Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Philip Ball Talks About Colour

Philip Ball seems to me something of a force of nature. He studied Chemistry and then received a PhD in Physics from Bristol University, a contemporary of our own Dean of Science, and now he is science writer extraordinaire - just check out his website, the list and breadth of publications is, well, breath-taking! Actually, I had expected him to be much much older... he seems to have fitted in an immense amount already!

I was excited about hearing him talk about "The Invention of Colour" yesterday as the Autumn Art Lecture in the Wills Memorial Building, and first impressions did not disappoint: he wore a red shirt and a red and yellow striped tie. Nice. The topic was one he dealt with in a recent book, Bright Earth, and it was fascinating. He took us on an hour-long tour through the history of art by examining the materials used. He told us about paint.

Now I'd not thought much about paint. Apparently, neither do today's painters, given the vast choice of colours available in every good art shop. But it was not always so. The earliest painters, like those who painted on the walls of caves, just used earth so the tones were brownish and reddish. Ball explained how every culture seems to have begun with the same palette of colours, in the same order: Black, White, Red and then Yellow/Green. And then the colour palette began to widen. He showed how one element can be treated to produce different coloured pigments - Cadmium, for example, can be yellow, orange, red or even black.) Ultramarine was highly prized, coming from the very expensive lapis lazuli. And as new pigments were discovered, the colours in paintings changed and this changed how painters approached what they painted. Also, pigments, which were dry powders, were first mixed with egg yolk to make paint and then later on with oil, which made for an entirely different painting.

Towards the beginning of the 20th century, Ball explained, pigments began to be synthesized, and in fact almost every major chemical company today began by making synthetic paints. And this led to mass production and every colour under the sun. He showed us a picture of International Klein Blue, an astonishing colour which just wouldn't look right on the computer screen, developed by artist Yves Klein using synthetic ultramarine. The paint is almost matt and I wanted to reach out and stroke it.  Funnily enough, I had just read Zero History, William Gibson's latest novel, in which a character wears a startling Klein Blue suit.

The lecture really changed my thinking about how the materials available affect the art that is produced. I know how writing on the computer is different for me than writing by hand, but I can't imagine having to make my materials myself. Ball ended with a wonderful quote about Picasso - a note that he had written that sounded like a poem but was in fact his shopping list for colours. It does feel as though we may have gained a great deal with synthethic pigments, but something has also been lost along the way, an artist's direct and tangible contact with her materials.

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