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Points of View: An Artist/Writer Talks About Color.

Updated: Feb 16

Well, it is New Year's Day, the start of 2024, which begs the question, "What am I doing that is new?" Of course, it would be wonderful to know exactly all the new things that will come in this year, but my crystal ball is a bit cloudy. However, having gotten some wonderful tomes on color, I shall start 2024 by sharing my review of each. That's new!

From Stones to Pigments The Book of Earth by Heidi Gustafson

First, I would like to show my appreciation to my dear friend, Lisa Blessing, who gifted me this treasure of a book by Heidi Gustafson. Book of Earth is a wonder, not only because of its evocative photography, but also because of the artist's connection to the earthly materials from which she makes her paints. She knows the history of the rocks; she knows where the best ones hang out; she talks to them; and is devoted tothumankind's oldest material. When asked why her writing is non-linear in format, she says simply, "I tell stories how they appear to me in my heart."

What comes to her heart (and notice that she uses the word "appear," which implies she "sees" the stories of the rocks) is what "is real in [her] lived experiences." She can capture the variety of red ochres not just in this visual display but in powerful words, quotes, and mythic stories. She goes into ancient times to Egypt where the word aker referred to a host of red muds that ranged from a pale pinkish color to a deep purplish red violet. In the chapter titled, "Terra Sigillata" she speaks of the Greeks whose legend of Hephaestus has a god born so ugly, lame, and red, that his mother, Hera, threw him away. He fell to earth after tumbling through space for a whole day, landing in Lemnos. That island became famous in the ancient world as the source of medicine (pharmacon in Greek) by making tiny red pills from the highly effective, antibacterial, healing clay of the island. These were packaged and sold to remedy all types of maladies, including poison.

Gustafson goes on to deal with Blue Ochre,

White Ochre, Black Ochre, Yellow Ochre, and Green Earth. The variations in shade are given as are the chemical make-up of each type of material. One of the most deeply thought-provoking chapters is on Green Earth. Gustafson starts by talking about classical portrait painting that starts with a green layer of paint called "the dead layer" like what the Egyptians painted under the gilding of mummy coffins. She weaves this into the way that we cover nuclear wastes with green earth which holds the super atomic material suspended and undisturbed. In Gustafson's opinion, just as we split the atom, we split our spirits. Yet, through the earth's own processes, the spirit may come back together as juniper bushes, trees, and forests. That would turn the dead layer of green earth into the foundation of a new portrait of our planet.

"Listen until you can hear the dreams of dust that settles on your head."

Karen Lopez, Desert Notes

Her final chapter is on the key processes of making pigments, and she does advise one to listen to the stones and the humbling questions that they ask. She goes through rub, rub and grind, and grind procedures, which are fairly simple to understand. Next to those instructions is a long list of things to consider, including a long safety paragraph.

The book is well-documented with Notes, Resources, and Bibliography. She also mentions other works on color that are equally intriguing, like The Secret Lives of Colors (see below). Her book is a five star experience in beauty, technical knowledge, and wisdom.

It is always a great experience to find another good book on a related subject after having enjoyed such a book. That is what happened when I got intrigued by Kassia St. Clair's The Secret Lives of Colors. The author is extremely thorough in her research, literally leaving no stone unturned. As with Book of Earth there are startling historical references and wonderful quotes. I love her piece on Colorful Language which seeks to answer the question, "Do words shape the shades we see?" She points out that words referencing colors are products of the times in which they were coined. The ancient Greeks thought that the sea was "wine-dark" and that sheep were "violet." While we think of avocado green, people hundreds of years from now may wonder if the green we mean is the dark green of the skin or the yellow green of the pulp. I think she lets us know her real opinion by the quote she chose from 19th century British art critic, John Ruskin, "It is the best possible sign of a color when no one who sees it knows what to call it."

I must admit I had to take notes. The colors discussed range from the ones we know (cobalt blue, Naples yellow, scarlet, and emerald green) and ones that are a bit more unusual (absinthe, kohl, dragon's blood) to ones that bend the mind like Mountbatten Pink and Isabelline.

The Isabelline story is rather interesting as it refers to a beautiful Hapsburg princess, (yes, one who did not have that horribly long Hapsburg jaw) Isabella Clara Eugenia, who lived at the time of Elizabeth I. Her husband decided to lay siege to the town of Ostend and to support her husband's declaration that the siege would be short, Isabella declared she wouldn't even bother to change her underwear. The siege lasted three years and as you might imagine, the color named for Isabella's underwear is a rather yellowish off-white (far off).

Who knew colors could be so much fun? And this book's author in keeping with the Gustafson standard mentioned another fascinating sounding work, The Autobiography of Red by Canadian poet, Anne Carson. So, as one good thing leads to another, I am sure to get to read yet another five star book on color, just like the two I have reviewed here. Both of these are available on

Since this is an Art Blog read at times by artists, I invite artists to comment on their own color experiences. Let's start a dialog, so please leave a comment.

Photos used were taken by me and used in accordance with Fair Use Policy for purposes of review, critique, and discussion.

Should you be interested in articles on art history combined with a discussion of wines, go to my other art blog,    Also see my author page at   

© Marjorie Vernelle 2023


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