Aug 15, 2014

Where do all the colors come from?

Do you drink Cherry Coke? Did you realize that its color additive E120 is made from cochineal beetles grown on cactus plants?
Victoria Finlay 
Picture a young British woman who has read that the pigment Indian Yellow was made from the urine of cows fed with mango leaves in the town of Monghyr in Bahar. The information comes from a letter written in 1883 by a Mr. Mukharji in India to the Society of Arts in England -- apparently the only reference in English to this purported source of the pigment.  In her search for the mysterious origin of this storied pigment she has been sent to another even smaller village - Mirzapur - to seek out members of the cast of milkmen who were supposed to have made the pigment. Since she does not speak Hindi, she is trying to explain with drawings (worthy of a 6 year old) that she is seeking to learn how their ancestors fed their cows mango leaves and collected the cows' urine a hundred years before. In the heat and dust, a significant part of the town has gathered to watch the interchange, and their incredulity eventually turns to hilarity. Of course they were sure no one in that village had ever done anything so bizarre. (The story convinced one of our members never to travel to a developing country again for fear of being equally ridiculously naive.)
These were two anecdotes that enlivened the discussion Wednesday night of Color: A Natural History of the Palette by Victoria Finlay. As usual we enjoyed the hospitality of the Kensington Row Bookshop, a warm and welcoming place filled with previously read books of all kinds. Fourteen members had a vigorous discussion, based on the very different views of the book held by different members of the group.

The most positive view of the book, shared by several members, was that it was a pleasant account of the travels of a reporter as she traced down information on the sources of many pigments. They saw the book as providing interesting anecdotes of her travels, interesting tidbits of history, local color from all over the world, stories about artists, and sometimes surprising details about the sources of pigments that we take for granted.

A member commented that the book led the reader to think about paintings in a different way, no longer taking for granted the pigments that give color to the subjects. Once one understands the long effort to get pigments to provide vibrant color and the difficulty of preserving those colors, one gains greater appreciation of the craft of the artist. Another member commented that before reading the book she had never realized that there is no pink in a rainbow. Black is probably not what you think it is!

A member mentioned that she had never understood that the development of modern oil paints in the 19th century made it possible to paint outdoors producing pictures with intense colors. That outdoor painting was in part responsible for the revolution approach to painting we call Impressionism, The recognition that the change in technology was necessary to the change in artistic approach was pleasing in itself, but it also added to her enjoyment of impressionist paintings.

One member made the point that this was a welcome change from the heavier stuff that the club had been reading lately, which included a book about death in the Civil War, a book about the northern campaigns of the War of 1812, and a book about the Reformation and Counter-Reformation. Color was an much lighter book and a much  easier and more pleasant read for this member.

Still another member saw the book as making a rather profound philosophical point. Art is regarded differently in different cultures. Thus, Australian Aboriginal painting was many things, but none of them were close to the modern American conception of "art".  In its pre-colonial form, the images made by Australia's indigenous people almost always had mythical meanings relating to their Dreamtime; the images related to a culturally unique way of viewing the world; they influenced the individuals view of himself/herself. (It was noted that some Aboriginal painters today are accomplished artists, painting for a modern, sophisticate art market, drawing on cultural precedents, but using them in a very different way than their ancestors had done.)

Later in the discussion it was suggested that part of the meaning of art in our current American culture relates to the history of development of art. We value a Leonardo, a Michelangelo of a Van Gogh in part for the changes that they exemplified in the way painting and sculpture were done and understood.

On the other hand, several members of the group were quite negative about the book. A couple of members mentioned that they had hoped for a book that would explain things like the development of markets and trade routes for pigments, and some more serious and systematic treatment of how the changes in pigments and other components of paint affected the way artists painted. Victoria Finlay had not written that book. One member compared the experience to expecting to bite into something with a lemon flavor and discovering it was pineapple -- the experience is not pleasant, even though he likes pineapple generally.

Finley briefly describes her understanding of color in terms of the diffraction of light and prisms and the absorption of light by atoms. Her presentation of the physics of color was challenged as partial and flawed. Moreover, she did not describe color perception as the result of the human visual system -- thus, we can perceive the same color differently in different settings, or different colors as the same. It was suggested by her defenders that the author is just a reporter and that it is not a problem if she poorly understood and conveyed what scientists told her about color. The response was, if we doubted her reporting of a subject that we understood reasonably well, how were we to accept the accuracy of her reporting on such things as the meaning of Australian Aboriginal paintings that seem both hard to understand and hard to write about.

Quality in Art

There was quite a vibrant discussion on whether there was really quality in art. One side defended relativism while the other side held out for more general standards of quality in the visual arts. It was argued that art prices vary so much over time that they can not really represent a measure of the quality in what is being sold, and indeed their variability argues against experts having real standards for artistic quality.

One extreme position was that the only thing that mattered in art is whether the individual likes the work -- that there is no fundamental difference in quality between the pictures on the wall of  the member's how and those on the wall of the National Gallery. (A member mentioned having had the pleasure as a teenager of occasionally visiting a home that had works of art by Renoir, Matisse and other Impressionists that sold for more than $80 million in the 1980s; that was a house that he felt really did have paintings of quality comparable to those found in an well endowed art museum.)

In contrast, it was argued that while people have every right to their own taste in art, there are real gradients in talent. Some artists draw more beautiful lines, some have more expertise and skill in the use of color, some have the ability to better compose their works. The member described a session watching an art curator inspect a large number of African paintings selecting those to purchase; the process was quite rapid, and was not focusing on the relation of the works to the culture from to which the artist belonged. Rather, the purchase seemed to be based on metrics of quality such as composition and skill of the artist.

It was agreed that different schools of art at different times had different objectives. Leonardo da Vinci was not trying to do what Picasso was trying to do, and might not have liked Picasso's mature work at all. Yet one member maintained that a metric of quality still applied. Leonardo stood out as great among his contemporaries - as those trying to do the same things that he was trying to do. So too, Picasso stands out as great among the modern artists of the early 20th century.

The thought was expressed that innovation is highly valued in our modern society, and that as a result we judge the quality of modern artist's work in part by the degree to which the artist has pioneered taking art in new directions. Some galleries specialize in seeking out the most talented and innovative artists, and some collectors too seek to buy works of those artists and from those galleries. The artistic works that appreciate in price most rapidly seems to be of that sort.

A Local Issue and The Art Market

One of the members present had coordinated a regional program for art students, based in the Albert Einstein High School Visual Arts Center. This is a nationally recognized facility in which artists provide schooling for artistically gifted students from public and private schools in Montgomery County. He shared some of his experience with us.

Entry into the program of the Visual Arts Center is competitive, and prospective students are not only interviewed but are required to submit portfolios of their work. Only the talented are accepted. Once accepted the student transfers to Einstein full time.  Our member told us that talented and well trained young artists are recruited for higher education, and may find substantial scholarship aid ($100,000 was mentioned) that even exceeds that of star athletes.

By chance, the daughter of another member present had some time ago attended Einstein High School, and had been sure she wanted a career as a artist. At that time the regional arts center had been in another school, and she had been required to transfer. In one of her course, the daughter had learned how to price her work; the naive young artist too often undervalues her work.

Still another member regularly attends the student art shows at one of the Historically Black Colleges and mentioned that while once it had been possible to purchase works by students for $25 or $50, the princes now were in the hundreds. Serious art collectors and dealers have discovered the shows as a place where they can meet young artists of great talent and promise, and see even the higher prices are real bargains for the works of such artists.

So too a member mentioned programs for the mentally ill or intellectually challenged to learn to make art; some of these people turn out to be highly talented artists, and will have successful careers in art. And indeed, the shows of works from such programs also provide a means of purchasing fine works at affordable prices.

Final Comment

It was interesting that so many of the members of the club could discuss art from their personal experience. For example, several had visited the Sistine Chapel and could compare the status of Michelangelo's ceiling before and after its restoration. Several had visited Florence in Italy, and a couple could discuss Leonardo's Last Supper which they had seen during visits to Milan.

This meeting provided one of our most active discussions. Friends can disagree and discuss their differences with courtesy and profit from discussing those differences. Some ideas were changed, some were not. At the least, ideas were clarified.

Here is a post by a member on his own blog stimulated by the discussion.

A member following up the discussion identified this video relating to an advertising ploy by an Ad. Assn.  Fifty-eight pieces of the best art in this country will be on billboards and bus stops around the country this August. Kelly thinks it will lead more people into the museums.


  1. I will echo comments made by members folowing the discussion. Here is the first:

    Regarding Claud's discussion of art created by people with mental illness, I meant to mention the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, which houses such art works. It's fascinating museum and we have a print of one painting we saw there in our den. Here is a link to their website.

  2. It was asked where the book was filed by libraries. I found it in the Fairfax Library:

    Color : a natural history of the palette
    Author Finlay, Victoria.
    Call number 535.6 C

    That is pure science if I looked it up right. I think it should be under travelogue.

    Other points, though logwood brought a lot of money to those hauling it out from the swamps in Belize (then British Honduras), it was used to dye inexpensive clothing. The Puritans were not wealthy. The dye oxidized badly (it became a splotchy orange) which is why they used an indigo dye first. A little logwood made it a nice deep black when new, I think soon to be a drab brown if indigo was also used. Finlay emphasized the value of the raw product (per ton), not the value of the dyed fabric (per yard or maybe gram of dye).

    The explanation for the blue sky needs a little more. It would be purple if the highest frequencies dominated and the sky is not purple (unless you are Jimi Hendrix). We have three sets of cones:red, green and blue. The lower frequencies scatter less, so thinking of the colors as red, yellow, green, cyan, blue, and magenta, what is going on is that the magenta, which scatters a lot, stimulates both the blue and the red cones. That happens to be just about right to have the red and green cones nearly equally stimulated. Combining those with an equal amount from the blue cones gives white and the excess on the blue give the sky its color (columbia, light, or sky blue). She has the right start, she failed to finish the argument.

    In casual correspondence I expect dubious statements. I would like books to be worth citing, otherwise we might just as well just talk among ourselves.

    As to the comment about artists and their mental conditions, think about Vincent van Gogh?

  3. Somebody last night asked about the baptistry doors in Florence, The famous ones were made by Lorenzo Ghiberti who won a competition for the design.

  4. When we were in Florence a couple of years ago, the B&B we stayed out had once been Ghiberti's studio! The doors of that place were the largest I'd ever seen and looked ancient, but once inside the B&B, it was one of the most modern places we ever stayed at.

    The original doors are housed in the Opera del Duomo Museum in Florence; here is a link to its website:

    In addition to the doors and many other art works, the Museum houses Michelangelo's lesser-known Peità (done later than the more famous one that stands in the Vatican now), which once stood in the Duomo, and in which he used his own likeness for the figure of Nicodemus.

  5. "the real journey of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes" — Marcel Proust

  6. The two horses are exactly the same color.

    The perception of color is only partly due to the wavelength of the light that reaches the eye.

  7. The Blackest Black

    A British company has produced a material so black that it absorbs all but 0.035 per cent of visual light, setting a new world record. It is made by coating carbon nanotubes – each 10,000 times thinner than a human hair – grown on sheets of aluminium foil. "It is so dark that the human eye cannot understand what it is seeing. Shapes and contours are lost, leaving nothing but an apparent abyss."


  8. “Only through art can we get outside of ourselves and know another’s view of the universe." Marcel Proust