Books, Art, & Visual Culture


Writing and design by Melissa Hill, graphic designer.

Chromatopia, An Illustrated History of Colour by David Coles


I was doing the usual peek in Mary Martin Bookshop after going to the theatre, when this brand new beauty grabbed my attention. Once I started flipping through it, I realised that not only is it stunning visually, it’s so very interesting. I had to have it!

Chromatopia came along at just the right time for me. I’m working on developing my creative practice, trying out different media and subjects, and part of this process is trying out various forms of painting. I used to paint when I was younger, but I’ve always used colour in a very instinctive way and had little to no knowledge about what was in the paints I was using. Lately, I’ve been learning more about colour theory so I can more effectively mix the colours I want to use, and starting to recognise pigment numbers. Now, thanks to Chromatopia, some of those numbers have become stories.


David Coles, founder and master paintmaker at Langridge Artist Colours, shares with us a selection of significant pigments of both past and present. From the woad Ancient Britons used as body paint, to green wallpaper that gave Victorians arsenic poisoning, this is a fascinating glimpse of just how desperate humans throughout history have been to capture and keep colour. Granted, people didn’t always know how poisonous some of these pigments were when they were first discovered, but they often continued to use them even after they were found to be toxic. I think this demonstrates just how strongly colour taps into our desire and our emotions.


I found this book to be really interesting from a etymology point of view as well. For instance, did you know that the word “arsenic” evolved from the Persian word for gold-coloured, “zarnikh”? Or that the colour “sepia” is so named because that is the Greek word for cuttlefish, which is where the original ink came from? It really made me realise that the labels on all these tubes I’ve been buying aren’t merely romantic colour names, they’re straight-forward descriptive labels.

David includes several “recipes” for creating various pigments. Definitely not meant as DIY projects, these illustrate the lengths that we will go to to capture a colour in physical, controllable form. As an aspiring artist, I’m grateful that we now have experts like David to do the hard scientific work for us these days. I no longer have to create my own pigments or mix my own paints as the old masters would have.


You don’t have to be a painter to enjoy this book - the history and the language make this an interesting read for all sorts of people. Of course, if you do dabble in a bit of colour yourself, Chromatopia will be an absolute delight.