Color: A Natural History of the Palette

Color: A Natural History of the Palette
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  • ISBN-13: 9780345444301
  • ISBN: 0345444302
  • Publisher: Ballantine Books, Inc.


Finlay, Victoria


Ochre "Art . . . must do something more than give pleasure: it should relate to our own life so as to increase our energy of spirit." sir kenneth clark, Looking at Pictures1 In the lakelands of Italy there is a valley with ten thousand ancient rock carvings. These petroglyphs of Valle Camonica are signs that Neolithic people lived there once, telling stories and illustrating them with pictures. Some show strangely antlered beasts, too thin to provide much meat for a feast, and others show stick-people hunting them with stick-weapons. Another rock has a large five-thousand-year-old butterfly carved into it--although my visit coincided with that of a horde of German schoolchildren queuing up to trace it, and sadly I couldn't see the original through all the paper and wax crayons. But in a quieter place, far away from the groups, I found a flat dark rock covered with fifty or more designs for two-story houses with pointy roofs. It didn't feel particularly sacred to me as I stood looking at it. It was more like an ancient real estate office or an architect's studio, or just a place where people sat and idly carved their domestic dreams. The crude carvings are not colored now, of course: any paints would have disappeared long ago in the Alpine rain. But as I sat there, contemplating the past, I saw what looked like a small stone on the ground. It was a different color from all the other mountain rubble--whatever it was, it didn't belong. I picked it up and realized something wonderful. It didn't look promising: a dirty pale brown stub of claylike earth about the size and shape of a chicken's heart. On the front it was flat and on the back there were three planes like a slightly rounded three-sided pyramid. But when I placed the thumb and the first two fingers of my right hand over those three small planes, it felt immensely comfortable to hold. And what I realized then was that this piece of clay was in fact ochre, and had come from a very ancient paintbox indeed. I wet the top of it with saliva, and once the mud had come off it was a dark yellow color, the color of a haystack. When, copying the carvings, I drew a picture of a two-story house on the rock, the ochre painted smoothly with no grit: a perfect little piece of paint. It was extraordinary to think that the last person who drew with it--the person whose fingers had formed the grooves--lived and died some five thousand years ago. He or she had probably thrown this piece away after it had become too small for painting. A storm must have uncovered it, and left it for me to find. Ochre--iron oxide--was the first color paint. It has been used on every inhabited continent since painting began, and it has been around ever since, on the palettes of almost every artist in history. In classical times the best of it came from the Black Sea city of Sinope, in the area that is now Turkey, and was so valuable that the paint was stamped with a special seal and was known as "sealed Sinope": later the words "sinopia" or "sinoper" became general terms for red ochre.2 The first white settlers in North America called the indigenous people "Red Indians" because of the way they painted themselves with ochre (as a shield against evil, symbolizing the good elements of the world,3 or as a protection against the cold in winter and insects in summer4), while in Swaziland's Bomvu Ridge (Bomvu means "red" in Zulu), archaeologists have discovered mines that were used at least forty thousand years ago to excavate red and yellow pigments for body painting.5 The word "ochre" comes from the Greek meaning "pale yellow," but somewhere along the way the word shifted to suggest something more robust--something redder or browner or earthier. Now it can be used loosely to refer to almost any natural earthy pigment, although it most accurately describes earth that contains a measFinlay, Victoria is the author of 'Color: A Natural History of the Palette' with ISBN 9780345444301 and ISBN 0345444302.

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