Color: A Natural History of the Palette

by Victoria Finlay

Paperback, 2004



Call number



Random House Trade Paperbacks (2003), Edition: Later Printing, 448 pages


Part travelogue, part narrative history, Colour unlocks the history of the colours of the rainbow, and reveals how paints came to be invented, discovered, traded and used. This remarkable and beautifully written book remembers a time when red paint was really the colour of blood, when orange was the poison pigment, blue as expensive as gold, and yellow made from the urine of cows force-fed with mangoes. It looks at how green was carried by yaks along the silk road, and how an entire nation was founded on the colour purple. Exciting, richly informative, and always surprising, Colour lifts the lid on the historical palette and unearths an astonishing wealth of stories about the quest for colours, and our efforts to understand them.

User reviews

LibraryThing member Osbaldistone
A marvelous mix of history, culture, chemistry, and the practical, social, and artistic issues of the use of colour. I had no particular interest in the topic based on the title, but, after some strong recommendations, picked up this work and was captivated. It's quite a lengthy tome, but is easy
Show More
to read a chapter at a time whenever the mood is right. Each chapter focuses on one colour (or black, brown or white), and delves into where pigments and dyes come from, how they are made, the chemical and biological hazards associated with various sources and methods, the related cultural history, the impact of a colour on historical events, etc., ,etc., etc. This book is really loaded with historical, cultural, and scientific insights that will capture the mind regardless of your interest in the subject of colour itself. Highly recommended.

Show Less
LibraryThing member gibbon
The author travelled the world in search of the origins of pigments and dyes. The result is this idiosyncratic book which is part art history, part a dissertation on the appeal that different colours have and have had for human beings. First published in 2002 by Hodder, the Folio edition is hardly
Show More
a bedside book, the text and illustrations being entirely printed on heavy art paper, but it is full of unexpected and quirky historical anecdotes and travel reminiscences from all over the world.
Show Less
LibraryThing member jphamilton
In the past, I've read entire books on single colors, but putting so many colors together in a single volume allows them to really play off each other and build into a even more powerful history lesson. There is much information about the world within this book's covers and it made me appreciate
Show More
the entire palette of colors in one book. It's all here: science, art, great artists, politics, history, health, and equally as powerful–business, business, business.
Show Less
LibraryThing member deliriumslibrarian
I've been meaning to read this book for ages, since I first found it in a bookstore, and I wasn't disappointed. There were times when I wanted more continuity, and more references so I could pursue some of the stories on my own, but in general a wonderful read with fascinating facts and imaginings
Show More
that connect to the history of empire, of art, of psychology, of food and of cultural survival. Stories about Aboriginal art in Australia and the purple skirts worn by women in the Andes will particularly stay with me.
Show Less
LibraryThing member Bookoholic73
Colour is one of my all-time-favourites and a book that I often think about and refer to. And, whenever I think of it, I just want to read it again. Finlay became fascinated by colours when she saw the light streaming through the stained glass windows of the cathedral of Chartres, and all I have to
Show More
say is Thank you! She starts with black, white and ochre and continues through the colours of the rainbow- and takes us on a fantastic journey investigating the true reasons behind Napolon´s demise, saffron fields of Spain, the importance of cow pee for painters of sunshine and much much more. If you are anything like me, you will gladly follow her across the globe and enjoy the people she meets and the stories she shares. I am desperately longing for Victoria Finlay to write a new book- or for my copy of Colours, which is lent out to a good friend.
Show Less
LibraryThing member nicole_a_davis
One of the fastest, best non-fiction reads. I wish there had been more chapters, looking at more colors and facets of art and social history.
LibraryThing member beadinggem
Victoria Finlay already gained one big fan when I first read her Jewels: A Secret History. This book preceded Jewels although the style is the same - part travelogue, part history. The author gets to travel the world over to search out the source and stories behind colour pigments, meeting
Show More
fascinating people along the way. I was naturally fascinated to read about the gemstones like malachite and lapis lazuli which were once used as pigments. But the references to jewels are minimal but this should not detract from what is a most enjoyable read.
Show Less
LibraryThing member snash
A very readable story of one woman's quest to learn the stories of the old dyes and pigments. In the process she uncovered the rise and fall of whole industries, cities built on a particular color, lives focused on a color. She also reveals the meanings and significance these various colors have
Show More
had within cultures then and now. In many cases finding the stories involved a difficult wild goose chase. Surprising to discover that colors had an impact on trade and power approaching that of spices until the advent of synthetic colors.
Show Less
LibraryThing member bridgetZsweet
very interesting stuff, but painfully boring naration
LibraryThing member debnance
Where do we get all the wonderful colors for dyes and paints? Yet another book I received too late and raced through, trying to catch up. I hereby resolve to not race through another book; reading too fast spoils the fun.
LibraryThing member maribou
Chatty, warm, and full of interesting facts insouciantly intrepid travelogue.... delightful.
LibraryThing member fist
I wish I'd held on to this book, because I regularly find myself trying to remember how a particular colour or dye is made. All I remember is the story about yellow being extracted from Indian mango-eating cows - and that was shown to be a canard. So, with hindsight: an interesting, informative
Show More
book on the story of colours in dyes and paints.
Show Less
LibraryThing member devilish2
Victoria Findlay is a journalist who takes us on a very entertaining journey through the rainbow of colours used by painters and dyers through the centuries (and millenia). She manages the right mix of history, social history and culture, chemistry, observation and personal anecdote. It reminded me
Show More
a bit of Bill Bryson's writing, only her humour is gentler and she manages to sustain her tone for the whole book.
Show Less
LibraryThing member rebeccar76
This personal journey through the history of color is amazing!!!
LibraryThing member forsanolim
Dyes and pigments have been fairly interesting and important to me for a while--growing up, I lived pretty close to a Williamsburg-like living history museum, where I learned a fair bit about using natural dyes like black walnut and goldenrod that could be found or grown at the museum. Having
Show More
appreciated them then and having read a book several years ago about the history of (in particular) the red cochineal dye, I was really excited when I learned about this book a while ago.

I definitely learned quite a bit about the history of dyes and similar materials from this book. It's arranged thematically by color, which chapters for all the colors of the rainbow as well as brown, black, and white. I think my favorite chapters were probably green, indigo (which has also always been one of my favorite materials to dye with), and purple. The purple chapter, right at the end of the book, was especially interesting to me because I'd known that snails were used for Roman dyes for a long time, and I really enjoyed learning about the process here.

Perhaps a major caution or just fyi that I'd like to add to this book, though, which keeps me from wanting to rate it higher is that not all of the book is quite what I'd expected--I'd gone into the book expecting information on the history of colors, which there definitely was, but the book was really more properly half history, half travelogue. Very substantial portions of each chapter are about the author traveling to India or Lebanon or Mexico or China or other places to physically visit places important in the history of different colors' dyestuffs. While I did enjoy parts of this, it really wasn't what I was expecting from the book, and I think I'd have been perfectly happy with a bit more focus on the colors and dyes themselves.
Show Less
LibraryThing member SeriousGrace
To research the history of color is brilliant like a box of sixty-four. Who, for example, has thought about from where ochre originated? According to Finlay, ochre is the first color(s) of paint. I did not know that and to be totally honest, nor have I ever thought about ochre in this way. [My only
Show More
thoughts in ochre were to be confused about what shade of yellow, red, or brown it is supposed to be.] Did you ever wonder what the HB on a pencil meant? Hardness and blackness. How about the origin of the phrase, "cut through all this red tape"? Who knew? Apparently, Finlay. That's who. She took the time to travel the globe looking for answers about color: Australia for ochre, England for black and brown, China for white, Chile for red, Italy for orange, India for yellow,...I wanted to make a map of all her travels. On the heels of reading Travels in a Thin Country I couldn't stop comparing Sara Wheeler's adventure to that of Victoria Finlay.
There is a fair amount of humor in Color. To see what I mean, find the section where Finlay describes the interesting practice of boiling cow urine after the bovine have been fed a steady diet of mango leaves for two weeks straight.
Show Less
LibraryThing member jlapac
I have to admit that I only got part way through the chapter on Ochre before I abandoned it. I love-love-love the idea, but couldn't mesh with the style of writing.
LibraryThing member mamacate
The material is fascinating enough to make the rather plodding writing worth following. The author clearly has passion for the subject, but somehow this gets lost in the rather dry prose. It could have been so much better.
LibraryThing member kslade
Lots of detail and worthwhile but I liked Secret Lives of Color a little better.


Original language


Original publication date


Physical description

448 p.; 5.47 inches


0812971426 / 9780812971422
Page: 0.1151 seconds