Category Archives: Colours

A few questions a few answers

I received an email this morning which reminded me of an interview I did for the lovely Louise Owens, an Australian books blogger in 2015. Looking back it feels a million years ago; it was around the time a friend committed suicide, before my parents died, before I started work on this new book (more about that when I’ve written more of it). But although it seems as if it has come from another planet there are some nice answers and great questions there, so I thought I’d post it here, just three years late.

Colours Travel Through a PaintboxWhen you go into a bookshop, which department do you head straight to? The one with the sofas. My favourite bookshops are independent ones with chairs in them, and people who love books, and a bit of organised chaos. A few weeks ago I was in Shakespeare & Co in Paris with a few hours to spare. I went to the top floor (which has a cat, several sofas, a little desk with typewriter that Hemingway would have loved no doubt) and I found a second hand version of Vita Sackville West’s Thirty Clocks Strike the Hour. And I read the title story and was transported then to the Boulevard des Italiens where her great-grandmother had a vast corner house with twenty windows on the boulevard and where, one night, the young Vita hid in shadows and watched her grandmother, walk slowly through all those grand rooms until she reached one with thirty clocks… When I left the shop a couple of hours later I had moved into another dimension. I’ll go to any bit of any bookshop to find the books (which could be in science or music or fiction or art or memoir or travel) that will do that.

Looking back, which experiences, jobs and personality traits do you think have really helped you? Continue reading

#TheTapestry forerunner of #TheDress

The DressThe furore around whether this dress, aka #TheDress is blue and black or white and gold (I say it’s white and gold. Obviously!) and the delicious vox pop videos the BBC and others are making of when they ask people about it (“you’re winding me up!??? Are you turning my spanner???”) makes me wonder what would have happened if there had been twitter and video in 1820s Paris.

That year the Gobelins Royal tapestry workshop in Paris had a problem. They were using the same bright dyes that they’d been using since the 1660s, and which they were famous for, and for which they were charging a fortune. The trouble was the coloured threads started coming up grey on the tapestry.

A dress manufacturer could just change the production line but these guys only managed about a square metre in a year (tapestries were about 12 feet high and longer across and were made by teams of weavers) so mistakes were pretty painful.

Today they’d have had young media types wandering around posh Parisian arrondissements holding up tapestry samples of bright red against orange and the same bright red against purple (“tu me fais marcher!?? vous me tournez ma clé à molette!!!?”) with the first one so much duller than the second. Continue reading

Ben Day, dot-maker, was a real person

Image

From a Hotrod comic book, 1950s, printed with Benday dots

When I was researching for my next book (A Brilliant History of Color in Art, to be published by the Getty in November) I looked into the Benday dots that Roy Lichtenstein made famous. And I learned that Benday was a real person. Benjamin Day. So I imagined a comic book sequence telling the story of his invention. Obviously you’ll have to imagine it too, as I can’t draw. Though if anyone wants to mock it up that would be cool.

FRAME ONE and TWO, BEN DAY as a kid – done in the black and white style of an 1850s news engraving drawing

(1852: A boy of about 14 is hunched over a desk. Behind him is an open door, where

NEW YORK SUN
Proprietor: Benjamin Henry Day.

is written in appropriate lettering. You can see his father in the next room, obviously the editor, but with a compositor’s magnifying glass…

“Dad. Black and white’s so last century. Isn’t there a way we could get some color into the paper?”

“I’m not made of money, Ben. You’d have to make it really cheap.”

NEXT FRAME, almost the same but the door’s closed… The boy’s scribbling now and thinking to himself

“Now… if I just combined three plates of dots…” Continue reading

A white chicken and a silver wheelbarrow

I looked out the window just now and THERE WAS A WHITE CHICKEN standing beside a silver wheelbarrow in our garden… Of course I wished – it almost hurt – that I had followed my instinct and painted it red, like in the William Carlos Williams poem. I had wanted to do it this spring just in case a white chicken wandered along. And then it did wander along and I wasn’t ready. Is there a metaphor somewhere there…. ? 

A deadline, thundering ahead

ImageThis untitled ink and watercolour sketch by the extraordinary Californian artist Martin Ramirez somewhere between 1948 and 1963 seems to sum up my week.

I’m spending every waking hour at a desk with a train of a deadline thundering noisily past the window.

This little person doesn’t have toppling bookshelves full of wonderful art books though (and nor do they have a wonderful swiveling chair which arrived on Monday, and which distracted me for several happy minutes, until I felt a bit woozy with all that turning.) Continue reading

A Dinka name for red

Medici con l'Africa Cuamm Dinka cattle-1Earlier this week I went to a party where I met a woman from South Sudan. Her name, she said, meant “dark red” in Dinka. Was it common in South Sudan to name people after colours, I asked. It wasn’t uncommon, she said. And is her name just for girls? Yes, she said.

So is there an equivalent, maybe “dark blue” for boys, I asked, happy as always to be chatting along a colours theme. And she started to laugh. And she giggled until little tears formed at the corners of her eyes. “The Dinka are cattle herders,” she said as if in explanation, and giggled again. I didn’t quite understand. “My name is the name for a kind of cattle colour…. (another shudder of laughter)… and no cows are dark blue!” And then we both laughed until we cried at the delightful image of dark blue cows grazing in an orange desert.

It was a lovely, funny reminder of how colour names are caught up in culture. Continue reading

When Colour could kill and I got addicted to a design website…

Washington's verdigris dining room

Washington’s verdigris dining room

Last month the people at that wonderful (and horribly addictive) interior design website Houzz asked me to write a story about colour for their February Colour Month. It was a great chance to remember some of the extraordinary interiors stories I found while researching my Colour book, including George Washington’s insistence that his new dining room should be a particular fashionable green, made from verdigris (interestingly it was a British fashion, and he was writing home from the battlefield where he was fighting against the British in the American War of Independence.)

I also remembered one story which particularly delighted me at the time, (even though I have never had a comment about it from anyone which suggests I might have been a bit geeky) which was about the problems of painting pillar boxes red, or rather of finding a red paint that stayed red and didn’t drift to a cloudy and faded pink. For that one I spent a whole day in the Post Office archives in London, pulling out of storage letters written by angry ex Admirals who said the splotchy colour was unreasonably ugly on their streets in nice places like Tunbridge Wells, and perhaps the Post Office should bite the bullet and paint the boxes battleship grey, which at least would stand the British weather.

I took this in Bath's Great Pulteney Street: this wonderful old pillar box has no doubt been repainted many times since it was first installed more than a century ago

I took this in Bath’s Great Pulteney Street: this wonderful old pillar box has no doubt been repainted many times since it was first installed more than a century ago

There were also some awful tales about how children’s bedrooms in Victorian times were painted or wallpapered in one particular emerald green, which was seen as being jolly for children but which in reality was full of arsenic, and responsible for some horrible deaths and sicknesses. Yet despite that, at a talk given at London’s Royal Academy in the 1870s, there were still a few people who said that they didn’t care about the consequences; it was too marvellous a colour not to use. Here’s the Houzz story.

Colour, chemistry and scarlet geraniums

Nature so effortlessly produces the red in a red flower. Photo: Thomas Tolkien

A reader in Ukraine left a lovely message on this website recently: she said Colour had helped her make connections between art and chemistry, which was terrific to hear. It reminded me of a story I heard a few years ago, which I put into the foreword to the Folio edition of Colour, published in 2009.

The story was told to me by a retired Dutch industrialist, now a philanthropist and writer, who studed chemical engineering at Delft University of Technology in the 1940s. He was given the assignment to create a particular red shade out of petrochemicals. It was such a simple colour yet proved so complicated to reproduce. One day when he got back to his room, feeling depressed because he still hadn’t cracked the problem, he noticed a potted plant on his window sill. In a single day it had produced a perfect flower the exact shade of red he had been tasked to create.

Red geranium petal cells PHOTO: Umberto Salvagnin

“It was many years later when I wanted to find a way to understand what I was searching for in my life that I remembered the red of that flower,” he told me. “And how, where a human being with a sophisticated laboratory had failed again and again, nature had succeeded with just earth, water, air and light. Effortlessly.”

Tum Tiddly-Um

There are echoes of this sense of wonder in my favourite DH Lawrence poem.

Imagine that any mind ever thought a red geranium!

As if the redness of a red geranium could be anything but a sensual experience

and as if sensual experience could take place before there were any senses.

We know that even God could not imagine the redness of a red geranium

nor the smell of mignonette

when geraniums were not, and mignonette neither.

And even when they were, even God would have to have a nose to smell at the mignonette.

You can’t imagine the Holy Ghost sniffing at cherry-pie heliotrope.

Or the Most High, during the coal age, cudgelling his mighty brains

even if he had any brains: straining his mighty mind

to think, among the moss and mud of lizards and mastodons

to think out, in the abstract, when all was twilit green and muddy:

“Now there shall be tum-tiddly-um, and tum-tiddly um,

hey-presto! scarlet geranium!”

We know it couldn’t be done.

But imagine, among the mud and the mastodons

God sighing and yearning with tremendous creative yearning, in that dark green mess

oh, for some other beauty, some other beauty

that blossomed at last, red geranium, and mignonette.

I cannot now remember why that did not find its way into the book, because it was certainly one of the first quotes and poems I remember writing down. But it was ousted at the last minute, perhaps for copyright reasons, by a letter from John Ruskin to Winsor and Newton, and it is good to revisit it now.

A wonderful show of purple

Purpura. PHOTO: Traditions Mexico

A reader called Hamid Zavareei has just left a comment on this blogsite to say that there’s a brilliant slideshow about purple on the Traditions Mexico website. And it is wonderful. Really shows the beauty of those remote beaches in Oaxaca, and the extraordinary quality of that most simple of all natural dyes – the shimmer and life of it. I wish I had taken pictures like that when I was there in 2001. But I was too caught up in the whole purpleness of the escapade, in the unlikelihood that we were really there, against the odds, with a man whose name I had read in an academic paper written 10 years before, and that he lived near one particular marketplace. That day we got the only available boat in the village, driven by two teenagers who were actually supposed to be painting it (that’s why it had been left behind). I was also caught up in my desire to stop the two teenagers from hurting the shellfish.

Mexican dyed yearns. PHOTO: Tradition Mexico

I don’t know who the people at Traditions Mexico are, but they have some great photos. And when delving into their earlier albums I found another interesting slideshow from 2007, about cochineal. You can see what the little bugs look like on the opuntia cactuses, and what great buildings (many of them in the city of Oaxaca) were constructed from its profit. You can find that one here.

An ochre mine in Gloucestershire

Ochre miner at the Wick Quarries - PHOTO: THIS IS BATH

29 days after my pledge to write 500 words a day: I am not quite on track – that would mean I had already written 14,500 words which would of course be wonderful. But I have, perhaps 5,000 words more than I would have had I not thought, every day, that I had to do it, like it or not. And some of the images and incidents are keepers, especially the ones I wasn’t expecting.

Today is a “writing day” which meant that I was out in my garden in the sunshine at lunchtime reading a book for research, and taking notes, when neighbours passed. They had lunch guests, would I like to join for a gin and tonic? It took me two minutes to close the door of my house, and be round there.

Our neighbour has always promised to take me to the ochre mines at Wick, in Southern Gloucester. He is very amused that I went round the world to Australia to find ochre when there was perfectly good material five miles away from the place that would later be my home. He said that in the old days you used to see the workers finishing their shifts at five o’clock and they would look yellow-white as ghosts, their features and clothes clouded in dust. He also said that the red tarmac on the Mall in London was coloured with pigment of Wick. There is, apparently, a letter from King George V, thanking the men of Wick for the redness of his road.

It is apparently now a nature reserve. And there’s some good local research on its history. I must visit soon. I can’t believe I haven’t been there before. But first I have 500 words to write.