BRIGHT EARTH: Art and the Invention of Color

Philip Ball, Author . Farrar, Straus & Giroux $27 (384p) ISBN 978-0-374-11679-8

British science popularizer Ball (Stories of the Invisible; Life's Matrix) is part of the excellent new breed of explainers who produce imaginative and vivid prose in magazines like Nature and New Scientist. With academic degrees in chemistry and physics, Ball is also coordinator of an offbeat theater company called Homunculus. Here he applies his considerable energies to the study of how color developed in art and science from ancient history to the present. He has clearly spent time looking at art, and his range over these 14 chapters encompasses prehistory, Tintoretto and Gauguin. What painters have produced over time, Ball shows, has always been connected to the colors available to them. Major styles of painting, from the Venetian Renaissance to French impressionism, can be associated with innovations in pigment manufacture. Scientific discoveries, business imperatives and the history of art are all linked via colors on the painter's palette. In an intriguing chapter on the color in art restorations, for example, he notes, "I have often felt mystified at why Van Gogh's 'Sun Flowers' commands such high regard—it seems a drab, lackluster piece, uncharacteristic of the artist. But that is because we are not seeing what the artist painted. Those dirty ochres were once bright." Boasting a full and useful bibliography, this book even ventures some predictions about artists' use of color in the future, such as "pigments that change hue as we change our viewing angle." Readers will find the pigments here bright, varied and attractive. (Feb.)

Forecast:A good bet for the scientifically inclined who want a grounded entry point to the arts, this book will also stretch out to art fans who want writing well-versed in art's physical bases. It's a rare example of a crossover study where an author really seems to grasp both domains.

Reviewed on: 11/26/2001
Release date: 02/01/2002
Genre: Nonfiction
Paperback - 434 pages - 978-0-09-950713-0
Paperback - 434 pages - 978-0-226-03628-1
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