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The Art of Colour

The History of Art in 39 Pigments

Kelly Grovier


A unique approach to the history of art told through the story of colour and pigments

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Did you know that the ultramarine that shimmers at the centre of Vermeer’s Milkmaid connects that masterpiece with 6th-century Zoroastrian paintings found on the walls of cave temples in Bamiyan, Afghanistan? Or that the surging waves that crest and curl in Hokusai’s perilous Great Wave off Kanagawa owe their absorbing blue lustre to an alchemist who was born in Frankenstein’s Castle in 1673? And were the Pre-Raphaelites really obsessed with a murky brown hue derived from the pulverized remains of ancient mummies? (Spoiler: they were.)

Invented by prehistoric cave-dwellers and medieval conjurers, cunning conmen and savvy scientists, the colours of art tell a riveting tale all their own. Over ten scintillating chapters, acclaimed author Kelly Grovier helps bring that tale vividly to life, revealing the astonishing backstories of the pigments that define the greatest works in the history of art. Interwoven between these chapters is a series of features focusing on key moments in the evolution of colour theory – from the revelations of the Enlightenment to the radicalism of the Bauhaus – while reproductions of carefully selected artworks help illuminate the narrative’s twists and turns.

The history of colour is an epic saga of human ingenuity and insatiable desire. Read this book and you will never look at a work of art in quite the same way.

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'In over 10 beautifully illustrated chapters, acclaimed author Kelly Grovier brings tales of colour vividly to life'
Artists & Illustrators

'Will make you look at paintings in a whole new light'
Art Society Magazine

Product Information

Book Details

Format: Hardback

Size: 24.6 x 17.0 cm

Extent: 256 pp

Illustrations: 150

Publication date: 27 April 2023

ISBN: 9780500024812

Contents List

Introduction: Artymology

1. Red
Red Ochre • Carmine • Rose Madder • Vermillion • Red Lead
Colourful Minds: Isaac Newton’s Opticks (1704)

2. Orange
Orpiment • Saffron • Chrome Orange • Cadmium Orange
Colourful Minds: Tobias Mayer’s The Affinity of Colour Commentary (1775)

3. Yellow
Yellow Ochre • Lead-tin Yellow • Naples Yellow • Indian Yellow • Chrome Yellow • Cadmium Yellow • Arylide Yellow
Colourful Minds: Mary Gartside’s Essay on a New Theory of Colour (1808)

4. Green
Verdigris • Malachite • Emerald Green • Veridian
Colourful Minds: Goethe’s Theory of Colours (1810)

5. Blue
Azurite • Ultramarine • Cobalt Blue • Prussian Blue • Artificial Ultramarines
Colourful Minds: Philipp Otto Runge’s Color Sphere (1810)

6. Purple
Tyrian Purple • Cobalt Violet
Colourful Minds: Michel Eugène Chevreul’s The Principles of Harmony and Contrast of Colours (1839)

7. Black
Charcoal • Bone Black
Colourful Minds: Emily Noyes Vanderpoel’s Color Problems (1902)

8. White
Lead White • Calcite • Kaolin
Colourful Minds: Albert Henry Munsell’s Atlas of the Munsell Color System (1915)

9. Brown
Umber • Van Dyke Brown • Mummia • Excrement
Colourful Minds: Johannes Itten’s Utopia 1921

10. Precious Metals
Gold • Silver

About the Author

Kelly Grovier is a columnist and feature writer for BBC Culture and his writings on art have appeared in The Times Literary Supplement, the Independent, The Sunday Times, the Observer, RA Magazine and Wired. He is the author of several books including A New Way of Seeing: The History of Art in 57 Works (2018) and On the Line: Conversations with Sean Scully (2021), both published by Thames & Hudson. He is co-founder of the scholarly journal European Romantic Review.

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