The Secret Lives of Colour

Happy new year to you all! I was hoping to get a couple of posts up before the year was over, but they ended up in the Drafts folder as I feared, as the past week has been particularly busy. It has been a bright and sunny Christmas and New Year’s down here, there is no snow and no hunkering down in the cold, and children are on summer vacation. We spent New Year’s Eve at the beach. It is all very pleasant but I have a sneaking feeling that the season in the northern hemisphere is more suitable for some quiet reflection at year’s end, the turning of pages, and (most important) the ceremony of starting a new diary.

Kassia St. Clair’s new book, The Secret Lives of Colourhas kept me entertained throughout the holidays. It’s a collection of short essays on 75 colors (pigments, dyes and even shades associated with precious metals or stones, like gold or amber), laying out the history and interesting facts about each, such as when it was fashionable and why it was prized. When I first started buying colored pencils, it was their mysterious, romantic names as much as their shades or manufacturing history that captivated me: Naples yellow, heliotrope, celadon green, Prussian blue, Payne’s grey. The book is by no means exhaustive, as a color is sometimes allotted only a couple of pages. But if you have ever found such names beautiful, and if your interest in stationery and the larger world has an anthropological bent, you might find it worth reading. The hardcover is only available in the UK at the moment but comes out later this year in the US.

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4 thoughts on “The Secret Lives of Colour

  1. Late compliments of the season to you! I have a friend who moved to Australia a couple of years ago, and it is odd to see his Christmas photos (stood around the tree in shorts and t-shirts!)

    The book sounds very interesting – I’d heard of it, but must make a note to look for a copy, as I recognise a lot of those colour names from my own paintbox!

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    1. Hi John, a Happy New Year to you too! I know, it was weird to spend Christmas without snow, but it was weirder to see Christmas trees inside people’s windows in this weather ;)

      I hope you enjoy the book – I was forced to get the Kindle edition (read it on the Kindle reader on iPad since the Kindle device itself is black and white, and you need to see the colors for this one), and while I do feel the author could have elaborated more on some colors, and included more colors for discussion, it was overall a good primer. I always wondered why the backgrounds of Renaissance paintings were so drab, and it turns out that green degrades particularly badly – so the coffee-colored bushes and trees were originally brighter!

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  2. I’m going to make a note of this book, too, because I find color names fascinating (especially the not so romantic ones like phthalocyanine blue and quinacridone red) and I love trivia :P

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    1. Oh, I should probably tell you those two aren’t included, they sound positively toxic ;) My favs are colors like “chrome oxide green” and “alizarin crimson.” It’s pretty light, entertaining reading, but informative nonetheless – I never really thought about what the precise hue of the UN flag was until I read this book. (It’s cerulean ;))

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