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The Secret Lives of Colour

4.13  ·  Rating details ·  10,551 ratings  ·  1,127 reviews
The Secret Lives of Colour tells the unusual stories of the 75 most 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 surpr ...more
Paperback, 328 pages
Published September 6th 2018 by John Murray (first published October 20th 2016)
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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)
Fran Based on the text at the end of the final colour, Vantablack, in the paperback edition I would guess that one, maybe two, paragraphs were added to the…moreBased on the text at the end of the final colour, Vantablack, in the paperback edition I would guess that one, maybe two, paragraphs were added to the book that mentions other books about colour published between the 2016 1st edition and the 2018 paperback. A more recent printing of the hardback version might be using this updated text though so without comparing the editions I can't say for sure. I would get whichever version you prefer as I'm confident that 99.98% of the text is definitely identical. (less)
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Will Byrnes
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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 color that
Jun 10, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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  ·  review of another edition
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! ...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
Dec 26, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2018, non-fiction
Loved this
Ever wonder why Ferrari chose the color red? What about why Van Gogh's sunflowers are slowly wilting as the years pass? Are you curious why some colors are considered royal? If you answer "yes" to any of these questions, you should give this book a go.

An interesting glimpse into the history and changing meaning of color over time. The exact dialog about each color varied, with some focusing heavily on the historical recipe and how that was interesting, and others narrowing in more on the social
Apr 22, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
This book would be an interesting podcast. One unusual color name per episode, with a random collection of facts about it — I can see how that would be a winning formula. But the problem is that this entire book is just random facts about some colors — Prussion blue, avocado, lead white. The color entries for the most part don’t even qualify as essays; there’s not any kind of arc or conclusion or lesson drawn. This book is the written equivalent of sitting at a long dinner next to somebody who k ...more
Jul 24, 2019 rated it it was ok
Shelves: 2019-reads
This book appearance-wise is very pretty but not much on the inside, I came expecting a book about the meaning and effect of colours but instead a boring account of some shades of each colour.

My problem was that it was boring and monotonous even though I am interested in the topic, the writing wasn't captivating either. Also, some important shades weren't talked about such as turquoise or lilac or lemon yellow or coral or many others.

One other issue I had is that the book didn't talk about the
Aug 10, 2018 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: genre, dnf
You can even imagine the writing process: pick up a color with whim, google to see if there were any interesting anecdotes, then lump them up.

The end result? A book full of piecemeal information suitable for party chatting without organized idea or purpose. The amount of good reviews is a testimony of either the shallowness of our time, or the deluge of fake reviews. Hopefully it's the latter.

update: I'd recommend On Color for a deeply contemplative and culturally spectral alternative. Much less
Nov 28, 2022 rated it liked it
Shelves: british-author
A well researched, very scientific based book on how certain colours came to be. Very interesting to see how rocks, minerals, sea creatures were used to create the colours and how through the many years going all the way back many centuries to the current times these colours were used to determine the various classes of wealth.

I read this because at the beginning of the year there was a TV segment on "relaxing and soothing colours". Depending on the website you look at, the number can range from
This was a fun glimpse into the world of color. Each vignette is short-usually a page or two-making this a great book to dip into in those spare moments that are too brief to allow for full immersion in a story world. The author sometimes goes off on tangents that seem only barely related to the color in question, and the pages were a bit uneven-some stories leapt off the page and dazzled like the brightest vermilion, while others were drier and more muted, more like the terre verte that has his ...more
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 ...more
Jan 06, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Jan 01, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
It's hard to describe what a delicious book this is. The author has combined her twin passions for color and fashion and mixed them together with history, art and chemistry to provide a delectable collection of morsels about where colors we might not think twice about first appeared in the human story, and how they and their making evolved over time.

I found this book on the "Staff Picks" shelf of our local independent bookstore and flipped it open to the pages on Tyrian Purple, Cleopatra's favor
Sophy H
May 01, 2022 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This was a brilliant little foray into the world of colour.

Kassia St Clair tells us all about the history, meaning and significance and use of different colours throughout the spectrum.

The book is divided into colour sections and there are beautifully obscure colours in there like orpiment, dragon's blood, heliotrope and verdigris.

A great read, fascinating and informative.
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
Jul 13, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: multicolor
Often, the books I read are One Big Idea books (e.g. The Black Swan by Nassim Taleb; Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond; The Righteous Mind, by Jonathan Haidt). Others are Many Small Idea books (especially collections of essays). This books is of an a different kind, unless you think that a color is an idea.

Whatever the name is for the profession where you make sure that the printing doesn't mess up the colors, they must have been ecstatic about getting this job. Every 2-3 pages is a differ
Kimberly Ann
Thorough, comprehensive, assiduous, meticulous, conscientious, painstaking, methodical rigorous, in-depth, exhaustive, all-embracing, & anal-retentive book I have ever read: and to think when it came out I, as an artist who loves & revels in color, was so excited, that instead of waiting to read a Library copy (there was a humongous wait list) I bought one to own.

That was a mistake, but I learned (well no, I let most of it pass me over) more than I ever wanted to know, that I didn't even know
Jul 01, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
So...the bright red of a strawberry is just the colour the strawberry is NOT! Mind-boggling; the light fails in the evening, colours fade, leaves are no longer green - but then, they never were actually green...

A fascinating book, page after page of amusing and provocative colourful slices of art, history and philosophy; and much else besides. Certainly a book to return to - and one to bore people with for a long time.
{3.5 stars}

The first thing that jumped out was ‘colour’ -- one of my favourite favourite things.

I liked this read for being more than how we respond to colours (red: anger, love; green: envy; etc), and it was fun reading a dog, named Robot, discovered the cave at Lascaux.

This is definitely an interesting read – it’s jam-packed with trivia (to dazzle and impress someone) – but for me it lacked depth (like the chapter on ginger and its focus on people with ginger hair) and sometimes it flitted aro
May 16, 2020 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is a nice diversionary read. The many 2-3 minute chapters are generally entertaining and informative.

At first I thought the book would be solely about how artists made or obtained particular paint colors hundreds of years ago. There's a bit of that, and it's interesting enough, but fortunately the book mostly consists of mini-histories and cultural asides. Black and its assorted shades are covered in the final section and here the author seemed to run out of steam. Maybe it was the color it
Victor The Reader
The perfect read for any person who loves colors and who wants to learn about their inception ❤️🧡💛💚💙💜🖤(Grade: A).
Dec 04, 2022 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
4 stars

This was a well written book about the history of more than a hundred colors. Each color has a two page description and though interesting the history is quite random - much like my notes below.

Here are notes from some of the chapters that I found interesting.

1. Lead White - this poisonous pigment was the most widely used white pigment until 1913 when Titanium White was introduced. Lead poisoning was most common among those who created the pigment from chemical reactions around the lead
Apr 22, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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!
Jul 31, 2020 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction, history
This was perfect for a kind of scatter-brained mood: the stories about each colour are short, and it's easy to dip in and out. Actually, it's better that way, since there's some repetition here and there between the colours, and it can get a bit samey to just sit down and read multiples. It seems to be well sourced and squares up with what I know about the history of colour and optics, though admittedly that isn't much!

I would definitely recommend reading it on a colour screen, or preferably in
Michelle Curie
Colours play such an important part in all of our lives – they help us identify and distinguish between things, they awake feelings and associations. But have you ever thought about how every colour has a history of its own? I've got to admit – I have not.

The Secret Lives of Colour is here to unravel a lot of the mysteries surrounding some of our most beloved and least preferred hues. Collecting 75 stories, Kassia St. Clair shares some anecdotes and developments these shades encompass and repres
St. Clair makes it clear that the history of color is separate from, and larger than, the history of art, but the only tag given by Penguin on this is 'art.' The preface makes me think that it should also have 'science' and of course it should have 'history.' Also, my library shelved at 155.9114... 'art history' is 709, 'memory' and 'logic' bracket 155, hmm... 'psychology, adult' is at 155.6 so now we're getting somewhere, as I can see this being thought of as a psychology book because stuff lik ...more
Dana Stabenow
Apr 24, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
As you might expect, this is a book about color, divided into chapters named for primary colors that are further subdivided into constituent colors and their individual stories, all illustrated with items from history and literature. Take white, which begins with a quote from Moby Dick.

...There yet lurks an elusive something in the innermost idea of this hue, which strikes more of panic to the soul than that redness which affrights in blood.

Page through to one of white's constituent colors, Isab
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Play Book Tag: The Secret Lives of Color - Kassia St. Clair, 4 Stars 3 18 Oct 17, 2019 03:11PM  

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“Van Gogh's sunflowers, it seems, are wilting, just like their real-life counterparts did.” 5 likes
“Colors, therefore, should be understood as subjective cultural creations: you could no more meaningfully secure a precise universal definition for all the known shades than you could plot the coordinates of a dream.” 4 likes
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