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Bright Earth

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About the Author

Philip Ball majored in chemistry at the University of Oxford and received a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Bristol. He is a writer and consulting editor for Nature and a regular contributor to the scientific and popular press, including New Scientist and the New York Times. Ball is the author of six other books, including The Self-Made Tapestry: Pattern Formation in Nature and Life's Matrix: A Biography of Water.


British science popularizer Ball (Stories of the Invisible; Life's Matrix) is part of the excellent new breed of explainers who produce imaginative and vivid prose in magazines like Nature and New Scientist. With academic degrees in chemistry and physics, Ball is also coordinator of an offbeat theater company called Homunculus. Here he applies his considerable energies to the study of how color developed in art and science from ancient history to the present. He has clearly spent time looking at art, and his range over these 14 chapters encompasses prehistory, Tintoretto and Gauguin. What painters have produced over time, Ball shows, has always been connected to the colors available to them. Major styles of painting, from the Venetian Renaissance to French impressionism, can be associated with innovations in pigment manufacture. Scientific discoveries, business imperatives and the history of art are all linked via colors on the painter's palette. In an intriguing chapter on the color in art restorations, for example, he notes, "I have often felt mystified at why Van Gogh's `Sun Flowers' commands such high regard it seems a drab, lackluster piece, uncharacteristic of the artist. But that is because we are not seeing what the artist painted. Those dirty ochres were once bright." Boasting a full and useful bibliography, this book even ventures some predictions about artists' use of color in the future, such as "pigments that change hue as we change our viewing angle." Readers will find the pigments here bright, varied and attractive. (Feb.) Forecast: A good bet for the scientifically inclined who want a grounded entry point to the arts, this book will also stretch out to art fans who want writing well-versed in art's physical bases. It's a rare example of a crossover study where an author really seems to grasp both domains. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.

Trained as a chemist and physicist, British science writer Ball (Life's Matrix: A Biography of Water) here examines the physics of artists' pigments, from antiquity to the present and just beyond. He looks at the basic structures of pigments available to artists and at the art these pigments made possible (or not) at any given time. It is refreshing to see art, chiefly paintings, viewed by someone with a starting point outside of traditional art history or even the new art history. But the topic is complex, and Ball's sometimes unclear writing style will limit full access even to readers who are well grounded in the discipline. While his insights are frequently fresh, and he has spent time looking at art with the naked eye as well as through a microscope, Ball perhaps values his conclusions too much in isolation. His work is more focused on the actual chemistry than are the few other considerations of this topic available, such as John Gage's Color and Culture or Color and Meaning. Nonetheless, this rare treatment of a central issue in artists' work is recommended for advanced collections. (Illustrations not seen.) Jack Perry Brown, Art Inst. of Chicago Lib. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.

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