Colour: A natural history of the palette

Sometimes, we miss the forest for the trees. And sometimes, we miss the trees for the forest. Let me give you an illustration. Take a look at the painting below (click on the picture to see a larger view).

Source: The National Gallery, London

The painting is called “Bacchus and Ariadne”. It was painted by Titian sometime between 1520 and 1523. It depicts a tale from Roman  mythology where Bacchus (the God of Wine) sees the mortal Ariadne and falls in love with her at first sight. He is so smitten that he jumps out of his cheetah-drawn chariot towards her. The painting has captured Bacchus in mid-leap as Ariadne shies away from him in alarm.

I saw this painting at London’s National Gallery in 2009. I duly noted the story that the painting conveyed, the various characters in it, the lovingly painted animals, Titian’s trademark use of bright colours… and moved on to the next artwork. It was a nice painting, but not particularly impressive. Or so I thought. Today, I bitterly regret at only looking at the painting, but not seeing it closely enough. In only looking at the painting, I had completely failed to see the colours themselves, particularly the brilliant blue of the sky — a blue which came from the ultramarine paint made from the semi-precious lapis lazuli mined hundreds of miles away in the Sar-e-Sang valley (in present day Afghanistan).

The lapis lazuli from these mines would have travelled through ancient trade routes to the colour maker in Italy, who then transformed it into the very expensive ultramarine paint through a laborious process. First, the lapis lazuli would have been finely powdered and kneaded into a dough along with resin, wax, gum and linseed oil for 3 days, after which it would have been put in a mixture of lye and water. This mixture would have been kneaded again, this time with sticks, to draw out the blue of the lapis lazuli into the liquid. The blue-coloured liquid would have been be collected in bowls and allowed to dry, leaving behind a powdery blue pigment, the ultramarine blue. The process would have been repeated with the “dough” to get different qualities and shades of blue (pg.290-291). These days making the ultramarine paint is not so laborious as it is made synthetically.

I read about all this and much more in Colour: A Natural History of the Palette (2004, Random House, pp.448) by Victoria Finlay. The book can be considered as a travelogue; it can also be considered as a book on art history. But for me, it is a book on the micro-history of colour as explored through an artist’s paintbox holding the colours of the rainbow and then some more — violet (or purple), indigo, blue, green, yellow, orange, red, ochre, white, black and brown.

In her attempt to trace and draw out the stories of how natural dyes, paints and colours were made for a European artist’s paintbox, Finlay travelled to Australia, England, China, Chile, Italy, India, Iran, Spain, Afghanistan and Lebanon. As each story, myth, legend of the colours come into life, we realise that:

Art history is so often about looking at the people who made the art; but …. there were also stories to be told about the people who made things that made the art…. This book is full of stories and anecdotes, histories and adventures inspired by the human quest for colour — mostly in art but sometimes in fashion and interior design, music, porcelain, and even in one example, on pillar boxes. (pg.2-3)

Color: A Natural History of the Palette is an extremely well-researched book. In addition to the chapters on the various colours, it has a preface, an introduction, a bibliography, extensive endnotes, and an index. The book is a discovery of trade restrictions, secrecy, diplomacy, canny marketing, ecological disasters, inventions, desperation, loss and much more in the world of colours. Every colour is a journey into the past with stories just waiting to be told.

If you open up a box of paints, there are numerous such stories hidden inside it. There are stories of sacredness and profanity, of nostalgia and innovation, of secrecy and myth, of luxury and texture, of profit and loss, of fading and poison, of cruelty and greed, and the determination of some people to let nothing stop them in the pursuit of beauty. (pg.24)

For me, the book was a revelation about a world that I thought I knew (in passing at least), but discovered that I actually knew nothing about. Let me share some interesting bits of information from the book here:

  • According to Tibetan tradition, Monghyr (near Patna in Bihar) is the birthplace of painting itself. (pg.206)
  • Ochre  (or iron oxide) was the first colour paint and has been used on every inhabited continent since painting began. (pg.26) Think of pre-historic cave paintings anywhere in the world and you’ll know what I mean. Think of Bhimbetka, closer home in India.
  • In the 17th and 18th centuries, graphite was worth hundreds of thousands of pounds due to which the operations and sites of graphite mines were kept secret in England with enough security like a military base. (pg.86-87)
  • It was the need to distinguish between different shades of brown that led to the invention of the world’s first colorimeter in 1885 by Joseph Lovibund. This was later adapted to measure the three primary hues of red, blue and yellow in the form of the Lovibund Colour Scale, thereby revolutionising colour testing itself (pg.103). These days colour standardisation is in the form of Pantone colour. (p.394)
  • The most extraordinary brown ever was called mommia or “mummy”, and it was made from dead ancient Egyptians (pg.104). Thankfully, these days the browns are made from synthetic pigments.
  • The greatest white paint, and the cruellest as well, was made of lead. This white has poisoned artists and factory workers, women looking for beauty fixes and even little children playing on slides who have been attracted to its strange sweet taste. (pg.109)
  • Till mid-19th century, experts thought that Greek Temples were white. It was quite a shock for them to discover that they were actually covered with incredibly bright colors — while the columns were striped red and blue, the Ionic capitals sported gold colour as well. (pg. 126-127) See the picture on the right : the British Museum in London has a reproduction of this colour scheme and I had taken this picture on one of my visits there after I had gotten over my own shock at the discovery that the Parthenon could have been so brightly coloured.
  • The brightest red is produced from the blood of the cochineal beetle. On the day it is fresh, carmine (or cochineal or crimson) is one of the reddest dyes that the natural world has ever produced. (pg.136) Even today, it is reported that lipsticks contain cochineal blood for that perfect red shade.
  • The words carmine and crimson are derived from the Sanskrit word krimadja. (pg.145).
  • Indian yellow or piuri is either one of the biggest myths or hoaxes in the history of colour, or a colour whose recipe has been lost for ever. It is supposed to have been made from the urine of cows exclusively fed on a diet of mango leaves ! Go figure.
  • Saffron mythology is as fragile as the plant itself: there are stories to the effect that drinking a big dose of saffron would lead to an abortion, while an even larger dose could kill. (pg.233)
  • Like white, green was also a poisonous colour as it contained arsenic. In fact, it is believed that Napolean died of arsenic poisoning from the green wallpaper in his prison room. (pg.264)
  • Until the 18th century, blue was spelt as “blew” (pg.286).
  • The earliest recorded use of ultramarine paint was in Bamiyan in Afghanistan, where the two giant Buddha sculptures were said to have auras around their heads, painted as frescos in ultramarine colour (see picture on right) (pg.291). Sadly, the sculptures no longer exist today, but perhaps the frescoes still do.
  • Artists used two varieties of blue paints for different purposes: ultramarine to give height to the skies, and azurite to give depth to the seas. (pg.287)
  • The magic of indigo is that the blue color appears only after the textile being dyed is taken out of the pot and is exposed to the air. (pg.323)
  • In the 18th century, English dyers classified indigo into many shades which included: milk blue, pearl blue, pale blue, flat blue, middling blue, sky blue, queen’s blue, watchet blue, garter blue, mazareen blue, deep blue and navy blue. (pg.340) And here I thought that there was only one shade of indigo !
  • There are several 100 species of the indigo plant, of which 63 species are found in India. (pg.349-350)
  • Purple is the colour that has been most legislated about, and over the longest time of time. (pg.366) There have been periods when only the royalty could wear it, other times when only the clergy could wear it, and periods when everybody was forced to wear as much purple as possible.
  • When Julius Caesar defeated Pompey in a key battle in 49 BC, Cleopatra threw him a grand banquet on the theme purple. From the ship’s sails to the furnishings in the banquet room, everything was coloured purple. Caesar was so impressed that he decreed that henceforth purple was a royal colour and only he could wear it ! (pg.363-364)

This above is just a sampling of the treasure trove of information that the book contains in a style that is conversational, serious and intimate at the same time. Every story, myth, or colour-making process is lovingly narrated. Take for example, the process to extract orange colour from the roots of the madder plant in the paint-making factory of Winsor & Newton.

[It] involves washing the crushed roots in oak barrels and mixing the dye in alum and water until it looks like watermelon juice with a foaming cap. It is then drained through fine Irish linen for 5 days after which it feels like the most luxurious face cream — so silky it is barely tangible. The water is then squeezed out of it, with … [a] wooden press, after which it is sent to an oven. At no point can any metal touch the mixture, as it would react and change the final colour. (pg. 186)

Vermilion, a shade of red, is made from cinnabar, an ore of mercury. Finlay’s narration of the Greek naturalist and philosopher Pliny the Elder’s description of how cinnabar (see picture on the right) is formed is worth reproducing here.

[Vermilion is] the result of an epic struggle by an elephant and a dragon. These two trouble makers were always fighting… and the battle eventually ended with the dragon — evidently a rather snaky one — wrapping its coils around its heavy enemy. But as the elephant fell it crushed the dragon with its weight and they both died. The merging of their blood made cinnabar. (pg.163)

I read this book with increasing delight and wonder as I progressed from page to page, colour to colour, story to story, and history to history. It was a book that I could not put down and once I finished reading it, I read it again — it was that compelling a read.

It was also a book that exposed the severe shortcomings of the formal education I received as a post-graduate student of Geology. One of my papers was “Economic Geology” in which we studied the economic wealth of India in the context of minerals, gems, ores and mines. It was a boring subject, as most classes were about which state in India had which minerals/gems/ores and how they were being mined or how they could be mined. I wish the course had had the scope for their actual use culturally, historically and in current times.

It took me this book to connect 2 supposedly disparate things. The first was a visit to Malanjkhand, as part of an economic geology study tour in 1993, wheremalachite and azurite (ores of copper) are mined. The second was a visit to the Badami Cave Temples in 2010 where I saw the remnants of brilliant green colour on the ceiling of Cave 3 (see photo on right). Our tour guide had idly mentioned that the green came from copper, a piece of information that my mind had filed away.

When I read this book, I discovered how copper lends itself to two important colours in an artist’s palette: green from malachite and blue from azurite. And voila ! I guessed that the green in the cave probably came from malachite. As to whether the malachite came from the Malanjkhand mines that I had visited is something that can only be conjectured.

On the back cover of Colour: A Natural History of the Palette, a reviewer has said that “until I read this book, I was color blind”. And that is exactly what I feel like too. Reading this book opened up a deliciously new world before me, a world that I am looking at through newly awakened eyes. It is a book that makes me want to explore the colours of the Indian palette. Colours that we consider sacred, and colours that we don’t really give a second thought to. And I am not talking about synthetic colours here. For example, what gives the red to sindoor or kumkum? What is alta made of? How are kajal and surma made?

Photo courtesy: Anuradha Shankar

Why is geru (a red ochre) or chemmann (as it is known in Tamil) so sacred? In fact, why is ochre so sacred across cultures the world over? Is it because of the colour or is it because it is earth itself—the very earth that sustains us?

The aboriginals of Australia derive their very existence from the sacred ochre, as do the Native American tribes. The Warli tribes of Maharashtra cannot paint their distinctive art without the red ochre background (though these days synthetic colours are being used for commercial purposes). Festive kolams in Tamil Nadu are not complete without the chemmann in them (see photo above). And temple walls in Tamil Nadu are painted in alternating stripes of whitewash and chemmann.

These are just a few colour stories that I want to explore to begin with. There are journeys that I want to undertake in my search for an understanding of colour. But first, I want to read Victoria Finlay’s Color: A Natural History of the Palette again.

And then maybe, once again. It is that kind of a book.

54 thoughts on “Colour: A natural history of the palette

  1. I am not a big fan of history though art interests me so I am amazed that I didn’t sleep through this one. I particularly liked the journey of the paints.


  2. wow!!! fantastic post, Sudha!!! and the book really sounds interesting… add this one too to the list of books you have to lend me 😀
    btw, interestingly, we had a discussion on kajal just the other day (in another context),but my mom has actually made kajal for me…and it is fascinating to see how simple soot becomes kajal… and the difference between the home made one and the market bought one is so obvious, i stopped using the market variety once my mom stopped making it (need i mention that i am too lazy to make it myself?)
    but what this post reminds me of is our guide at Amer fort pointing out how rubies and emeralds had been used to paint the palaces… and how in spite of the passage of years, the paint remains fresh and clear… if only we had maintained them a bit better!! the same goes with the paintings at ajanta.. and as u mentioned, the remnants at badami…


    1. Added 😀 But I think this is one book you will want for your library.

      My paati used to make kaajal at home too and that is what we used as children. With her passing away, the practice of applying kaajal also stopped. Painting with gemstones is something that came to India with the Mughals and the persians; till then it was vegetable and plant dyes and pigments that were used and also metallic ores like malachite and azurite.

      Don’t you think it is time to explore the Indian palette of colours now? 🙂


    1. Thanks, Raghav. Colours were just that till I read this book and what a book it has been. Never thought that something that we take for granted would have so much history behind it.


  3. That’s some amazing information about colors! And, yes I totally agree that sometimes we get engrossed in some details, completely missing out on other significant ones. Your knowledge and love for art amazes me!


    1. Thanks, Rachna. I love art in all its myriad forms and every bit of opportunity to enhance that love and passion for art is grabbed. And also shared here 🙂


    1. Thanks Amit. I have only shared a small sampling here. The book has the stories myths and legends associated with each colour in far more “colourful” detail. 🙂


  4. My eyes have been popping for about 15 minutes now. Quite intriguing! The colour purple was reserved only for the royal blokes. Ha! (My company uses it profusely, even on my business card!)

    Yup, I’m feeling royal today!

    P.S.: Sharing the living bajeezus out of this! Please give us more of this stuff!


    1. Thanks, Kartikay. The colour purple is also a colour of mourning in the church these days. Priests often wear a purple vestment during Mass for the soul of the dead. Sometimes even the coffins are lined with purple velvet !

      But whether for royalty or the clergy or the dead, it is a lovely colour in all its shades – I particularly love lavender.

      Thanks also for sharing this post. 🙂


      1. Interesting! Colours have multiple cultural contexts. I know that we don’t use red on websites for China because that colour has a negative connotation, while it might be “fun” and “loud” in India. Yup!


  5. I was really interested when I saw the title of this post and loved reading this. One of the reasons is that our traditional artists used to make their own paints and do the paintings. I remember my dad writing a paper about the traditional artists of Paralakhemundi (a small town in odisha-andhra border) after studying the way they create their own paints out of naturally available substances. I think I need to read this book by Victoria Finlay.


    1. This book addresses the question of how European artists stopped making their own paintings as a result of which the quality of paints and paintings came down. This is the reason why paintings from the 1500s are in better condition than paintings done in the 1700s and 1800s. Thank you so much for bringing this point into the discussion.

      Can you share the details of your father’s paper with me? I would love to read it.


  6. One of my abiding regrets has been that, among my various inabilities, is an inability tom appreciate the visual arts. You have at one stroke both deepened the regret as well as given me the hope that I can, at least, enjoy the history behind the arts.

    Thought I’d mention that one of the threads of Kalki’s ‘Sivagamiyin Sabatham’ was the quest for the secret behind the paints used at Ajanta which gave those paintings longevity.


    1. Suresh, I do not believe that art is only about paintings and sculptures. I see art everywhere – in an arrangement of flowers, a shop window, a well accessorised outfit, a well laid out book, a child’s scribbles, a beautifully composed photograph … art ultimately lies in the eyes of the beholder. I certainly do not consider “abstract art” as art and there are people who do. Neither do I believe that whatever critics consider as art is art. For me to consider something as a work of art, means that it has to appeal to my sensibilities. And that is what, I feel should be for everyone.

      Thanks for the information on Kalki’s Sivagamiyin Sabatham. I am trying to hunt an English translation of this book. If you do come across one, will you let me know?


  7. Wow! That was a treat. Though I read a little about art history, this post really opened my eyes to the richness that lies behind the history of colors. Very satisfying read. Will look out for the book now.


  8. When you said it was a long review, I thought it would be! But it ended too quickly. You are right, this book is amazing and very interesting for even a lay person like me who is an art ignoramus to boot 🙂 I might borrow it some day though I prefer reading your reviews to the book itself. 🙂


    1. This is a 2342 word book review ! Any longer, I might be sued by the author and publisher for quoting so freely from the book. Actually, considering its length it should be called a book review essay, but for the fact that there is no comparative analysis on books on similar topic. 🙂

      This book is amazing and even after 2 reads, I still find it difficult to put down the book and start on some other book.


  9. Just came by to thank you for voting for my post, and then, stayed on to read. I use colours everyday in my paintings, and yet have never stopped to think about their history, so thank you for reviewing this book, and Im so glad you dropped by my blog 😀


    1. Welcome here Monishikha, and I am absolutely delighted to know that you found the review relevant. I am an editor by profession and work with words and typefaces and fonts all the time. Recently, I picked up a book on the history of typefaces and was amazed to find that I had never thought about them at all. I think we all take things that are close to us for granted 🙂


  10. Wow that post mesmerized me with all the colors and hues . And seriously urine of cows fed with mangoes ? Ha ha . Very interesting post sudhagee 🙂


    1. Glad you liked the post, Jaishvats.

      Indian yellow or the “yellow obtained from the urine of cows fed with mango leaves” is called piuri. Whether Indian yellow is actually this is not really established and the author leaves it open ended whether the recipe for making this yellow was lost or whether it was a hoax to fool the English who looked for exotic Indian stuff everywhere.


  11. I loved this post! I never really wondered how all these hues figured everywhere. It is one of those things taken for granted. I liked each and everyone of the stories! Brown is/was made from mummies, red from beetles and yellow from cows who eat mangoes! Wow! I am almost glad of the synthetic dyes now!


    1. Well, I didn’t give the details as to how the first purple dye was made ! It was made from a particular type of sea snail, Murex. Can you imagine the numbers killed to dye one robe? Or the stink that would have been raised to extract the pigment? Where red is concerned, the way the beetles are grown and harvested is quite gross.

      So yes, I am glad that there are synthetic dyes at least to prevent cruelty to animals. But my heart also yearns to see that special ultramarine paint made from lais lazuli.


  12. Phew! if some of those stories are bizarre -like the story of Indian yellow- others are downright macabre -the essence of crushed mummies! No wonder you are hooked! I am sure it is worth every second you invest on that book.


    1. I have only shared the macabre part of the brown, Umashankar. What the book also narrates are instances of artists’ revulsion on discovering the source of their browns. There is a touching tale of an artist collecting all his tubes of brown paint and burying it in his backyard and saying a prayer over them.

      The macabre hooks you, yes, but it is stories like these which have the retention power if you know what I mean. I love books that are passionate and sincere about what they are trying to say, and this book is one of them.


    1. And thank you so much for you comments and sharing this post on all possible platforms. This is one book I am really proud of reviewing and it’s one that I wish I had written 🙂


  13. Such an interesting read! Thank you for this post Sudha. And strangely enough it is the bright blue in the first paining that got my attention 😉
    This post needs to be shared! 🙂


  14. Colorful review… That little book on your table never attracted my attention… but now I regret for not browsing through the pages as I always do when I come there to see you. I am 😦 looking at the story behind my favorite color


    1. It is a great book, Asha and one you should definitely read, at least for the story of your favourite colour. Neena has a copy. She got tired of my quoting from the book and decided to buy a copy herself 🙂 I’m now waiting for her to qoute back passages to me.


  15. Colorful post, a veritable feast for the senses. You do realize with every book review you write, the bag that I have to bring back from India gets heavier. The rate at which I am going, I will need to pay excess baggage on 2 additional suitcases. Thanks Sudha, for once again adding to my knowledge base and my reading list.


    1. You should, Sumanya. It is one of those books that wakes you up from a deep sleep refreshed and eager to explore the world again, but in an entirely new way. It’s a rather weird coincidence, but a friend lent me a book on textiles from India and most of the colours are right there. The insights I got from the “Colours” book has been phenomenal.

      I knew about the lapis lazuli blue at the Ajanta, but I haven’t seen it yet.


  16. That sure is one great book review Sudha. And the book promises to be worth every read you have given it and worth borrowing 😛 I am not too fond of history, but this one seems to be like the history lessons my teacher in middle school used to give us — anecdotes, stories and trivia — to make us remember the events.

    Did the author come to India on her colourful journey? She must have, since the window from the Udaipur palace features on the cover of the book. But why no tidbits about India, then? Also, I was wondering about how the Roman structures became white? Did the later rulers paint them?

    I love all shades of brown and was reading with interest about the colorimeter till you came to the horrifying details about it. But I love all the shades of brown too much to bury my saris in the backyard as the artist had done.


  17. Wow.. the journey of colors is amazing. I loved the post. It is very detailed. Till now, I have only once read about the inventing of a color in a Ken Follett novel. But then again, it was not very detailed. It was shown as a labourious, time consuming process. But, from the title of the book, its an unlikely one I will pick up. But this one sounds interesting.


    1. Lata, I can say without hesitation that “Colours” is in the list of my top 10 favourite books. It is also a book that changed the way I perceived colour and enhanced my understanding of art and painting, one of my passions. I can’t recommend this book enough to people 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

    1. A very warm welcome to “My Favourite Things” Mahijit ji. So nice of you to stop by and comment. Thank you so much.

      “Colours” ranks on my list of top 10 books and I can confidently say how it made me look at paintings and art very differently. This book also set me off on a trail of micro-histories which has become a favorite genre to read as well.


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