a conversation with Victoria Finlay      
photograph of Victoria Finlay


Bold Type: You wrote this book to answer your own questions about color.7 But you discover there are many characters necessary along the way to paint the big picture. Is there a type of person or particular audience you feel would benefit most from this information? Also, in your own mind, what percentage of questions have you now satisfied?

Victoria Finlay: Had I had more time I should have loved to have met the Twareg nomads of the Sahara, (whose skin is blue with indigo dye), or done more research on Korean porcelain, or visited the European ochre mines or the amazing-looking Moroccan tanning yards.... But it's already a very long book — nearly 500 pages— and I had a clear publisher's deadline so there came a point at which I had to stop. And I had answered most of my most burning questions by that time!

However I had grand plans to test Sung Dynasty (12th century) Chinese celadon to see whether it detected arsenic, as the Persians of the time believed. I was given a piece of Sung porcelain as a Christmas present, but the arsenic was much harder (and this is rather encouraging really) to obtain, and I still haven't found an answer to that little conundrum.

In terms of readers I do of course hope that art lovers will be interested in Color: they are the most obvious audience. But I also would love to think that people who don't know much about painting will enjoy the book for the travel and adventures, and that afterwards they might look at art (and porcelain and food-dyes and textiles) with new eyes — for the extraordinary stories contained in the colours that are used in them.

BT: Thankfully, your parents exposed you to inspirational environments at an early age. But, you mention that your school did not encourage children without natural drawing ability to pursue the arts. Eventually you found your way back to the subject through your writing, travels, and research. In hindsight, do you wish your early education were any different? What other strong influences did you have that helped your initial attraction culminate into this finished book?

VF: I think that even at the time I wished my early education was different! I went to a girl's school which had such rigid Victorian principles that it was written into the rule book that the headmistress should be unmarried! It had good academic results but most of the teachers had forgotten the importance of words like "playfulness" or "creativity". And as for abstract art, I can't ever remember it being discussed. It was realism or nothing! But I think it's important not to regret anything in life. And perhaps if I had been handed more artistic learning on a plate then I might not have gone looking for it later.

When I was 16 I became fascinated by the theatre — and living close to London I spent all my pocket money going to Fringe productions (the equivalent of Off Off Broadway). Some of the highlights from that time were the political and absurdist theatre shows by Athol Fugard from South Africa and Tadeusz Kantor from Poland, and I think it was this amazing, refreshing introduction to international culture that made me later want to study anthropology, and to spend my life traveling and seeing the art traditions of different countries.

BT: Each chapter is well researched and documented (with complete bibliography, notes, credits, and index). What was the process of writing like for you? How did you capture the dialogue with the dozens of people you encountered?

VF: I had wanted to write this book — or at least a book (my first plans at the age of 7 or 8 were something along the lines of the Jungle Book!) — since I remember. And I'd been a journalist writing 4 or 5 or more stories a week for more than a decade. So I was really surprised to find how difficult it was to write Color. The research was joyful, but the writing was hard. Perhaps it was the shock of having a deadline of 18 months time rather than "noon tomorrow" but actually I think it was the challenge of pulling together a lot of disparate but intriguing threads into something that read like a narrative.

I ended up creating a schedule where I'd wake up at 6.30 most days and go for a long walk up the Peak (the mountain in the middle of Hong Kong island) either alone or with a friend. I'd pace out the problem of the day and go to the computer and — hopefully — write out the solution.

The dialogue I found least problematic. Most people were so fascinating and open when I met them during the research that it was pure pleasure to write down what they said.

BT: The insert includes four beautiful pages of photographs, but you describe so many other colorful experiences in your journey (when Ruth Kerinauia painted your face).8 How many were you able to personally photograph, and do you have any plans to share those with the public?

VF: After many years working for a newspaper I realize there's a huge difference between my happy amateur snaps and what a professional photographer can produce! I have some interesting photographs and we've used some of them in the publicity for the book. To have added more photos would have been beautiful but it would also have been expensive, and would have changed the nature of the book. Rather like the difference between radio and TV I suppose: sometimes people say that radio has more pictures, because it leaves more to the audience's imagination.

I most regret not being able to take photos of the Buddhas of Bamiyan: we were among the last foreigners to see them before they were blown up. But the Taliban commanders forbade it absolutely — and the way they operated meant that we would probably have been fine, but the Afghan people with us would have been punished.

I do incidentally have a nice snapshot of Ruth — and both of us together with our faces painted with her Little Sheep Dreaming in ochre!

BT: This is a very ambitious book that required a lot of alert and studious observation. Now that it is complete, is there a residual effect or transitional adjustment on your sense of vision? Or does living in Hong Kong and traveling all over the world heighten your awareness permanently?

VF: I hope that I think about colours in general much more than I did before. And certainly now whenever I go into a medieval church or cathedral I find myself imagining it as it was when it was built, filled with colourful paintings on the walls that are now mostly just plain stone.

The one thing I have really noticed is that when I go to an art exhibition I find myself really puzzling through the colour choices, and wondering what the artist used. My friends joke that I don't look at the pictures but at the paint. Perhaps that's true.

Last weekend I went to the newly renovated Manchester Art Gallery and out of all the amazing images the thing that really got me excited was seeing a painting by Joshua Reynolds (of an aristocratic lady posing with her child to look like a Madonna). At first I wondered why she was so pale, like a ghost, and then I realized that he had originally painted her with rosy cheeks, but the pink paint (I'm not sure what he used — there were several choices — but quite possibly it was that fugitive beetle blood cochineal) had long-since faded. I still love that kind of story!

BT: I was impressed by your ability to present historical facts in an objective yet imaginative and pleasant tone. You didn't taint the material with too much of your own opinion, even though some of the topics were political and quite controversial (the destruction of the Buddhas and animal rights for example).9 Was it difficult to maintain authority on the subject and balance your personal beliefs? If you could admonish your readers toward a direction what would it be?

VF: Thank you! I have been a journalist for some years and hope I've been well-trained in not being too biased in my writing. On the destruction of the Buddhas I naturally feel it was a tragedy. But I also strongly feel it would be more of a tragedy to rebuild them in the same place. What's the point? Buddhism teaches that things pass, that they are not permanent. Better to spend the millions of dollars helping the many poor people of Afghanistan.

After visiting the lapis/ultramarine mines in April 2001 I spent a week with a charity which was doing food distributions in remote areas, struck by drought. I remember the awful angry frustration of seeing a bewildered, thin child who was about to die of starvation, and of not being able to give his grandmother money to support him because it would cause a riot in the village. For me — and I hope there aren't many art lovers who disagree with me — this boy's story was far more of a tragedy than the destruction of works of spiritual dedication (however monumental) that had not been loved or revered for more than a thousand years.

On cochineal and animal rights I also feel that there are many worse things in the world, like factory farming, that animal lovers should campaign about before they get round to the issue of cochineal bugs which after all live very free range lives on their cactuses before they are scooped up. On the other hand, I felt sad seeing them squashed that day I visited the farm in Chile.

BT: I have to ask, what's your favorite color?

VF: That's the hardest question! I am a fickle lover when it comes to colours. One moment I might swear everlasting dedication to spring green (I just read a wonderful description of green as "nature's laughter") but the next I might be beguiled by the depth of purple, or the brilliance of scarlet, or the youth of pink. I don't like brown much — but sometimes a deep chestnut can be beautiful.

If I have to give an answer, it has to be about contrast — about how two colours, placed next to each other, can give a wonderful sense of completeness. There is little more visually joyful, for me, than the contrast of a bright orange against an ultramarine sky.

Thanks for a lovely email interview!

—Interview by Mo Wu

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    Photo credit: Eric Donelli