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Bright Earth: Art and the Invention of Color

4.05  ·  Rating Details ·  828 Ratings  ·  41 Reviews
A fascinating study of the evolution of color in art and science from antiquity to the present.
For art in the twentieth century, medium is the message. Many artists offer works defined by their materials. In no aspect is this more strikingly demonstrated than in the use of color.
"Bright Earth "is the story of how color evolved and was produced for artistic and commercial
Hardcover, 384 pages
Published February 20th 2002 by Farrar Straus Giroux (first published 1999)
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(showing 1-30)
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Charles Matthews
This review originally appeared in the San Jose Mercury News:

Whenever I tell people that I'm colorblind they want to talk about it, which can be frustrating. What's it like? they ask. What's it like not being colorblind? I reply.

The best I can do is to explain that, no, the world doesn't look like a black-and-white movie to me. I'm mildly red-green deficient: For me, some pinkish beiges are identical to greenish ones; some purples are indistinguishable from bluish-gray.

You can see what I see
Jun 15, 2015 Lydia rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Wow, this is the book I have needed for years. Ball reminds me of John McPhee; when he takes on a subject it is an all-inclusive ride. Ball is a chemist and an excellent writer with a wonderful understanding of art. He takes apart color history going back to the Greeks and Egyptians and provides information on so many artists, painting and dying techniques up to the present. He includes a whole chapter on Blue, another on purple. He describes how colors were used in the renaissance, how alchemis ...more
Oct 01, 2010 Michael rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Michael by: Shu-ju Wang
Bright Earth -- a book that I had no knowledge of except that it had ended up on my Reading List, and somehow thought was going to be a novel set in India -- turns out to be a history of the pigments used in artists' paints. It was an eye-opener, even literally I suppose. I had never really thought about the character of art being influenced by the available materials. I hope I am not alone in having unthinkingly sort of assumed that all pigments were available to all artists everywhere, and tha ...more
Sep 11, 2008 Kev rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Jeff Kelley, Aaron Simmons, Clayton Crockett, Alan Weatherly, Gabe Gentry
Recommended to Kev by: Scientific American Book Review
The best parts are the historical tracereis of the names of colors we take for granted but have no connection anymore to the "earthiness" of their origins. Like this. Crimson comes from the Greek word that approximated the name of an insect that when crushed by pestol would produce an intense dye of deep bluish red.

It is not particularly well-written -- very dense and sometimes clumsy. But, it is so fascinating that one puts up with the style because the ideas are so intriguing.

The most interest
Brimful of facts, the book enhances our understanding of colors, color perception and production, drawing and history of art in general. It portrays interesting intertwinement of painting techniques development and 'hardware' available for artists at various points in history.

I found it impossible to read without an Internet access available around. Despite a number of illustrations the author constantly refers (and for good reasons) to a yet greater number of works. Thus it is more rewarding -
May 19, 2017 LettheSea rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Great info! Well written, almost too much info, but very interesting!
Jun 24, 2014 Jeff rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: read-2015
The subtitle of this book is "Art and the Invention of Color". It's a book that I've been looking for, for years. I saw it once in the bookstore at a museum, many years ago and didn't buy it. When I saw it again, it was an instant purchase. The book pretty much answers the very basic question; Where does color come from? From the early Greeks and their very basic palette, to the Renaissance and beyond. Out of the birth of Chemistry came vibrant colors used by the painters of the time. Vibrant, y ...more
Paolo Gianoglio
Jan 19, 2013 Paolo Gianoglio rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Un libro complesso, che richiede una buona dose di volontà per seguire i complessi ragionamenti in campo tecnico-scientifico e in campo artistico. 346 pagine dense, confesso che in qualche capitolo mi sono un po’ perso, soprattutto nel post Rinascimento. Ma anche 346 pagine piene di rimandi, di tante storie che non conoscevo, di sofisticati pensieri sul senso dell’arte ma anche sull’influsso che l’arte ha avuto sulla nostra percezione del mondo. In una società come la nostra, basata in larga mis ...more
Aug 09, 2010 Ugh rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
As I've come to expect from Ball, this is very thoroughly researched and both engagingly and authoritatively written. It does what it sets out to do, and it does it well. How much you'll like it therefore depends purely on your interest in the subject matter. However, there are more subsections to the subject than you might expect, and so your interest might wax and wane a little throughout. I personally found it generally very interesting, at times fascinating and at times rather dull. It doesn ...more
Dec 30, 2011 Jessie rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nonfiction
I have long been interested in art and so I found this book to be quite interesting. It was a bit difficult to read at times because it got very technical, so if you have more exposure to science it would probably be more readable for you. It is also a book that requires a lot of close attention and I don't have that opportunity much these days. Nevertheless, it was a good read and full of fun tidbits about paints and painting.
Oct 22, 2008 Miles rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: artists, painters, curators and art historians.
As a painter, I liked this book a lot. It provided a lot of information and background on pigments and the history of paint and paint making. While Victoria Finlay's "Color" was a pleasant read and entertaining tavelogue, this is a book about color I will read again and recommend to students and fellow artists.
Mar 23, 2016 Robin rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
At times science, at times art history, at times criticism, Bright Earth is a great look at how the use of color evolved through artistic movements, using the artists themselves and methods as driving forces behind the texts. It's hard to say more without going into Ball's (excellent) research so... yeah, definitely check this one out
Eva Filoramo
May 17, 2016 Eva Filoramo rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Assolutamente incredibile! Un libro da leggere sia che interessino gli aspetti più chimici sia che ad appassionare sia piuttosto la storia della pittura. Ricco di spunti di riflessione. Da quando l'ho letto, ho iniziato a guardare i quadri (anche quelli dipinti da contemporanei) con un'angolazione differente, perché ho incominciato a dare il giusto peso (spero!) al ruolo dei materiali.
Ruth Charchian
Compared to other books on color, this one was overly technical, dense, unillustrated and academic. Who writes a book on color and fails to include more that 8 color pictures? The book is packed with interesting information but just too much like a college text book for me. Lots of potential for the author to have done something much more interesting.
Marcella Bongiovanni
Un saggio assolutamente imperdibile. Lo avevo comprato un po' per caso, non sapendo esattamente di cosa si trattasse. Dopo averlo acquistato mi ero persino pentita, pensando a qualcosa di "tecnico" quasi. La lettura tuttavia è intrigante, piena di dettagli anche linguistici, mai noiosa.
Ringrazio Luisa Carrada per il consiglio.
Sonja Reid
Oct 06, 2008 Sonja Reid rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
All you wanted to know about pigments, dyes and inks used in painting. It's a little dry, which is why I kept it as a side read for months, picking it up here and there.

My favorite chapter is the one on how paints change over time. Fun!
Aug 17, 2008 Ariane rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
enjoyable, excellent survey of the history of pigments and dyes in the manufacture of artists' paints. lots of nerdy anecdotes, incidental alchemy, chemistry, development of industrial processes and their relationships to the trajectory of art.
Oct 29, 2012 Kip rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition

You wouldn't expect this to be such an interesting subject, but the search for pigments has been a really important drive to the development of all sorts of areas of science including pharmacology.
Jul 23, 2016 Rick rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Book examines painting from the perspective of materials science, light and chemistry. It's a few years old, but provides an excellent perspective upon the history of dyes, synthetic pigments, the beginnings of photography, the problems of preservation and printed reproductions.
Aug 04, 2012 Helen rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
There was a lot of good historical information but I ended up quite disappointed in the sketchy coverage of acrylics and modern pigments, including the mistaken idea that they can only create a flat painting, nearly devoid of brush strokes.
Apr 01, 2010 Converse rated it really liked it
A history of chemical pigments from antiquity to the present, mainly with regard to their application in the arts, but touching on dyes, printing, photography, & digital display. 1st chapters on science of color. Needs a glossary of pigments & chemicals.
Annette Abbott
Mar 15, 2011 Annette Abbott rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: science
About paint - its history, how it is produced, where we get certain pigments, and how people are culturally affected by certain colours. Seldom do I re-read a science book -- but this one is one I've read twice already and no doubt will pick up again.

Jan 22, 2008 Bret rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
A very non-pretentious history of the minerals, flowers, animals, and questionable resources that were used in paint, makeup, dyes, etc. (some are still used today). Want to know why that tube of Cadmium Red oil paint costs so much?
Edward Skoch
Jul 23, 2012 Edward Skoch rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Amazing book.
Once you've read this Book you will never see colors the same again !
Milton Brasher-Cunningham
Interesting book with good stories and facts.
Susan Gainen
Mar 30, 2010 Susan Gainen rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: art
The history, philosophy and chemistry of color -- all by page 73.
Feb 02, 2011 Katie is currently reading it  ·  review of another edition
this one might take a while - not a book i intend to read all at once.
Jun 11, 2012 Ellen rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: thinking, making
"Trying to paint according to scientific rules of colour, said Paul Klee, 'means renouncing the wealth of the soul'.
Mar 01, 2009 Flora rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: art
I want to read this again. The first time, I didn't really know how to paint. Now that I have learned, I think understanding pigments is important.
Taí Fernández
Oct 13, 2012 Taí Fernández rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Excellent book for artists, designers, and pretty much anyone who wants to understand how color works, and its origins and fundamentals. A must-read for painters.
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Philip Ball (born 1962) is an English science writer. He holds a degree in chemistry from Oxford and a doctorate in physics from Bristol University. He was an editor for the journal Nature for over 10 years. He now writes a regular column in Chemistry World. Ball's most-popular book is the 2004 Critical Mass: How One Things Leads to Another, winner of the 2005 Aventis Prize for Science Books. It e ...more
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