Color: A Natural History of the Palette

Thoughts cbyvf Color by Victoria Finlay, Random House Trade 2004 (orig 2002), 448 pages

Satisfies the COLOR category of the What’s in a Name 8 Challenge.

“Up until then I had always believed that the world was getting better and better and more and more clever. But that day my tender theory about the Evolution of History fell on its head, and it has – for better or for worse – never been quite right ever since.”  p. 1

Wow – what a wild ride! This book is nuts.

I learned a lot and I marveled at what the author went through to gather stories to fit into this book. She wanted to find India Indigo so she went there. She wanted to find Tyrian Purple, so she went to Lebanon. She just had to see the blue Lapis Lazuli mines of Afghanistan, so off she went. Think about that last one…

She is fearless!

My only complaint might be that she really is all over the place at times and I wondered why she would mention that. (off on a tangent much?)  I had to go look up SO MANY THINGS. It is hard – she mentions this, too – it is very hard to describe colors with words.

This is a 4 slice of pie book. fourpie If you like travel books and author-involved nonfiction adventures, I recommend. If you are an artist and are curious about how artists got their colors, you must read this book.

I still have my receipt from purchasing this in 2010. Why? What prompted this book then? I have no records except the date. HOWEVER, in looking for other reviews out there in blogland, I found that Eva of A Striped Armchair was extremely enthusiastic about this book, so that is a clue. And since I seem to be on a linky-love binge, I should include Fyrefly’s discussion of another Finlay book that am now wanting to read next/soon/someday.

Colors are fascinating; this book makes me crave the colors of the entire world and makes me wonder what others really are looking at – do we see the same thing? Is the blue I see the blue you see? What color of purple do you think Cleopatra dyed her sails? And how exactly did she do it? So many mysteries.

Tyndall’s explanation of why the sky is blue is one of the best ever. Page 305.


Lots of Copley Connections for me, too.  Of course, she mentions Simon Garfield’s Mauve which I read in 2009. Or the mention of the English town of Newcastle-upon-Tyne being known for its beer exports. (I read all about that in Hops & Glory.) And then on page 384, Finlay describes a cave with a ‘millenia of snail trails’; surely those of you who read All the Light We Cannot See, recognize Marie-Laure and her hiding place?

Do you have any nonfiction books about colors to recommend? Just one more of my favorite things to learn more about, I guess. AND, I will send this book to anyone who comments and says they want it. If more than one person wants it, I will select somebody at random. Must comment before Valentines Day.





* Copley Connections are the random connections and coincidences that link books that I have read.


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30 thoughts on “Color: A Natural History of the Palette

  1. Once upon a time this was on my wish-list, but for some reason I removed it (low Goodreads rating?). You got me really curious. had no idea it was partially a travel-log.

    1. OK, I admit that my review might over-hype it. But thinking back on what all I learned and what all I looked up while reading and how many questions I just sat and THUNK about because of this? This is definitely a personal journey for the author – she has an idea and then takes off for that part of the world where the color was original or more famous and truly – she doesn’t often find what she is looking for. She’s persistent and yet also goes off topic. It could be considered a mess. So, temper your expectations and casually dip into the book, perhaps. I originally was going to give it a 3 but then I got all excited about the topic again!

      Are you entering my giveaway?

  2. This does sound fascinating, although I will admit that I was initially going to pass over reading your review because it didn’t look like it would be a fascinating book. Then again, think of how colors were found/created/used throughout the years. Then delve into your history and remember that the color purple used to be so luxurious only the royal elite could wear it. And how many novels have used color to denote significant themes, relationships, or characters? Dammit, girl! You got me all excited about this topic now! 😉

      1. It depends. Just how much history are we talking about here? A lot? With all of the political and social ramifications associated with them? Or just how a color was discovered and later used?

        1. Ah… Huh. Um. It’s not exactly linear, she jumps between now and then in her process to explain things, and she gives some humorous insights along the way.

  3. I love your description, although don’t think I want to make room for this book in my teetering, ceiling-high pile right now. It does make me think of how I feel in an Ohio February, just back from NYC, when everything is black and white with shades of gray and brown…and then I see a photo from Hawaii. It’s hard to believe such colors exist right now.

  4. This sounds like a fascinating read. I am trying to get more into colours this year (I tend to wear black, and when I draw, I like to use charcoal or black ink – definitely need a splash of colourful something in my life!).

  5. I’ve actually read this twice now & loved it just as much the second time around! She has a really good book on gemstones too. And I agree that it has the best explanation of why the sky is blue I’ve ever seen.

      1. I have her gem book…you should find a copy and we can read it together! 😉 Also, I have Color, and you inspired me to pull it off the shelf. I still have to start it, though…got sidetracked by The Martian.

  6. I loved this book! I think it was probably the book that convinced me that I liked non-fiction, actually. I have no idea what inspired me to pick it up, but I’m so glad I did! I added a bunch of other color-related books to my wishlist immediately afterwards but never managed to pick any but one of them up, and that one was pretty dull (especially in comparison). But if you come across any other good ones I’d love to hear about them!

    1. Ah, your gateway to nonfiction book! Mine was something by Tracy Kidder – not sure if I can count Soul of a New Machine but most definitely his book House – it was fun nonfiction!

  7. Wait, this sounds so good! I didn’t even think that there would be books about color, apart from like textbooks. I do CG art and visual effects, so I deal with digital colors. I very rarely think about colors in the physical world. I definitely need to check this out and get a better perspective on it.

    1. Oh yes, from an artist’s perspective, you will get an appreciation for how hard the issue it was to find the RIGHT colors. I really had never considered some of the issues. I always wish I could have taken art history in college and I’m really thinking I would have dug it more than most who DID take it.
      I reviewed a book on the color Mauve that was also very interesting and a bit more ‘science-y’. This one is more adventure/travel.

  8. This cover! Is soooo pretty! This book has been on my TBR list for years, solely on the basis of how pretty that cover is, and I keep forgetting about it. One of these days, I swear. I will get to it.

    What’s her favorite place that she goes in search of colors? I would love love love to go to Lebanon…

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