Alchemy and colour

Alchemy and colour: an article for the UCL chemistry departmental bulletin.
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Philip Ball
An article written for the UCL chemistry department, 2002

If you were a painter during the Renaissance, you were probably something of an alchemist too. That’s not to say that you spent your time trying to make gold; but you would have been familiar with the chemical manipulation of matter. You had to be-for there were no art shops, no Winsor and Newton, in those days: you had to make your own paints.

To some of those artists, alchemy was just a chemical technology: a convenient manufacturing process for making colours and other useful substances, such as turpentine and varnishes. Cennino Cennini, a Florentine craftsman, writing around 1390, explains that the brilliant red pigment called vermilion ‘is made by alchemy, prepared in a retort’-but he doesn’t bother to tell his readers how to do this, for ‘it would be too tedious’. Instead, he says, you can buy it from the apothecaries; but don’t take it ready-ground, because the swindlers will mix it with brick dust. …

Colour in art and science

Colour in art and science: a talk for sixth-formers delivered at Study Experiences, Poitiers, Feb 2003.
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Talk for Study Experiences at Futuroscope, Poitiers, France (2003)

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Tonight we’re going to think about colour: what it is, where it comes from, and what it means.

Even if we know nothing about the first two-what colour is and where it comes from-we all have ideas about what it means.

[Pick some people and ask them why they like to wear what they’re wearing. See if anyone is wearing yellow, and if not, ask if anyone would (and why not!)]

In China a few hundred you wouldn’t have been wearing yellow either, but for a very different reason: you would be risking a death sentence. Only the Chinese emperor was allowed to wear yellow, right up to the 20th century. The word for yellow and the word for emperor-huang-are the same in Mandarin Chinese. …

Colour: Natural History

Colour: an article published in Natural History, March 2002.
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A text for Natural History magazine

Published in Vol. 111, No. 2, p.64 (March 2002)

When the sun shines onto the rain-darkened sky, nature’s beautiful secret is revealed. In the arch that curves from the earth to the heavens we can read the origin of colors. Sunlight seems to ‘take on’ the color of anything it bounces off-a red rose or a green leaf-because all of these colors are already within the light, waiting to be sifted by an encounter with the tangible world. In the rainbow, raindrops do the sifting systematically, each band progressing through the visible spectrum from red to violet. …

The reign of light

The reign of light: unpublished article.
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When J. M. W. Turner painted the inelegantly titled Light and Colour (Goethe’s Theory) – The Morning After the Deluge around 1843, he gave us a work more modern than anyone could then have anticipated. Many of his contemporaries were utterly at sea with this almost abstract swirl of glowing primaries; even before Turner had so thoroughly shed the trappings of representational landscape, his critics derided his sun-drenched veils of mist as ‘pictures of nothing, and very like’. But in his abandonment of line and his embracing of colour and light as the key elements of art, Turner does not look old-fashioned next to the luminous colour fields of Mark Rothko or the golden veils of Morris Louis. …

The making of Cézanne’s palette

The making of Cézanne’s palette: an article published in Helix X(2), 2001.
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Philip Ball Published in Helix magazine, X(2), 2001

Innovation in art has always been a gamble. While originality may be given lip-serving credit, unfamiliarity has an even chance of breeding contempt. There is no other word to describe the critics’ response to the first independent exhibition by the Impressionists in Paris in 1874. These artists, it was claimed, had rejected “good artistic manners, devotion to form, and respect for the masters”. Part of the outrage was directed at the choice of subject-ordinary people going about their business, for goodness’ sake-and part at the quick-fire style of the brush strokes. But the detractors were also offended by the colours. …

Colour and art

Colour and art: notes for a talk delivered at the V&A Museum, London, October 2002.
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Notes for a talk delivered at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London 20 October 2002
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Fundamentals of colour science

What is colour?

An intrinsic property of substances (Aristotle)

Aristotle believed that light is something transmitted from an object to the eye. The colour of the object is then an intrinsic property, like its weight or taste.

Something substances do to light

Aristotle believed that the rainbow’s colours were not like normal colours: they are caused by reflection of sunlight from raindrops in distant clouds. He reasoned that each droplet acts like a tiny mirror, and that such mirrors can change white light into coloured light. This gave rise to the idea that colour arises when objects somehow alter light.

Bright Earth: The Invention of Colour

Bright Earth: The Invention of Colour, a talk delivered as a Friday Discourse at the Royal Institution, London, March 2001.
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Philip Ball Science writer and Consultant Editor, Nature
Talk at the Royal Institution, 16 March 2001
Nature, 4-6 Crinan St., London, N1 9XW, United Kingdom

Science and art

There are many good reasons to talk about art at the Royal Institution. When Michael Faraday lectured here, art and science were still on speaking terms, and J. M. W. Turner came to consult with him about pigments. Humphry Davy studied the composition of pigments from Roman wall paintings. James Clerk Maxwell first demonstrated the principles of colour photography at the Royal Institution in 1861; and when the Institution was founded in 1799, it appointed the Yorkshireman William Savage to address the needs of the nascent colour printing technology, in particular by remedying the shortage of coloured inks. …

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