The context of colour

We’re surrounded by colour. On TV, advertising and clothes. I can whip open an app and conjure countless hues. We have wonderful algorithms that can interpolate from grainy, black and white footage.

But, reading Color by Victoria Finlay, gives you an appreciation of how unusual this is. How colour was rooted in place, politics, science, superstition, tradition, myth, adventure, disaster, exploitation, geology, biology and time.

And that isn’t an exhaustive list. As our use of colour has exploded, we’ve lost so much of this context.

With the exception of a few Russian icons which may have been painted with blue from Siberia, all the real ultramarine in both Western and Eastern art came from the last of these places—from one set of mines in a valley in north-east Afghanistan, collectively called Sar-e-sang, the Place of the Stone. It was where the Buddha’s topknots came from; it was where the monk painters of illuminated manuscripts found their skies; it was where the robe of Michelangelo’s Mother of God would have come from if he had waited long enough. And it was where I was determined to go.

Wars were fought over shades. Masterpieces left incomplete when artists couldn’t afford particular hues. Espionage was rampant as countries competed for monopolies.

This is a fascinating book, part travelogue part history. Finlay physically journeys to find ochre in Northern Australia, cochineal insect farms in South America, and the lapis lazuli mines in Afghanistan.

But I was probably taken most with what’s lost. Many of the works lining our national galleries have changed since they were completed. Natural pigment often isn’t permanent. And nor are the techniques to make them.

I carry around a little box of watercolours nowadays. In case I can get in a quick sketch. But now I realise they’re more than burnt umbers or cerulean blue. It’s a box of stories.