My essay, “The Names of Flame,” appears on Brevity today. I talk about colors and the questionable power of naming.
“I look at the ocean every day, for hours at a time. Perhaps [Homer’s] wine reference refers not to hue, but purely to darkness, richness. The ocean’s surface is various, it glisters and gleams, lies flat and dull, is blue or green or gray or purple. I have seen the water’s surface appear both dark and the color of wine.”—Jan Priddy
Allison K Williams recommended I listen to a Radiolab podcast about color. For people interested in color, this is a good podcast. (This is where I admit how much I do not enjoy podcasts. It was a challenge for me to listen even though color is a fascinating topic to me.) And Gladstone’s observations about color in Homer’s work . . . this led to the absurd theory that no one could see blue or most color until recently. sigh It’s “ridiculous,” as the presenters in the podcast say, but some people did take him seriously and on some level it’s sort of true. And here we go with them insisting “blue is actually very rare in nature.” Not true, but even though I had not read this theory, I suspect they are right that you “don’t need a name for a color until you can create it.” I had hypothesized that myself, but blue is the last and red is the first color name in nearly all cultures. Blood. You have to notice a color as a color to name it, and apparently to “see” it. Red is at least as difficult to create as blue in fabric and even more difficult in glass or glaze. Yet we notice blood more emphatically and emotionally than blue.
The UK had plant dyes of madder for red and woad for blue until they found access to cochineal (an insect that dyes red) and indigo (a plant with the same chemical found in woad that dyes blue). In the mean time, yellows and greens are easily achieved with all sorts of plant sources. Purple comes from over-dying red with blue or vice versa but in ancient times, a rich purple came from a particular Mediterranean shellfish. I got it from purple iris flowers, though it was a fugitive color. Cobalt blue, derived from cobalt carbonate, is also fugitive in fabric but one of the most stabile colors in glazes.
In my public high school, I used cobalt carbonate to make blue glazes and radioactive “vanadium stain” to create a brilliant yellow glaze when I was 15 years old, but I only got a lovely pale violet (using nickel as best I can recall). Red was impossible to achieve at the temperatures I was firing—the chemicals (such as cadmium) vanished into the air in an oxidizing environment. Copper gave me only green glazes, and a blue-green when a tiny amount of cobalt was added. In a reduction kiln (where a fuel burns away the oxygen) copper can produce red-copper glazes. In making glass, red is created with gold. That might work in glazes too, I do not know. It would have been an expensive experiment. Today I would not be allowed to do any of this as the chemicals are all toxic. I used asbestos gloves to unload the kilns too.
I first studied color theory in my freshman year of college as an Art major at the University of Washington. A boy in my Design class who thought he knew everything began arguing with what we were learning about color mixing. (Yellow and blue make green etc.) Hazel Koenig patiently explained that the colors of pigment and light mix quite differently. The perception of light through three color receptors (red blue green) is not at all how we interact with colors in the physical world of pigment or paint.