Bright Earth:
Art and the Invention of Color
Farrar, Straus & Giroux

Bright Earth: Art and the Invention of Color by Philip BallPublicist Karli Goldman works for FSB Associates, a leading internet book marketing company.  Her current projects include BRIGHT EARTH, a 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 fasion, merchandising and the textile and chemical industries...

The following is an excerpt from the book Bright Earth: Art and the Invention of Color by Philip Ball.  Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, February 2002 Copyright © 2001 Philip Ball


"The starting point is the study of color and its effects on men." -- Wassily Kandinsky (1912), Concerning the Spiritual in Art

"Then the man in the blue suit reaches into his pocket and takes out a large sheet of paper, which he carefully unfolds and hands to me. It is covered with Picasso's handwriting -- less spasmodic, more studied than usual. At first sight, it resembles a poem. Twenty or so verses are assembled in a column, surrounded by broad white margins. Each verse is prolonged with a dash, occasionally a very long one. But it is not a poem; it is Picasso's most recent order for colors . . .

"For once, all the anonymous heroes of Picasso's palette trooped forth from the shadows, with Permanent White at their head. Each had distinguished himself in some great battle -- the blue period, the rose period, cubism, 'Guernica' . . . Each could say: 'I too, I was there . . .' And Picasso, reviewing his old comrades-in-arms, gives to each of them a sweep of his pen, a long dash that seems a fraternal salute: 'Welcome Persian red! Welcome emerald green! Cerulean blue, ivory black, cobalt violet, clear and deep, welcome! Welcome! ' "
--Brassaï (1964), Picasso and Company

I believe that in the future, people will start painting pictures in one single color, and nothing else but color." The French artist Yves Klein made this remark in 1954, before embarking on a "monochrome" period in which each work was composed from just a single glorious hue. This adventure culminated in Klein's collaboration with Paris paint retailer Édouard Adam in 1955 to make a new blue paint of unnerving vibrancy. In 1957 Klein launched his manifesto with an exhibition, "Proclamation of the Blue Epoch," that contained eleven paintings in his new blue.

By saying that Yves Klein's monochrome art was the offspring of chemical technology, I mean something more than that his paint was a modern chemical product. The very concept of this art was technologically inspired. Klein did not just want to show us pure color; he wanted to display the glory of new color, to revel in its materiality. His striking oranges and yellows are synthetic colors, inventions of the twentieth century. Klein's blue was ultramarine, but not the natural, mineral-based ultramarine of the Middle Ages: it was a product of the chemical industry, and Klein and Adam experimented for a year to turn it into a paint with the mesmerizing quality the artist was seeking. By patenting this new color, Klein was not simply protecting his commercial interests but also hallmarking the authenticity of a creative idea. One could say that the patent was a part of his art.

Yves Klein's use of color became possible only when chemical technology had reached a certain level of maturity. But this was nothing new. 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. With the blossoming of the chemical sciences in the early nineteenth century it became impossible to overlook this fact: chemistry was laid out there on the artist's palette. And the artist rejoiced in it: "Praise be to the palette for the delights it offers . . . It is itself a 'work,' more beautiful, indeed, than many a work," said Wassily Kandinsky in 1913. The Impressionist Camille Pissarro made the point forcefully in his Palette with a Landscape (1878), a pastoral scene constructed directly on his palette by pulling down the bright colors dotted around its edges.

The Impressionists and their descendants -- van Gogh, Matisse, Gauguin, Kandinsky -- explored the new chromatic dimensions opened up by chemistry with a vitality that has arguably not been equaled since. Their audiences were shocked not only by the breaking of the rules -- the deviation from "naturalistic" coloration -- but by the sight of colors never before seen on canvas: glowing oranges, velvety purples, vibrant new greens. Van Gogh dispatched his brother to acquire some of the brightest, most striking of the new pigments available and wrought them into disturbing compositions whose strident tones are almost painful to behold. Many people were dumbfounded or outraged by this new visual language: the conservative French painter Jean-Georges Vibert rebuked the Impressionists for painting "only with intense colors."

It was a complaint that echoes back through the ages, to be heard whenever chemistry (or foreign trade, which also broadens a culture's repertoire of materials) has made new or superior colors available to painters. When Titian, Henry James's "prince of colorists," took advantage of having the first pick of the pigments brought to the thriving ports of Venice to cover his canvases with sumptuous reds, blues, pinks, and violets, Michelangelo remarked sniffily that it was a pity the Venetians were not taught to draw better. Pliny bemoaned the influx of bright new pigments from the East to corrupt the austere coloring scheme that Rome inherited from classical Greece: "Now India contributes the ooze of her rivers and the blood of dragons and of elephants."

That the invention and availability of new chemical pigments influenced the use of color in art is indisputable. As art historian Ernst Gombrich says, the artist "cannot transcribe what he sees; he can only translate it into the terms of his medium. He, too, is strictly tied to the range of tones which his medium will yield."

So it is surprising that little attention has been given to the matter of how artists obtained their colors, as opposed to how they used them. This neglect of the material aspect of the artist's craft is perhaps a consequence of a cultural tendency in the West to separate inspiration from substance. Art historian John Gage confesses that 'one of the least studied aspects of the history of art is art's tools." Anthea Callen, a specialist on the techniques of the Impressionists, makes a stronger criticism:

Ironically, people who write on art frequently overlook the practical side of their craft, often concentrating solely on stylistic, literary or formal qualities in their discussion of painting. As a result, unnecessary errors and misunderstandings have grown up in art history, only to be reiterated by succeeding generations of writers. 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. Thus only when the limitations imposed by artists' materials and social conditions are taken fully into account can aesthetic preoccupations, and the place of art in history, be adequately understood.

One might expect the "craft" aspects of art to suffer less neglect when the use of color is under discussion, for surely the nature of materials should then come naturally to the fore. But it is not always so. Faber Birren admits in his classic History of Color in Painting that "the choice of colors for a palette or palettes is not in any way concerned with chemistry, or with permanence, transparency, opacity, or any of the material aspects of art." This extraordinary omission of the substantial dimension of color is surely the precondition for such absurdities as Birren's assigning cobalt blue to the palette of Rubens and his contemporaries almost two centuries before its inventions. In view of the attention that Birren gives to the hues required for a "balanced palette," it is indeed odd how little concerned he is with whether artists of different eras had access to them.


Every painter must confront the question: What is color for? Bridget Riley, one of the modern artists most concerned with color relationships, has expressed the dilemma very clearly:

For painters, colour is not only all those things which we all see but also, most extraordinarily, the pigments spread out on the palette, and there, quite uniquely, they are simply and solely colour. This is the first important fact of the painter's art to be grasped. These bright and shining pigments will not, however, continue to lie there on the palette as pristine colours in themselves but will be put to use -- for the painter paints a picture, so the use of colour has to be conditioned by this function of picture making . . . The painter has two quite distinct systems of colour to deal with -- one provided by nature, the other required by art -- perceptual colour and pictorial colour. Both will be present and the painter's work depends upon the emphasis they place first upon the one and then upon the other.

This is not a contemporary conundrum but one that has confronted artists of all eras. And yet there is something missing from Riley's formulation of the artist's situation. Pigments are not "simply and solely colour" but substances with specific properties and attributes, not least among them cost. 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? What, in short, is your relationship with the materials?

Raw color supplies more than a physical medium from which artists can construct their images. "Materials influence form," said American artist Morris Louis in the 1950s; but influence is too weak a word when we are faced with the explosive vibrancy of Titian's Bacchus and Ariadne (1522-1523), Ingres's Odalisque with a Slave (1839-1840), or Matisse's Red Studio (1911). This is art that follows directly from the impact of color, from possibilities delimited by the prevailing chemical technology.

Bright Earth: Art and the Invention of Color by Philip BallBut although technology made Yves Klein's monochromes possible for the first time, it would be meaningless to suggest that Rubens did not paint them because those colors were not available to him. It is equally absurd to suppose that, but for a technical knowledge of anatomy and perspective and the chemical prowess to extend the range of pigments, the ancient Egyptians would have painted in the style of Titian. Use of color in art is determined at least as much by the artist's personal inclinations and cultural context as by the materials at hand.

So it would be a mistake to assume that the history of color in art is an accumulation of possibilities proportional to the accumulation of pigments. Every choice an artist makes is an act of exclusion as well as inclusion. Before we can gain a clear understanding of where technological considerations enter the decision, we must appreciate the social and cultural factors at work on the artist's attitudes. In the end, each artist makes his or her own contract with the colors of the time.

*Endnotes have been omitted
Copyright © 2001 Philip Ball

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