bright earth: phillip ball


BRIGHT EARTH: Phillip Ball

Published in 2001, 332 pages.

Great art requires talent, hard work, and a singular vision—and it doesn’t hurt to have a chemistry set nearby.

So demonstrates prolific science-writer Ball (Stories of the Invisible, p. 910, etc.) in this remarkable examination of color in all its glory: physical, chemical, and cultural. Resolutely nonreductivist, Ball looks closely at the practical side of art throughout history: at the early–19th-century technological advances, for example, that made Impressionist trompes l’oeil possible (“after a half-century of some of the most dramatic innovations in pigment manufacturing that visual art had ever seen, the stage was set for the plot to take a new direction”), and at the range of color choices available to the painters of the early Renaissance. But he is just as concerned with examining the cultural and personal side of art, and his text offers data aplenty on such matters as how the ancient Romans carved up the color spectrum (“there is no Latin word for brown or gray, but this does not imply that the Roman artists did not use brown earth pigments”); how a Pacific islander sees the world with a differently tuned eye from that of, say, a Scandinavian; and how modern visual artists are busily remapping the old, inadequate Newtonian rainbow scale with the aid of digital technology. Though Ball, a chemist, is more inclined toward scientific description than aesthetic judgment, he is quick to point out that although science has always accompanied artistic advances, it is “a mistake to assume that the history of color in art is an accumulation of possibilities proportional to the accumulation of pigments”—and a mistake to overvalue science at the expense of art in general. Ball has devoured whole libraries to turn out this work, and though there are a couple of puzzling silences (Goethe, that great theorist of color and art, isn’t much heard from, for instance), Ball’s study is an altogether pleasing embarrassment of riches.

~ excerpt from KIRKUS REVIEW