color me impressed

This morning I woke up repeating "Stygian Black".
Stygian is the adjectival form for the mythological River Styx... as in the boundary of the Underworld. Scary sounding dream, right? EXCEPT in the dream I was saying it in the context of some fashion, color-naming brainstorming session. Thus, it was actually some sort of wish fulfillment... because I've always wanted to get paid to be a color namer for paint. Here, a good color (re)post from the archives:

I just read a book I'd gotten months ago and promptly forgot about, "Color: a natural history of the palette" by Victoria Finlay. The author, a British journalist living in Hong Kong, sets out to explore the origins--historical, cultural, physical-- of pigments and dyes. The book,
organized loosely by color swatch, is sometimes weighted down with her travelogues of traipsing off to China for fabled greens or meandering through Afghanistan in search of ultramarine mines. But what, early on, had annoyed me to the point of putting the book on the shelf: the chatty, lady's magazine lightness proved to be less of an obstacle as the book wore on. I tend to like bits and pieces, historical oddities and unraveled edges and it certainly provides just that.

In the book,
color, something we think of in benign almost frivolous terms (pink or blue case for your cellphone), takes on gritty physicality, volatility, even toxicity. Metals, stones, berries, bark, insects, shells are ground, smoked, burnt and acidified. Through distilling and decanting, arcane alchemical processes produce miraculous results.

The often harsh paradoxes of the material form of color are amazing. Velvety rich blacks rendered from oak gall, soot, and charred bone, brilliant reds from beetles, pristine white from a red dust.
Fugitive and unstable, there's an almost spiteful nature to unfixed color-- saintly whites turn black, brilliant reds fade to sickly pink, and puritan blacks that turn a disturbing orange. The almost allegorical danger inherent in many of these colors is fascinating as well: lead white, used extensively in cosmetics and paint and prized for its transcendent luminosity, caused "plumbism" and slowly destroyed one's liver, kidneys and mind. Arsenic used to fashion Scheele's Green, which accented Napoleon's wallpaper on St. Helena, may have contributed to his death.
Here's where one can learn a bit about wonderful things like Gamboge, Mummy and Orpiment:
• Museum of Fine Art Boston: conservation and art materials encyclopedia
• Also, a paint-making site.---
images: I'm obsessed with paint color chips-- the typology aspects, the naming, the...prettiness. At top are some Benjamin Moores, below Farrow & Ball (a company I've written about before, in one of my favorite posts from a simpler time); a weaving color/pattern sample book made in 1763 by John Kelly of Norwich, England, from the Victoria & Albert Museum; powdered colors for painting on velvet, 1814, also from the V&A. The three bottles are labelled 'Ackermann's brilliant carmine', 'W H Edwards's lilac purple', and 'W H Edwards's sunflower yellow'.; three of five bottles of dye powder I found when a dye works was being dismantled on Spring and Thompson Streets around 1998, if you can believe. They are from 1951-54 and are labelled things like "Benzo Fast Yellow" from appealing, monolithically-named companies like General Dyestuff Corporation and National Aniline Division of the Allied Chemical and Dye Company.


Anonymous said...

Two rambling and fascinating books on the cultural history of color that you might enjoy are Primary Colors and Secondary Colors, both by Alexander Theroux.

Sam (friend of Doug's)

angela said...

excellent I will check them out. Thanks

Anonymous said...

paint chip collector always

TKTK said...

I really enjoyed Finley's book on colour, she has one about Gems as well that's not nearly as interesting.


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