Chromatopia: An Illustrated History of Colour by David Coles

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Review by Liz Dexter

Chromatopia: An Illustrated History of Colour david coles

This truly spectacular book would grace any coffee table with ease, but it’s more than just a pretty face, with fascinating facts in abundance and offers a good read to anyone interested in art, colour or indeed chemistry.

After an introduction to the author, who runs a small paint-making company in Australia (though born in the UK), we are shown the basic colours with a quick general history of each. Then we move on through history, examining colours in pretty much the order in which they came into the world and onto the artist’s palette, some rising and falling, some staying firmly put and some changing and melding. Each pigment has an illustration facing a page of text, and there are a few longer essays scattered among the sections.

We start off with the ochres, the first pigments used by humans in cave and rock paintings, and their full range of colours is described; later pieces such as that on the “Mars colours” made of synthetic iron hark back to these as the foundation of all painting in colour. Where a colour has been completely superseded, such as the deadly lead white, there’s a short update on what replaced it, which is useful and gives context to the paint box we might imagine today.

On we go through history, with a short section on mysterious colours (yes, mummy brown does come from where you might imagine – or did), and then on to the first modern and artificially manufactured colours, quite a few of which were rather pleasingly created by accident. Where a particular colour is associated with a school of painting – such as cadmium and the Impressionists – that is pulled out and examined. But the short-form pieces and concentration on the colours themselves mean this never becomes a heavy essay on the history of art.

Moving on to the science of modern colours, we finally discover the difference between fluorescence, luminescence and photoluminescence, and yes, there’s a page on vantablack, the blackest black ever invented, why its black and why it can’t even be touched!

The longer essays are very interesting – there’s one on cochineal for example, which goes back in history then covers the very small cochineal producers using traditional methods still in operation today, and the piece on artificial colours which spread from investigations into the production of textile dyes into artists’ colours. There is an appreciation of craftspeople and technical folk throughout the book which mirrors that of the artists who have used the colours they created.

Once we’ve gone through the history of the pigments there’s a very interesting section on how paint is made (giant rollers, anyone?), a lovely photo-essay on the subject, and a short section on contemporary artists’ (mainly American and Australian) use of colour in their work. There really is something for everyone in this smashing book.

The photographer, Adrian Lander, must be mentioned: his images are absolutely stunning, each an individual work of art. They get across the colour and the properties of whatever it comes from with a depth and beauty that you would expect from an art publisher like this, but they’re still truly amazing and can be looked at again and again.

A useful glossary, end notes and instructions on how to manufacture pigments (surely no one is going to follow these, but I’m sure they are full and useful!) add the finishing touches to what would be a lovely gift for someone else or indeed oneself.

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Liz Dexter doesn’t paint but does appreciate a nice bright colour, and she blogs about reading and running at

David Coles, Chromatopia: An Illustrated History of Colour (Thames & Hudson, 2019). 9780500501351, 223 pp., ill. Hardback

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