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January 17, 2018

Book Review || Colour by Victoria Finlay

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colour-victoria-finlay-cover
Victoria Finlay managed to alternately fascinate me and plunge me into fits of jealousy with her epic journey into the world of paint and art with 'Colour'. Travelling around the world in search of ancient pigments and dyes, Finlay's book is filled with charming anecdotes, wild and tame countrysides, and odd ingredients, all mixed together with a healthy touch of history, both art and otherwise.

As someone who has often dabbled in the arts, this novel has brought a deeper meaning to the colours that I dip my paintbrushes into. Each one comes with a rich history that is connected to culture more than many would like to admit. 

From the sanctity of the Aborigines' ochre and the possible tone of green that may have caused the death of Napoleon Bonaparte to the mystery of the dye used for the corners of Jewish shawls, the purple tint that Cleopatra surrounded Julius Caesar with to impress him, and the scarlet that requires thousands of little bugs to be squashed, the rich history behind mankind's urge to make his mark is one of the most interesting journeys I have made.

There is so much knowledge in this novel that it would certainly be referenced many times, if not for historical facts but also for amusing stories about colours that will stay with you long after turned the final page.

For instance, did you know that prehistoric cave paintings remained so well preserved simply because they had not been discovered yet? The breath of visitors coming to view such paintings disturbs the humidity and airflow, causing the paintings to degrade. Or how about graphite once being used to oil the inside of cannons? At one stage it was a well-guarded resource. Or what about the American Puritans' clothing being blackened by logwood collected by retired pirates? Or cochineal, little white bugs, once forming the source of the most sought-after red dye and nowadays used to colour ham? Or the mystery of Stradivarius' orange varnish for Il Cremonese (a violin called 'The Tiger') and other violins? Or the fact that in ancient times many dyes were set using human urine, and dyers were isolated from the village because they collected it? Or the crocus flower's temporal existence resulting in a red spice that creates a yellow dye? Or Robin Hood and his Merry Men (if they were real) having worn Gaudy Green, a dye that was very expensive and thus served to taunt the authorities? Or Afghanistan's blue mountains that exported lapis lazuli across the world? Or the fact that Gandhi's first peaceful protest was in support of the Bengals protesting against being forced to grow indigo by their British overlords? 

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Girl with a Pearl Earring (1665) by Johannes Vermeer
 is painted with ultramarine, a natural pigment made from lapis lazuli.
The book is filled with such information, but Finlay also has a talent for creating visions in your mind's eye. One of my favourite descriptions of hers is below:
As we wallked, I imagined where the rock from each section [of a lapis lazuli mine in Afghanistan] might have found its ultimate resting place. The first 20 metres would have given the stones to Egyptian tombs; a little later was where the Bamiyan Buddhas got their haloes. Early on in the blackened section was a little side passage, the contents of which may have gone to Armenia for twelfth-century illuminated Bibles. A few steps later was where Titian may have got his sky from, and where Michelangelo didn't get his robe; farther on was Hogarth's blue, and Rubens' and Poussin's: a whole art history in one little pathway. [343]
The novel ends on a nostalgic note after Finlay visits Pantone, the company responsible for standardising colour.
...I felt glad that I had made my paintbox jouneys when I could still explore worlds of approximation and poetry, before the colours began to lose their words. [437]
I am equally glad, although somewhat jealous at what she managed to experience on her search. Without this book, I wouldn't think twice about the shade of colour I reach for in the art shop. Now the plainest of colours - like Midnight Blue, which used to be called Prussian Blue in crayon boxes - will always have a deeper meaning for me as I include them in my artwork.

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