361
Permission Acknowledgments383

Philip Ball's coverage of French Impressionism is delightful, while also a sociological commentary. Pissarro, Monet, Renoir, Manet and Degas [170] rebelled against the the rigid rule of the French Academy, the Salon. Delacroix (1798-1863) is named in particular as the starter of this revolution. [172] The despised rule of the Academy was simple -- if you don't paint in the "correct" style, your works will not be displayed or sold. [169] The Salon rejected two-thirds of these great artists' works that were submitted in 1863. [185] The alternative to the official establishment, the Society of Independent Artists, was established in 1884. [186-187]

The eyes of the impressionists saw more colors in things, e.g., they saw blue in the shadow on a person's face. [174-175] Their movements against artistic conservatism were literally "paths toward the light." [170]

The author makes physics simple and explains that the mixing of pigments changes color by subtracting from the amount of light reflected. Each additional pigment added means that more light will be absorbed. However, mixing colors by placing them closely side-by-side results in more light reflected. Like Chevreul's color wheel, Monet (1840-1926) sent brighter color to the eye by placing primaries in direct contrast. [175-176] Chevreul was a chemist influenced by the theories of light offered by both Newton and Maxwell. [175] With the benefit of this scientific realization, Monet and Renoir accomplished wonders with "unmixed color." [182]

I suggest reading the comment about "Chevreul's law of contrasting complimentaries" [176] while looking at plate #34, Monet's depiction of a red-orange house and a boat with a yellow sail reflected below as feathery wisps in the blue water.

Georges Seurat (1859-1891) avoided the loss of luminosity that accompanies mixing by painting adjacent dots of primary colors, so that they would, in the words of art critic Ogden Rood, "mix on the retina." [187]

This war over bright colors was related to the discovery by Helmholtz that the eye has three kinds of color receptors. [43] He suggested that artists abandon the futile attempt to reproduce color in the same way that color is produced when light illuminates the artist's subject. [173] Instead, he used Chevreul's experiments with spinning color wheels to develop new techniques that artists could use to mix pigments. [176-177]

I was delighted further by the author's coverage of several other places where art and science embrace, particularly the achievements by Paul Cezanne (1839-1906) with the vibration of color [175, 191], and the isolation of Paul Goughan (1848-1903) from the Impressionist movement as he developed his his own Synthesism [192-194]. Note the announcement by Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) upon completing The Night Cafe in 1888 (see plate #41) that "I have tried to express the terrible passions of humanity by means of red and green." [194]

In chapters 9 and 10 we get very intimate with the colors purple and blue, respectively. I appreciated the discussion of Picasso's Blue Period of 1901-1904 [231-232].

All books by Philip Ball

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In chapter 11 the author discusses "time as painter" and the need for "rescuing the past" [252], when he explains how colors degrade over time, and modern techniques of restoring art come to the rescue. The ultramarine blue in Titian's Bacchus and Ariadne (1523) has turned black [252], others paintings begin to exhibit cracks [255], or a problem may merely be that the varnish gets dirty [256]. The pros and cons of the restoration of art are weighed [252]. Was there a "history of neglect"? [261] In fact, some artists of the past were aware that their colors wouldn't last, but there wasn't much they could do about it. Organic molecules (especially the egg tempera used in the 14th century), are bound to be destroyed by ultraviolet light, or even by visible light at the blue-violet (high frequency, short wavelength) end of the spectrum. [262]

Philip Ball writes,

"The delicious irony is that paint manufacturers, color theorists, and colormakers, practically inclined craftspeople, have traditionally been conventionally minded folk, offering up gleaming new tools into the hands of visionaries who go and do something crazy with them, break the mold, create a revolution. Long may it last." [337]

Book review by Mike Lepore for crimsonbird.com

Illustrated; 22-page 2-column index

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Bright Earth : Art and the Invention of Color , by Philip Ball
ISBN 0-374-11679-2 / ISBN 0374116792

Book Description from the Publisher

Bright Earth provides an astonishing glimpse into a little-explored avenue in the history of art and science: the creation of pigments and dyes and their influence on painting, as well as on fashion, merchandising, and the textile and chemical industries. For as long as artists have turned their dreams into images, they have relied on technical knowledge to supply their materials. Today almost every shade imaginable is easily available in off-the-shelf tubes; every hue and tincture is manufactured and ready for immediate use by the painter. But up until the eighteenth century, most artists ground and mixed their own pigments, and by necessity had considerable skill as practical chemists.

From the artistry of ancient Greece and Rome to the metamorphosis of the Renaissance, through the heady days of Impressionism, Modernism, and beyond, the chemical advances of each age played an important role in the supply of and demand for new and more sophisticated colors. The purple of Imperial Rome came from shellfish; crushed beetles provided some of the finest reds of the Baroque era; Indian yellow was made from cows' urine; and Peruvian guano was the raw material for a nineteenth-century purple dye known as murexide.

The systematic chemical manufacture of color came of age in the early nineteenth century, and its fruits were the glowing canvases of the Pre-Raphaelites in England and the iconoclastic styles of Impressionism and Fauvism in France. Many of today's great chemical and drug companies -- Bayer, Hoechst, Ciba-Geigy -- had their origins as dye manufacturers in the nineteenth century, and their chemists helped to turn color-making into an exact science.

In Bright Earth , Philip Ball illustrates how 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 coevolution, 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. Brilliantly researched, engagingly written, and far-reaching in scope and implication, Bright Earth will stand as the definitive work on color, its development, and its many artistic and commercial applications for years to come.

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Bright Earth : Art and the Invention of Color , by Philip Ball
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Book review by Amazon.com reprinted with permission

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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This is an Amazon.com link for
Bright Earth : Art and the Invention of Color , by Philip Ball
ISBN 0-374-11679-2 / ISBN 0374116792