Victoria Finlay quit her regular day job as arts editor of the South China Morning Post to research and write her book Color. It was worth it, at least for readers; the book is a delight. Color: A Natural History of the Palette is, as the title implies, an exploration into the stories behind the colors that make up the spectrum. Each color, as it turns out, has many intriguing stories behind it, and Finlay delves into many of these with boundless enthusiasm.
Finlay’s inspiration to find more about the world of color came early, when she was eight. On a visit to the Chartres cathedral in France with her parents, was spellbound by the patterns of blue and red dancing on the floor tiles. “I remember my father taking me by the hand and telling me that the stained glass had been created nearly eight hundred years ago,” she says, “Today, he said, we don’t know how to make that blue. Sometime around about then I decided in my small but very determined heart that I would find out 'about the colors.' One day.”
Color is an exhaustively researched book. Finlay traveled all over the globe to discover the story behind every nugget of information that she uncovered about color. The result is a work of nonfiction that is a great treasure trove of information. Not a page goes by where one does not learn something new. When Finlay was working on the book, she says she was warned that there was not a central character in her book and therefore her endeavor was in trouble. Not to worry. The colors and the stories behind make for infinitely fascinating characters. Mention must be made here of just a few of the many intriguing facts in Color:
Finlay’s Color is the kind of nonfiction book that comes along just once in a while. It is well-written, erudite, informative and thoroughly entertaining. It is unfortunate that the book will possibly be classified as an “art history” book and therefore lose large chunks of a potential audience. I am not an art historian myself, nor an artist. Nevertheless, I enjoyed all the stories behind the colors of the rainbow. Part travelogue, Color follows Finlay along her adventures into the heart of Afghanistan looking for the source of ultramarine paint. Finlay travels to many places, and she does a great job of capturing the local “color” and peoples wherever she goes.
- One of the most popular reds, cochineal, is made from the crushed bodies of cochineal beetles. “Cherry coke is full of it. It is color additive E120.”
- The color indigo, meaning “from India” is made by crushing the leaves of the indigo plant. Often human urine was used as a reducing agent and ships in England carried around pots of urine for use in the indigo dyeing industry.
- A special kind of sea snail in Mexico cries “purple tears”. When removed from its rock, the snail “weeps”. This liquid when rubbed on skeins of white thread dyes them purple.
- A medieval black ink was made from wasps. Oak trees produce galls when invaded by wasps. These nut-like formations, when squeezed on paper, give an intense black color.
I finished Color on a warm early spring day. I looked out my window to see a puddle of water created by melting snow. In that puddle, the blinding reflection of my neighbor’s windows as they were hit by the sun struck me. That dazzling light, shining golden, was perhaps a fitting reminder that colors are indeed everywhere. Thanks to Finlay’s wonderful book, one can truly appreciate them in all their glory.