Book Review: Chromatopia, by David Coles • Glam Adelaide

Book Review: Chromatopia, by David Coles

ART HISTORY: The origin stories of over 50 of history’s most extraordinary pigments, from grinding down beetles to alchemy and serendipity.

By
A feast for the eye and the brain.
Overall
4

David Coles began his working life as an artist in England. After a stint working for renowned art materials suppliers Cornelissen & Son, he became fascinated with the history of pigments. Moving to Australia, he started his own company, Langridge Artist Colours, where he proceeded to live, breathe, and write about pigments.

First published in 2018, this is the revised edition of Coles’s seminal work, Chromatopia.

The first section of the book gives an overview of the main colours with which we are all familiar: their meaning, use and history. For instance, Coles tells us that the Ancient Greeks didn’t recognize blue as a separate colour, but rather as a value of darkness. He writes, “the idea of the absolute constancy of primary colours is quite modern and Eurocentric.”

Each of the next nine sections covers a broad area of history or of pigment type, such as Colour in the Time of the Ancients, or Dyes, Lakes and Pinkes (the latter having nothing to do with the colour as we know it). Pigments range from the ochres that we in Australia are particularly familiar with through ancient indigenous works, to 19th century cadmium and cerulean blue, to modern fluorescents. Each pigment is explained in terms of its composition and derivation, its artistic or other uses, and its social context. Did you know that Scheele’s Green was made from arsenic? Or that vantablack (the darkest material on the planet) is made up of vertical tubes grown on a surface?

Colour is one of those aspects of life that most of us take for granted. We make assumptions about it, many of which are misguided. Chromatopia puts some of those assumptions to bed and presents us with an array of intriguing, fascinating and sometimes horrifying, facts about pigments and their uses.

The final section of the book includes some recipes for making your own pigments, so if you are sick of making scones, maybe whip up some Carmine Lake instead!

Several pages are dedicated to artists themselves, featuring colour-centric works by a variety of contemporary Australian and international artists, who also talk about what the colour means to them.

In true Thames & Hudson style, this book is a glorious testament to art. Lavishly illustrated with incredible photography by Adrian Lander, it is a joy to look at as well as to read.

Of interest to the general reader, as well as the artist or art historian, Chromatopia is a fine addition to any library.

Reviewed by Tracey Korsten
Twitter: @TraceyKorsten

Distributed by: Thames & Hudson Australia
Released: April 2020
RRP: $34.99

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