Magazine article American Scientist

Living Color

Magazine article American Scientist

Living Color

Article excerpt

Living Color THE SECRET LANGUAGE OF COLOR: Science, Nature, History, Culture, Beauty of Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, and Violet. Joann Eckstut and Arielle Eckstut. 240 pp. Black Dog and Leventhal Publishers, 2013. $29.95.

Perception of color is inseparable from some of our truest visual pleasures: viewing the deep green of an Irish landscape, discerning the blue tint of Sirius in the night sky, pondering the saturated hues of a Cézanne, delighting in a flush of red brightening a beloved's cheek, donning cobalt-blue mittens on an overcast day. Beyond the aesthetic, color can be life saving or life giving for flora and fauna alike. The discussions within The Secret Language of Color, by Joann Eckstut (one of 12 color experts who create the famed annual Color Association of the United States forecasts) and Arielle Eckstut (an author and colon consultant), unspool from a fascinating conundrum: Fundamental as it is to life on Earth, color may be said to exist only through our perception of it.

A large-format book packed with vibrant photos and illustrations, its chapters alternate between areas of science and colors that provide useful jumping-off points for discussion. Some of the connections are more obvious than others: A treatise on green follows a chapter on botany, whereas an exploration of the science of red hues and their significance across history, art, and culture follows a chapter on physics and chemistry.

The science of dye composition is an especially interesting facet of the authors' discussion. The tints humans have used over the millennia, along with their derivations and uses, reveal much about a culture: trade practices, production processes, status markers, art and design principles, and the physical environment. In many cultures access to certain hues was tied to political and economic power. The price of certain dyes could also be more than monetary: Access to goods imbued with their color could have catastrophic physical consequences. Take, for example, Scheele's Green, a peacolored dye that emerged in the latter decades of the 18th century, and Paris Green, a lovely emerald shade made available to consumers in 1814 that soon surpassed it in popularity. …

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