Riffle Backstory: Q&A with Phillip Ball, Author of Colour in the Making: From Old Wisdom to New Brilliance

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If you're surprised to learn that Indian Yellow pigment was made with the urine of cows fed exclusively on mango (and you're just a little bit tickled by that) then Color in the Making - out this winter from Black Dog Publishing - is for you. Which means this book exploring the materials of creativity, the incredible history of color itself, is pretty much of interest for everyone.

You looked at several artistic projects that either furthered or illustrated the history of color-making. Can you tell me a little about your favorite?

PB: I'm a fan of Yves Klein, partly because he managed to pursue his often eccentric artistic projects with such an unusual mixture of earnestness and playfulness. I'm not sure that the art that resulted is anything like as captivating as, say, Cézanne's, but nonetheless there is a mesmeric quality to his blue pieces that can only be experienced when you see them at first hand. I like the way he valorized the materials - he gives them an almost spiritual quality that, to my mind, harks back to the symoblic and religious significance afforded to artists' materials (not least, to ultramarine and gold) in the Middle Ages. Klein was an artist who truly placed faith in colour.

What's the strangest thing you discovered in your research?

The one that many people seem to like is the story of Indian Yellow, which was used in European art since the seventeenth century but was not understood until the 1880s. It was then that it was discovered that this pigment is prepared from the urine of cows fed exclusively on mango leaves. This was done in pretty much a single village in northeast Bihar province in India. The cows were not well looked after and, especially given the cow's spiritual status in India, the practice was very quickly condemned and prohibited by law. So that was the end of Indian Yellow. (Like so many pigments now, if you buy a paint with this name today, it's a synthetic substitute.)

How can readers use this book? Is this for the seasoned artist, the historian, the laymen...?

I'm not sure that the historian of art would find a lot in it that is really new (although I discovered that quite a few art historians don't know very much about the history of artists' materials). My experience with writing my own book on this subject (Bright Earth, 2001) is that there are quite a lot of artists who are eager for more information about their materials but who no longer get taught that stuff. So they might enjoy it. But I think the book ought to be appreciated by anyone interested in art and colour - which I guess will include most of us.

If you could own one piece of art, what would it be?

My wife is a painter, so I already "own" a lot of art I like! I wouldn't mind having Jan van Eyck's Ghent altarpiece in my study, except that really it is just too beautiful and would threaten to make me become religious. So I'd settle for just about any sketch by Dürer, or absolutely anything by Paul Klee.

  • Colour in the Making: From Old Wisdom to New Brilliance