22 March 2021

Review: Chromatopia - An Illustrated History of Colour by David Coles

Chromatopia - An Illustrated History of Colour by David Coles book cover
I've always been interested in the origin of colours and pigments and I'm still fascinated by the topic, nine years after reading and reviewing Color - A Natural History of the Palette by author Victoria Finlay back in 2012. Here in Chromatopia - An Illustrated History of Colour, Australian paint maker David Coles invites us into his world of colour and paint making.

Living in Melbourne, David is the owner of Australia's leading paint making company and Langridge paints are sold all around the world.

His choice to divide the book into the following chapters was inspired: The First Colours; Colour in the Time of the Ancients; Colour + The Classical World; Medieval Colours, Writing Inks; Dyes, Lakes + Pinkes; Mysterious Colours; The Explosion of Colours; A Brave New World of Colour and The Science of Modern Colour. Separating the colours by time and type was very helpful to this reader and the opposite approach to Victoria Finlay who divided her book by colour. 

In Chromatopia, I was re-introduced to known favourites like cochineal, which requires 14,000 insects to produce just 100 grams of carmine lake pigment. However I went on to learn that cochineal production was one of the best-kept trade secrets of all time and became the third-greatest product from the New World, after gold and silver. Surprisingly, cochineal is making a comeback in cosmetics and food production given the increasing concern over artificial food additives. In this case what's old is new again.

I was interested to discover the process involved in making peach black was important in WWI when activated charcoal from peach stones was used inside gas masks to protect soldiers from deadly chlorine gas attacks. According to Coles: "The Red Cross organised the collection of millions of peach stones that were turned into charcoal, and consequently saved countless lives." Page 67

I enjoyed reading about the production of gall ink and the trivia fact that it's still used in the UK for all official certificates of birth, marriage and death was interesting. I shook my head when reading the section on mummy brown and struggled to understand how it ever became a 'thing'. Who came up with that idea? Honestly!

Another favourite, Tyrian purple was made from sea snails more than 3,000 years ago, with one snail yielding just one drop of dye. With 250,000 snails required to make just one ounce of dye, Tyrian purple was so expensive, that eventually it was only allowed to be worn by the Emperor of Rome.

If you've ever watched an episode of artist Bob Ross in action you'll know he loved his titanium white, but I didn't know 'it is the most widely used pigment of all time." Page 145

One of my favourite colours is the poisonous and deadly emerald green which contains arsenic and was extremely toxic and deadly in the right circumstances. I also remember it being one of the primary reasons for reading and reviewing Victims - The Dangers of Dress Past and Present by Alison Matthews David in 2016 so it was great to get a refresher here.

Another colour of interest is Prussian blue:
"Outside its artistic application [Prussian blue] has been used as a colourant to make blueprint paper, as a laundry blue, and in plastics, paper and cosmetics. There is even a pharmaceutical grade that is ingested to counteract radiation poisoning." Page 121
I love learning new things, and in this book David Coles introduced me to vantablack
"Incredibly, it is the darkest material on the planet. Vantablack is an acronym of Vertically Aligned NanoTube Arrays. Made by a process of chemical vapour deposition, it absorbs up to 99.96 per cent of all visible light." Page 171
It's hard to imagine, but the accompanying photo of the colour vantablack applied to a three-dimensional object left me convinced this was an incredibly impressive - and slightly creepy - product. A quick Google left me gobsmacked as the details of bronze masks covered in vantablack completely disappeared. Looking at the colour has been likened to staring into a black hole and I completely agree. It's unnerving to say the least.

I'll admit struggling with some of the scientific processes in the book around colour and pigment creation although the glossary was a handy reference. While I'm sure the recipes at the end of the book were provided for paint makers and artists - of which I'm neither - I was at least able to marvel at the effort involved in producing the perfect pigment.

After reading Chromatopia - An Illustrated History of Colour by David Coles I'm left with a renewed appreciation for the effort and industry surrounding the production and trade of colour in the past and can't help but feel a little nostalgic about just how much has changed. That said, when I compare this to the excitement surrounding new developments like vantablack, I'm optimistic for future discoveries in the world of colour and art and I'm sure the author will be there for it.

You can seize this book at Booktopia.



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