Random House releases several dozen new books each month. A part of my job includes manually checking the cover files for color accuracy, brightness, copy, and font correctness before they are distributed online. So every week a stack of books precariously teeters on my desk until I am ready to look up their ISBN number, check the cover file in Photoshop, and decide if the digital image is accurate. I was making good progress through my last stack until I came across Victoria Finlay's book, Color-A Natural History of the Palette, at which point I stopped checking files and turned to the first page.
And to say that I was 'pleasantly surprised' would be an understatement. Really, my emotions while reading this art-history-travel-journal fell into the following stages: curious, intrigued, engulfed, fascinated, envious, and appreciative.
Curious. Since my art school education included the study of color theory, graphic and product design, I took notice of the title almost by default because of the subject matter. But, this book appeals to anyone who is interested in travel and geography, math and science, plant and animal biology, food, trivia, sociology, adventure, culture, inspiration, passion, or even dangerous secrets. 1
Intrigued. We find out in the preface that this book was inspired by a childhood memory of viewing the stained glass windows of Chartres cathedral, where Ms. Finlay first decided to "find out about the colors".2 So, where would her life-long ambition of discovery lead? Would chasing a rainbow to the end lead to a pot of gold? If the chapters are broken up into the colors of the spectrum, how the heck does Ochre come first?
Engulfed. I missed my subway stop on the way to work. I have only missed my stop once before in my life, when I was distracted by a mysterious gentleman carrying a weathered, miniature-sized, black leather briefcase that must have secretly contained The Answer To Every Single Question Imaginable. But, this time I was legitimately immersed in the story of Seductive Mascara in the Black and Brown chapter.3
Fascinated. Even if you just read parts of this book, you will learn things that are simply fascinating. Page 111 where you will find out about "the transformation of shit into sugar."4 Page 147 where you understand why "scarlet" is not always red, but sometimes 'blue, green or occasionally black'.5 Page 323 where you learn why a certain people dyed their skin a semi-permanent blue.6
Envious. Honestly, reading all the anecdotes, research, and travel experiences of Ms. Finlay made me green. The descriptive passages about visits with aboriginal tribes in Australia, seeing the Buddha sculptures before they were destroyed, going to the mines of Kabul first hand…filled me with a longing to see them myself, even though in some cases it is now tragically impossible. Still, I was able to glimpse the smell and taste of the different countries that spawned all of these pigments, and to interact with the locals and draw pictures and play charades and witness history through the author's alert eyes.
Appreciative. I admire how much effort, intelligence, and organization went into the writing of this book. It was overwhelming to realize how many things I take for granted, like the abundance of affordable pre-mixed paint tubes I can easily pick up at the Utrecht instead of waiting months for a shipment of precious ultramarine. This was the Ultimate Research Paper on Color, and the value of this concise education has application to all the senses, including common. I was astounded by the dedication and passion of the characters involved, and grateful to the author for capturing it so well.
Victoria Finlay's voice is pleasant and knowledgeable, able to cover an intimidating amount of history with clarity and efficiency. Reading this book was like listening to a favorite college professor sharing information in a cozy café, as opposed to suffering through a monotone lesson in a sleep-inducing lecture hall. I'm sure that I will continually consult this book and absorb the wealth of knowledge it contains, but first I probably should get back to checking those patient cover files....
Photo credit: Eric Donelli
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