09 July 2008

How Can So Many Memories Fit Into One Little Book? #3

When I was a small child I drew on everything (well, except walls; despite what they show on cleaning commercials—I was certainly not allowed and wouldn't have dared do so!) and I was crazy about colors, all colors. I loved multicolor Christmas tree lights and displays, fireworks, rainbows, and the fractured lights from prisms (my favorite scene in Pollyanna is stil the one where she discovers the prism crystals on Mr. Pendergast's lamps). I had coloring books from a young age, reveled in the sublime odor of Crayola crayons (nothing quite smells like a Crayola, not any other crayon), and drooled over the 64 color box when all my mom would purchase me was the 48 box. (The 64 box had copper in it! And yet more colors! One of the first things I did when I finally got an allowance was to buy myself a 64 box of Crayolas and I would buy myself one for Christmas for years thereafter.)

I was never a watercolor fan, but preferred oil paints. Watercolors never worked for me, as I always seemed to puddle them. Yet I had a wonderful paintbox that I remember to this day. Forget the meager little eight-color or twelve-color cake plastic boxes you see for kids nowadays, with a big rough plastic handled brush. Somewhere Mom found me an English paintbox, possibly a Windsor and Newton, or perhaps a Page, with dozens of colors—I have seen a paintbox online with 32 colors and mine had more than that...possibly 64. It was in a big tin with an impressionist painting on the front, a Monet, I believe, the one of the people picnicking. When you opened it there were rows of cakes of colors, a groove for the brush (included—a fine camel-hair brush with a wooden handle), a little indentation for some water. The most fascinating thing were the color names printed in sans serif capitals under the cakes, not ordinary names like "green" and "red" and "yellow," but enchanting names like "crimson lake," "rose madder," "yellow ochre," "red ochre," "verdigris," "carmine," "ultramarine," "indigo," "cobalt blue," "Prussian blue," "lampblack," "raw sienna," "umber," "white lead," and "saffron yellow..." (Here's a smaller English children's paintbox that shows similar cakes with the wonderful color names.)

Which is why I was so delighted to find Victoria Finlay's Color. Her text brought back the wonderful painbox, the sweetish scent of the wet cakes, and the evocative names. At an early age, she also fell in love with the paintbox and the mysterious color names within, and in this volume, she travels to the places where the colors come from. She first addresses the artists and the colors they worked in and the famous Windsor and Newton paint plant. She then travels to Australia, to find the original colors: the ochres, red and yellow and black and white. Then in turn she visits the rest of the paintbox colors, before the discovery of analine dyes: charcoal and the other blacks, graphite, soot, and oak galls. Logwood for browns. White lead (which turns red with heating) and the insufficient chalks. The carmine reds made from the blood of insects: cochineal. (Did you know cochineal, the blood of white insects that live on cactus, is still used to color Cherry Coke, blush and lipstick?) Reds from cinnabar, the mercury derivative. Stradivari's mysterious orange dye, which may have lent the special sound to his violins. Indian yellow (supposedly produced with the urine of cows who have eaten only mango) and saffron (the stamens of purple crocuses) grown in Spain and Iran. The greens of malachite in China and verdigris. The heavenly ultramarine blue of Lapis lazuli from Afghanistan. The dark blue of woad and indigo. And finally the violet dye that comes from murex, a shellfish (which leads us to the first of the analine dyes created by chemistry, mauve). This is an enthralling book of travels around the world, of the people Finlay meets, from Aborigal artists to deep sea divers to the pickers of the rolling fields of purple saffron crocus, and the origins of the colors. I must hunt up her book Jewels, in which she gives the same treatment to precious stones. Wonderful, wonderful book if you are "into" art, exotic travel, or just colors, colors, colors.

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