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Color

A Natural History of the Palette

By Victoria Finlay
15-minute read
Audio available
Color: A Natural History of the Palette by Victoria Finlay

Color: A Natural History of the Palette (2002) tells the intriguing and odd stories connected to the discovery of pigments and the use of paints. From the prehistoric use of ochre in cave drawings to the outlawing of white paint in the twentieth century, these blinks are full of surprising, colorful information.

  • People curious about how humans perceive the world around them
  • Seasoned or aspiring graphic designers, illustrators and photographers
  • Anyone interested in art history

Victoria Finlay was born in Britain and works as a journalist in Hong Kong. She was arts editor at the South China Morning Post for four years before embarking on her own research into color. This is her first book.

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Color

A Natural History of the Palette

By Victoria Finlay
  • Read in 15 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 9 key ideas
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Color: A Natural History of the Palette by Victoria Finlay
Synopsis

Color: A Natural History of the Palette (2002) tells the intriguing and odd stories connected to the discovery of pigments and the use of paints. From the prehistoric use of ochre in cave drawings to the outlawing of white paint in the twentieth century, these blinks are full of surprising, colorful information.

Key idea 1 of 9

Ochre was the earliest color of paint and it remains an important shade to this day.

Have you ever seen pictures of prehistoric cave paintings, such as those at Lascaux or Altamira? They’re truly wondrous designs, but you may have noticed that their color palette is quite restricted. There’s a good reason for this.

The artists who created these cave paintings mostly used ochre, a naturally occurring pigment that ranges in color from earthy brown to yellow to red depending on the sort of iron oxide present.

Ochre was unearthed and used long before all other kinds of paint were discovered or circulated widely, and it has long been cherished as a result. According to the Roman encyclopedist Pliny the Elder, the rocks around Sinope on the Black Sea were the best source for ochre, but the pigment is found in many other regions as well.

For example, the native peoples of North America used the pigment on their skin, believing it protected them against evil spirits. It also repelled flying insects in the summer months and protected their skin against biting winter winds. In fact, painting their skin is probably why white colonists gave them the derogatory name “red Indians” or “redskins.”

Ochre continues to play an important role in modern aboriginal art, and some of the best examples can be found in Australia.

The author headed to Alice Springs in Northern Australia to see these works of art in their natural setting. Many Aboriginal artists still work with ochre, especially those from the Australia’s Central Desert Region.

These works are often given mystical titles, such as Two Snakes Dreaming, and their composition is similarly mystical. Ochre paintings often include patterns of dots, waves and circles, with each of these shapes carrying a significant meaning. Circles may represent water holes in the desert, ovals may represent shields and wavy lines may depict people sitting around a fire.

As you can see, Ochre is an ancient color and has been daubed on skin, stone and canvas – but it's just the start of our journey into colors.

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