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The Secret Lives of Colour

4.14  ·  Rating details ·  1,452 ratings  ·  234 reviews
The Secret Lives of Colour tells the unusual stories of seventy-five fascinating shades, dyes and hues. From blonde to ginger, the brown that changed the way battles were fought to the white that protected against the plague, Picasso's blue period to the charcoal on the cave walls at Lascaux, acid yellow to kelly green, and from scarlet women to imperial purple, these surp ...more
Hardcover, 320 pages
Published October 24th 2017 by Penguin Books
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Gregory Weisler While the edges of the pages roughly match the color being discussed, they are not essential to the content. I have a hard copy of the book, so I can…moreWhile the edges of the pages roughly match the color being discussed, they are not essential to the content. I have a hard copy of the book, so I can tell you it doesn't make that much difference. The real interest is in the stories and history associated with the colors the author has chosen to include. Also, given the vagueries of print, most of the colored edges of the pages are not true to the actual color - or at least not as accurate as the pigments themselves in either acrylic or oil palettes.(less)

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Will Byrnes
Aug 01, 2018 rated it it was amazing
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Consider life in black and white. Many creatures have dichromatic vision, (two kinds of cone receptors), which allows limited color perception. Monochromatics see only the gray scale from black to white. (Skates, rays). The cinematic and TV worlds were both certainly B&W for a long time, before color imposed itself on screens large and small. And, while B&W still holds a respected place in the visual arts, particularly in photography, film, and drawing, it is co
Jun 10, 2018 rated it really liked it
However de gustibus et coloribus non est disputandum, in my experience colours, like the weather, can make an convenient topic to spark or rekindle conversation, having saved me a few times in socially awkward situations - as wherever we are, colour is everywhere.

Years ago I read Victoria Finlay ‘s Color: A Natural History of the Palette which, notwithstanding I learnt a lot from it on the origin of colours, entailed having to wade through numerous pages of rambling self-absorbed travelogue and
Dec 17, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: books-read-2016
We take colour for granted these days; where ever you look you have garish clothing and brightly painted items competing for attention. But it was never like that, go back several hundred years ago, and lost people wore grey or brown cloth that had been dyed with the ochres and earth colours. Those that had some colour in their lives were the rich; they could afford the purples and reds that adorned their clothes and the rare blues and yellows that graced their artworks.

In this fascinating book,
Jane LaFazio
Mar 04, 2018 rated it it was amazing
I really enjoyed this book! It's a series of short, and fascinating, stories of about 100 different colors. I loved the random trivia and interesting facts. I think anyone, even with an interest in color, would love this book. A great gift idea!
Jan 31, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
We chose this book for our January Amuse-Book because it's an absolutely wonderful read about the history behind some of our favorite hue's. It's a great conversation starter! You won't believe some of these stories, we can't wait for all of our babes and beaus to read! xo E+K
Jan 06, 2018 rated it really liked it
What a fascinating book! If you’ve ever wanted to know more about colors and what they have meant throughout history, you’ll find this to be an interesting read like I did. It answers several questions that I didn’t even know I had, such as: why are doctors’ coats white? Why was blue formerly associated with girls and pink associated with boys? Why was blue a historically undervalued color in Western countries, even though today it’s one of the most popular “favorite colors” in the world? Why do ...more
Judith E
Oct 01, 2018 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
This is not a book about color theory but a compilation of snippets about 75 colors. Each color has a very short account that ranges from explaining the original chemical/mineral composition of the color to explaining the status the color signified throughout civilization. For instance, the color blue’s transformation from being the most undesirable color to the most popular. Or, that chochineal required 70,000 dried bugs for a pound of color.

Interesting tidbits and the short sub chapters are p
Sean Goh
Apr 01, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: science
A colourful read bound in a beautiful cover that would add colour to any coffee table. Who knew that painting in the olden days required considerations such as making sure your paints didn’t react with each other and burn a hole in the canvas?

Our brains normally collect and apply cues about the ambient light and texture. We use these cues to adjust our perception, like applying a filter over a stage light. The poor quality and lack of visual clues like skin colour in the dress image meant that o
Apr 22, 2018 rated it it was amazing
This is a fascinating book for artists or anyone interested in history from an unusual perspective. It is also so beautifully made that it is a joy to hold!
Jan 17, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2018, favoritos


A mí me gusta iniciar mis reseñas con un breve resumen de que va la historia, en este caso no va a ser así porque, básicamente por la sencilla razón de que este libro no contiene una historia, si no muchas, de diversas partes del mundo, de diversas culturas y de diferentes hechos históricos. Este libro nos presenta, a lo largo de sus páginas, las historias detrás de muchos colores, razones del por qué de sus nombres e incluso de como fueron descubiertos, m
Jodi Blackman
Feb 12, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A fascinating tour through the history of colour, with the manufacture and popularity of a rainbow of hues discussed in lively, short essays that engage and amaze. St Clair delves into the personalities, quirks and trivia associated with colours we take for granted in our everyday, colour-saturated lives, but which were once difficult to obtain and produce. From ground up precious gems, to poisons, to bugs, the astonishing origins of these oft-times poetically names shades will delight the reade ...more
Jan 22, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
"Je zou kunnen zeggen dat de aanduiding 'huidkleur' zo ver af staat van elke werkelijke huidkleur dat hij onschuldig is. Het probleem is echter niet de kleur, of zelfs het woord, maar het etnocentrisme dat erachter steekt. 'Iedereen met een huid die donkerder is dan "huidkleur",' schreef Dodai Stewart in 2010,'weet hoe die kleur je buitensluit - van pleisters tot panty's, tot beha's - jarenlang.'" (p.111)
From BBC Radio 4 - Book of the week:
Writer Kassia St Clair gives a potted history of the colour palette, beginning with the surprising stories behind various shades of white.

Read by Francesca Dymond
Producer: Eilidh McCreadie.
Victor The Reader
The perfect read for any person who loves colors and who wants to learn about their inception ❤🧡💛💚💙💜🖤(Grade: A). ...more
Jun 02, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2018
This was a great book to keep around and pick up from time to time. I was really fascinated to learn something about pigments as I knew basically nothing beforehand. You also pick up all these extemporaneous tidbits about history and culture along the way. Each color receives individual treatment and reads like essays so it's easy to read in small doses.
Christopher Jones
Nov 12, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Fabulously delicious ❤❤❤❤❤❤❤❤ ...more
Jun 29, 2018 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
This collection is interesting but pretty uneven. Rather than being a cohesive discussion on color, it's a hodge podge of trivia, history, and tidbits. Some color discussions end up being fascinating, whereas others seem like distractions. The collection of colors profiled also seems pretty random! My favorite parts of the book were actually information about words used to describe colors - etymologies and how color descriptions have changed over time and in different languages. Also, mummy brow ...more
The Secret Lives of Color is a fascinating book full of interesting facts, perfect for artists, history buffs, trivia buffs, and pretty much anyone else. The book itself is lovely, true to its topic, with wide margins of the color in discussion on each page, and a fun multi colored hardcover design. The author has clearly researched well, in a book full of historical anecdotes carefully cited via footnotes to pages of sources in the back. There's a wide range of colors represented, of both natur ...more
Marjorie Elwood
Nov 16, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: art
What a lovely book! Both beautiful (the pages of each tale about a color are edged with that color) and fascinating, this is not only about paint colors (which would have been exciting enough), but also about colors that aren't used in art, such as melanin. All sorts of captivating details are included, and it ends with stories about some of the newest pigments, such as Vantablack (which is the blackest thing in the world). A quick read.
Dec 04, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: reviewed
Interesting facts/brief history (1-2 pages/color) about various colors. It held by interest overall but the whole project feels a bit random...not clear to me why the author chose the colors she did and the information given also seems rather haphazard. I wasn't expecting a coherent or comprehensive discussion of colors so I didn't mind that so much.
Dec 01, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This book is so freakin fun. If you like weird facts like how ground-up mummies were used for color well into the 20th century or the history of Baker-Miller pink being used to weaken even the toughest of men, I highly recommend this book.
Aug 20, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2018-reads
This was a delightful, interesting read. Book is divided into 7? 8? 9? big sections on colour (Black, White, Blue, etc) and then within each are 2-3 page mini-chapters on 7 or so specific colours in that colour block. Lots of great history, language and art tidbits in each of the mini-chapters. St. Clair draws on a wide variety of sources which she includes in a great notes and bibliography section.

If you love colour, the history of colour or art history, you will enjoy this book. Read it in har
Sue Em
Oct 28, 2018 rated it it was amazing
As an admitted color nerd, this book is right up my alley. 75 separate colors are featured, examining their discovery and creation and detailing fascinating historical tidbits. Its a world of information that I had never read anywhere else. Loved it so much, I bought myself a copy.
Dec 28, 2017 rated it liked it
Dec 08, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: art, anthropology, history
This book is so pretty and fun! Vibrant and full of colorful pages (really, pages blocked out entirely in color) precede and follow short essays on particular shades. Introductory chapters on the formation of color and our perception of it give way to color profiles themselves. The chapters are organized by color, of course! There is no one formula for each of St. Clair's profiles. Run into chemistry or biology in one, run into anthropology or psychology in another (or some combination). St. Cla ...more
Mar 17, 2018 rated it it was amazing
I was more excited to read this than almost anything else on my after-Christmas book stack. Clear confirmation of my love of facts. It appealed to me in much the same way as Bill Bryson and Annie Dillard, who both drop countless gems seemingly effortlessly, on so many topics that I can't help but be in awe. All three authors have this ability to tell a story about something historical or scientific that I've never heard of before, and make it seem so important that I can't believe I've never hea ...more
Apr 22, 2018 rated it really liked it
The Secret Lives of Color takes us on a fascinating exploration of all the different colors throughout history and art. The book is divided into short stories on each color, filled with details about how they were made and used throughout history.

Before reading this book, I never gave much thought to all the colorful pigments we use in our daily lives, taking them rather for granted. This book's deeper look has made me realize that for much of history, it was difficult, expensive, and sometimes
Janelle Ortiz
Apr 23, 2018 rated it it was ok
Shelves: unfinished
Moving this to my "unfinished" shelf. I can't bring myself to continue. Basically it doesn't feel worthwhile. The "chapters" on each color are too short, which makes everything so disparate. I wish the stories intersected more. Possibly fewer colors with more detailed histories. This book is very cursory and reads like it was meant to sit on a coffee table and not actually give you any meaningful historical knowledge. It saddens me because I love the idea behind this book! Also, the design is ou ...more
Nov 05, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: nonfiction
Not long ago, I saw many references to the color indigo and was curious to know more about where it came from. I began reading a long, extremely dry tome that told all I ever wanted to know and so much, much more than I cared to know. Color and its history is fascinating, but I don't want to make it my life's work. I wished then that there was a book that explained about colors briefly with just the right mix of humor, history, culture, science, art, and whimsey. Here it is: short essays on seve ...more
Sep 21, 2018 rated it really liked it
This book is so much more than history. It’s geography, economy, art, society, geology, culture. St. Clair explains the origins of various shades of every color with fantastic detail, intriguing anecdotes, and a sprinkle of humor.

I was expecting a weighty collection of dates and names and details, and all of those elements are there, but it’s a light, easy-to-digest collection. Everything is fascinating—ancient Egyptian burials to the plague to George Washington’s love for blue and beige to Mon
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“So, in a way, the color we perceive an object to be is precisely the color it isn’t: that is, the segment of the spectrum that is being reflected away.” 1 likes
“Someone wearing a snow-pale winter coat telegraphs a subtle visual message: "I do not need to take public transportation.” 0 likes
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