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Bright Earth: The Invention of Colour
By Philip Ball
Paper given at the Royal Institution (2001)
Introduction: The topic I shall address stems from a very simple question: from where do artists get their colours? Figure 1 shows a painting by Wassily Kandinsky, in which we can see a fantastic range and brilliance of colour. We tend to take these colours for granted now: one finds racks upon racks of bright paint tubes in any art shop. Look closely at the labels, and you will find that many of them contain complex synthetic chemicals. How long have they been available? Did Kandinsky have them? How about Monet, or Turner, or Rembrandt? In short, just how did art get its colours, and how has the invention of new colour affected the paths that art has taken?
It might seem a little strange to study art by looking at its materials. But it would not have seemed strange at all to painters of the Middle Ages or the Renaissance. They were deeply engaged with their materials, out of sheer necessity – for they made their own paints from the raw materials. These painters knew that the quality of their art depended vitally on the quality of these materials. Although that is still true today, few contemporary artists have a comparable relationship with the physical characteristics of their medium. One suspects there is a perception almost of something vulgar about such tangible aspects of art. This means not only that some artists have undertaken illinformed and disastrous experiments with paints, but that art itself is in danger of losing touch with its roots as a practical craft – a craft that happens to have produced some of the most glorious expressions of the human spirit.