The Free Range Reader delves into the story behind color

Posted in Blogs, Visual Art

BY ZIA GIPSON, April 5, 2013

You can’t avoid it. For humans, color is everywhere and it’s a blessing! If you’re a dog reading this column, well, I just learned via the Internet that your color perception is more limited than mine. That pink collar your human companions just bought you is really their indulgence. But if you’re an artistically inclined human, color is a fundamental, compositional element even if you consciously avoid jewel tones for the more subtle worlds between black and white.

The Free Range Reader explores Regina Le Blaszczyk’s “The Color Revolution.”

The Free Range Reader explores Regina Le Blaszczyk’s “The Color Revolution.”

Today’s column looks at two books about color from historical and anthropological perspectives. Regina Le Blaszczyk’s “The Color Revolution” is about the history of color. This handsomely-designed book includes the story of William Henry Perkin’s 1856 invention of aniline dyes — organic compounds extracted from coal tar. Perkins had been trying to synthesize quinine, an anti-malarial drug needed in Britain’s topical colonies and stumbled on a previously unimaginable mauve/magenta instead.

Blaszcyk spends the bulk of her nearly 300 pages on the history of the use of color for the post-industrial world of consumer product manufacturing. The book is very well researched and comprehensive; scholarly even, but not dull.

If you ever wondered how the ‘in’ colors are chosen and promulgated so that clothing manufacturers the world over come to produce products with the same color palette, then this book will open your eyes. Those who have worked in design fields might find the history of the Pantone Matching System, created in 1963, interesting. (For more interesting details on Pantone, you may wish to consult the New York Times Magazine’s Feb. 23 story, “Who Made the Pantone Chip?”  I learned that the red in the American flag is always Pantone 193 and computer giant, Apple, uses Pantone 453 for its beige.)

“The Color Revolution” is a great browse covering the use of color in product design and costume, fashion and ordinary clothing. The invention and use of camouflage is covered in detail, as is how we came to have colored automobiles and brightly-hued kitchen appliances.  Tired of our gray skies? Pick up this terrific read.

The other color book I’ve had in hand recently is “Colors: What They Mean and How to Make Them” by archeologist and ethnologist Anne Varichon, translated from the French by Toluca Ballas. This book takes on the world of color one hue at a time. It covers color anthropologically beginning with not-really-so-plain white. We learn that white, rather than black, is a mourning color in some cultures because it’s associated with rites of passage. In the white section of the book, Varichon provides a recipe for whitewash and for eggshell paint.

Varichon addresses the meaning of colors in different religious contexts and traditional cultures. She provides color recipes from materials as diverse as cochineal insects (for red) to henna from the plant Lawsonia inermis, a native of India (for reddish brown). A lengthy bibliography is available for those who wish to go back to original sources, though many are in French. This cultural encyclopedia of color is printed on high-quality paper, making it a pleasure to hold in your hands.

My “Catch of the Day” is “The Accidental Masterpiece, On the Art of Life and Vice Versa” by Michael Kimmelman.

Next time, I’ll cover books of fiction. In the meantime, don’t forget to put libraries and librarians in your bedtime prayers. I love my library!

Coming up:

  • Freeland Library Book Sale: 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday, April 6.
  • Coupeville Library Book Sale: 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday, April 6.
  • Murder In The Stacks: Meet Agatha Award finalist Mary Daheim, author of two mystery series, “Emma Lord” and “Bed & Breakfast,” at 1 p.m. Monday, April 8  at Coupeville Library.


Zia Gipson is a mixed-media artist who is working on a series of collages that incorporate printmaking, stamping, drawing, painting, and other forms of mark-making. She’s active in the artists’ groups, Whidbey Island Surface Design and Northwest Designer Craftsmen.



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