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Color: A Natural History of the Palette

3.80  ·  Rating details ·  64,828 ratings  ·  700 reviews
Discover the tantalizing true stories behind your favorite colors.
For example: Cleopatra used saffron—a source of the color yellow—for seduction. Extracted from an Afghan mine, the blue “ultramarine” paint used by Michelangelo was so expensive he couldn’t afford to buy it himself. Since ancient times, carmine red—still found in lipsticks and Cherry Coke today—has come from
Paperback, 464 pages
Published December 30th 2003 by Random House Trade Paperbacks (first published 2003)
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Charles Many public libraries have copies you can check out for free and those that don't are likely to be able to request it through inter-library loan.…moreMany public libraries have copies you can check out for free and those that don't are likely to be able to request it through inter-library loan.(less)

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 ·  64,828 ratings  ·  700 reviews

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This is one of those books where you walk into a room, finger on page, and yell ‘Did you know that Cherry Coke is full of dead insects!?’ at someone chopping onions, before ambling away again. It is a very charming and anecdotal book, in which Victoria Finlay racks up the air-miles trying to research the history of paints and dyes and colourings from across the spectrum.

It is, as she points out, quite strange to think that electromagnetic waves can have a frequency ranging from radiowaves (which
Michael Martin
Jan 30, 2014 rated it it was ok
The disclaimers "I imagine", "perhaps", "possibly", "it could be that" appear in this NON-FICTION book far more times than they should.

While I liked the content of about three-quarters of the book, it infuriated me at times when the author would suddenly start presenting the material through the eyes of a character, "imagining" their experiences, travels, and accomplishments. This first rears its head around page 81, when the tone of her book changes to speculate about an imaginary Corinthian a
May 10, 2020 rated it liked it
Shelves: history, art
I’m always on my guard when I start reading a "commodity history". In many cases this is an endless accumulation of facts and anecdotes, often unsystematic and - what is worse - without critical screening. I had bad experiences with Mark Kurlansky's books (especially the one about Salt, Salt: A World History). But this seems to me of a different kind. Obviously this is not a science book, and Finlay is the first to admit. All in all, this is a mixed alternation of scientific information, persona ...more
Apr 21, 2008 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: artists, craftspeople, historians
Funny story with this book - got to page 112 and discovered that pages 113 to 146 were missing! Thankfully, Random House (publisher) came to the rescue and sent me a replacement copy. Until it came I was in suspense about how ladies used to poison themselves (by accident) with white cosmetics that were made from lead.

This book was interesting not only for the information about colors, but also for the author's travels. She went to great lengths to get to the source of some colors, and along the
Jan 08, 2012 rated it it was amazing
I remember when I was a child getting a box of paints in small tubes. I was fascinated by the names of the colours, words I had never heard of before - vermillion, magenta, aquamarine, cochineal, carmine. They might have been only shades of orange, purple, blue and red, but those exotic names gave those paints just a little more magic. Didn't do much for my art work, but never mind.

Victoria Finlay would appear to have had a similar early interest in colour when her father took her to Chartres C
Oct 10, 2007 rated it it was ok
Having an affinity for all things color, I was attracted to the cover of Color: A Natural History of the Palette while visiting the Met one afternoon about a year ago. I bought it and have been reading it for the past year.

I'm sad to say that I found the cover to be the best part of this book. The book wasn't bad, but it also was nowhere near great. Finlay sets about the task of researching the origins of the pigments of the paintbox: Ochre, Black & Brown, White, Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blu
Oct 21, 2014 rated it did not like it
Oh, this book had so much promise! And yet, it fell flat...
I was expecting to read more of a history book, but it turned out to be a travelogue/memoir, and a tad too self-involved for my tastes. Moreover, the author does a lot of "imagining" for a work of non-fiction. Damn.
Nancy McClure
Aug 16, 2008 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: any artistic soul
LOVE me a book where I can pick a chapter and read up on what's been taunting my mind - thus I love anthologies and various other collections.

in Color, I found a fantastic historical recounting of the who/where/why/what of much of our commonly accepted color palette. And that alone means something, because there is a surprisingly low ratio of 'general citizens' who knows REALLY what color is about, how it's made, how we wrestled/negotiated/bullied our ways into being enjoyers/purveyors of it. Lo
Apr 15, 2017 rated it liked it
I’d call this a travelogue on the origin of pigments and dyes of each rainbow color, and, I believe, the only book to really tackle the history of color. This book had been on my radar a while, but I had decided not to read it, yet a class on color finally compelled me to read it. Through it I’ve come to appreciate just how complex getting pigment mix with a medium of the right consistency and translucency to stick to a surface and dry without fading or changing color over time or to dissolve in ...more
Apr 20, 2020 rated it really liked it
Overall, this was really interesting, though it did take a month to read. It saved the best colors for last - indigo, from the indigo plant, and violet, from sea snail tears!

There was an interesting balance, maybe unsuccessful, between the author trying to respect indigenous cultures or protected places, and finding the information anyways by reading books published in a less respectful time, or sneaking by guards. She also has a habit to claim things as “mine” - my pilgrims, my mines, my snail
Nov 21, 2007 rated it liked it
In an impressive mix of history, science and travelogue. Ms. Finlay shares with her readers the results of her worldwide search for the pigments and dyes and that humankind has used over the ages. Each color (including black and white) is represented in a separate section, where she weaves stories of fictional and real-life people into her research with entertaining results.

From Australian sacred ochers to Phoenician royal purple; from Incan reds to Chinese imperial greens - this book literally
Sense of History
You can approach colours in a thousand different ways: purely visual, of course, but also emotional, aesthetic, chemical, and so on. But behind the colours of objects and works of art there is also a whole material production process of pigments and dyes, and this is related to a trade network and often also a cultivation process. If this book by Victoria Finlay taught me anything, it is that the materials for making dyes were in many cases based on an own local economy, which in many cases was ...more
Oct 22, 2008 rated it liked it
This was an enjoyable book to read, but ultimately more of a travel book than a book about color. The adventures of the author tend to be given rather more weight than the subject.
Tracey Allen at Carpe Librum
I've always been fascinated about the origins of colour, and in Color - A Natural History of the Palette, author Victoria Finlay travels the world in her search for the origin and birthplace of colors and dyes.

I wasn't interested in the author's personal travelogue, so I initially had the intention of skipping over any boring parts and jumping straight to the facts about the colours which are conveniently broken down into the following chapter headings:

1. Ochre
2. Black and Brown
3. White
4. Red
Mar 31, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This book too me an inordinate amount of time to get through. And although I'm not primarily a nonfiction reader, this time it had nothing to do with the book itself or really nothing to do with the quality of the book. The quality was awesome. Finlay's writing was engaging and humorous and her journeys around the world to some of the most random and strange in an out of the way sort of places to discover the history of color were enlightening, educating and very entertaining. The reason it took ...more
Jun 14, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Be seduced by the history of pigments. Basically about the author's travels while seeking out the origins of ancient colours. I loved this and gladdened by the extensive notes and bibliography. ...more
Jan 18, 2016 marked it as to-read
Doesn't this look cool? JG is into it. She says it's a fun and engaging read. ...more
Apr 06, 2010 rated it really liked it
I really liked this book, and I checked it out from the library but I'm going to buy it. I didn't mind the format or the fact that she spoke about her modern-day expeditions for the colors.

According to the Torah, Gold told Moses to tell the Israelites to make "fringes on the borders of their garments and put upon the fringe of each corner a thread of blue." The Talmud went farther to specify that the blue had to come from a sea creature that had a shell. The tsitsit shawl and fringe remind Jewi
Jan 08, 2012 rated it really liked it
I love color. I've often said that I get the same pleasure out of looking at color that my friends seem to get from listening to music. It's a visceral feeling of joy that I can't describe particularly well with words. Also, since I'm a painter, this book has all the makings of a seven star review. Yet you notice it's only four stars, what gives?

Okay here's the deal. When the subtitle of your book is "A Natural History of the Palette," that implies history, as in truth (or the best we can make o
Aug 11, 2018 rated it liked it
My top three thoughts on 'Color':
1. I, like probably half the population in the world didn't bother to ponder about origins of colors let alone their history. They just magically appeared in my life in preschool and I took them for granted ever since. Then, I came across this book with the blurb mentioning that one of the common ingredient used in red dyes is the blood of thousands of insects. So, with my curiosity peaked, I began to read.
2. This book looks at vibrant colors of everyday object
Lara (luellabella✂️)
As a part-time quilter (impartial to scrappy rainbow quilts) part-time scientist with a dream to travel the world one day, I loved Finlay’s Colour. I really enjoyed the mix of travel stories, snippets from history and personal anecdotes while Finlay travelled the world to discover how each colour of the paintbox came about. Rather than reading it all in one go, this book was great to have on my bedside to pick up and read a chapter or story between fiction novels, if I only had a short time to r ...more
Aug 11, 2020 rated it it was amazing
It’s fascinating that man started with very few colors on his palate, from nature and his surroundings. The pallet blossomed in many different ways in different parts of the world. All centering around these natural colors. Each continent going off in slightly and radically different directions at the same time,often signifying friends and strangers. Well worth the read.
May 01, 2013 rated it did not like it
Shelves: did-not-finish
If I were a history buff, I'm sure I'd have found it at least a little bit lovely. But a history buff I am not, and the first 28 pages were some pretty dry reading and gives non-fiction a bad name. ...more
Peter Tillman
Jul 06, 2016 rated it did not like it
Very, very dull. Did not finish. Bad book.
Nov 13, 2019 rated it did not like it
Okay, this was not what I imagined it would be. I was expecting more of a history of different colors or even dyes but this is mostly a travelogue and a lot of (annoying) musings by the author. I was already mostly skimming, and then came across this passage, which is what made the DNF this book:

The maid of Corinth would probably have had to wait until the sixteeth century before she found anything like lead pencils in Europe [...] however, had she been a maid of Copacabana or Colombia then she
Jul 29, 2017 rated it liked it
Shelves: nonfiction
This was an interesting book, but it was more a travel memoir than "a natural history of the palette." Another book by the author, THE BRILLIANT HISTORY OF COLOR IN ART, is a far more informative book for learning about the history of color in art. ...more
Catherine Davison
Mar 21, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Well you can colour my world .... This is a fascinating read, it had me hooked from the first to the last page. Finlay has the knack for entwining the story of the science, the history and the social aspects of colour. The reader really does travel with her back through time and place to learn the origins of pigments, dyes, tints, paints etc. A well written book, highly recommended.
David Samuels
Mar 05, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Very informative
Feb 09, 2021 rated it really liked it
A search for the colors of rainbow; I found a new favorite fact in almost every chapter. Wish there were more color illustrations, though- even with Finlay’s beautiful writing, it’s hard to describe a color.
I picked this up on a whim at my local library, as it sat on a display of rainbow colors. (I have to plug my amazing local library here for a moment -- they always have the most engaging displays, some books chosen for their subject matter and others for their aesthetic.) I made sure that it was okay that I was "ruining" the librarian's display, and she of course told me I was welcome to check out the book. On her very first page, she recounts the story of when she was taken to Chartres Cathedra ...more
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Victoria Finlay is a writer and journalist, known for her books on colour and jewels. Her most famous book is Colour: Travels Through The Paint Box.

(from Wikipedia)

I studied Social Anthropology at St Andrews University, Scotland and William & Mary College, Virginia, after spending time in Himalayan India, teaching in a Tibetan refugee camp and realising how amazing it was to learn about different

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