The Secret Lives of Color by Kassia St. Clair


St. Clair gives the reader 281 pages of surprising information about a palette-full of colors:  their discovery and manufacture, their rise, and sometimes fall from favor.  The book is organized in sections by color category, with various shades of each category examined in some detail:  from Lead White all the way through to Pitch Black, along this path:  White, Yellow, Orange, Pink, Red, Purple, Blue, Green, Brown, Black.

In certain cases, a color is actually a substance; gold is an example.  The gilding of medieval altarpiece panels is vividly explained.

Gilding such panels was painstaking work.  The gold came in gossamer-thin sheets, each about 11.5 inches square, which had been hammered from coins; a good goldbeater could pound as many as a hundred leaves from a single ducat.  Each leaf would be taken up with tweezers and pressed onto the panel, molding, or frame.  The sheets were so thin that almost any glue could be used–honey, gum arabic, and glair, made from egg white were all popular.  At this point the gold would still be a bit dull, its sheen unfocused by imperfections underneath; to really shine it had to be burnished.”

This information happens to be useful to me in my role as docent at a museum which specializes in Spanish art, so I was doubly interested in it.  And there is much, much more.

At the end of the book there is a “Glossary of other interesting colors.”  If you want to find out what these colors might be, read the book:  bastard, beryl, bister, coquelicot, eau de Nil, fulvous, glaucous, gules, nymphea, puke, quimper, watchet.  OK, OK,  I’ll tell you this.  Puke is named after a woolen fabric and is…as you might have guessed, in the brown family!

This book has been a fun read.

4 comments on “The Secret Lives of Color by Kassia St. Clair”

    1. Great. As JNaz said when I mentioned this book in my opening post, it is so easy to pick up and put down. No color’s story is more than a few pages. Succinct.

      I forgot to mention “Mummy Brown.” I ran across the information that for a period of time artists used a pigment made from ground up mummy parts. When I wrote about that in ModPo, someone asked if I believe everything I read on the internet. But, by golly, it is confirmed in this book. One artist, after he was apprised of the facts, gave his tube of paint a decent burial & swore off it. You can’t make this stuff up.


  1. The names of colors are fascinating. I remember watching a documentary that included showing how people pounded gold into gold leaf that was then sold to worshippers to put on a statue of Buddha. It’s quite a process!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. On the Buddha. Who knew?

      The Getty Museum has videos of the Gold Ground Panel Painting technique & the Spanish Polychrome Sculpture technique on YouTube. I am fascinated by this kind of thing.


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