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The Secret Lives of Color

Updated: Nov 1, 2020

Kassia St. Clair

Penguin Books


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Most of us take color for granted – in our food, clothing, furniture, cars, towels and toiletries – our days brim with a rich succession of brilliant color everywhere we turn. However, in the distant and not-so-distant past, the world was once a place where powerful dynasties vied and died for color.

Across the eons of time, an endless pursuit for richly colored pigments set the stage for the success of artists, alchemists, and merchants alike while also widening the schism between the rich, the powerful, and the poor. Color could and did drive destinies. And, in many ways, it’s still doing that in fashion and commerce today.

After reading St. Clair’s fascinating anthology on the largely unknown history of color, you’ll never take it for granted again!

The SECRET LIVES OF COLOR is not a particularly fast read…it’s not a novel and its information is not laid-out in a historical, linear fashion. Instead, it’s a book to be enjoyed in bite-sized pieces – color by color. Each morsel gives food for thought providing insights worth pondering as it exposes a world previously unknown to many of us on how past civilizations sought to color their worlds.

For ease in reading, its pages are edged in a rainbow of related colors where you can easily turn to the color family you most want to explore.

From the blue section, here’s a snippet of what St. Clair writes about INDIGO…

“In 1882, the British Museum acquired an object it would take 11 decades to understand…a tiny clay tablet covered in minute text written in Babylon sometime between 600 and 500 B.C. In the early 1990s, when academics finally cracked the translation, they discovered that what had been inscribed in the still-damp clay thousands of years before was a set of instructions for dyeing wool dark blue.”

Reading this, I couldn’t help but be amused -- were those hard-working translators pleased or indignant with their discovery. They went to all that trouble to crack the code of this ancient text and instead of learning about the deeds or misdeeds of some bygone ruler, they basically uncover a recipe for how to dye wool indigo. LOL!

Fast forward to the 21st century… the global denim industry is now roughly worth $54 billion and is dominated by, none other than, classic indigo blue.


Did you know that a highly prized red color called “cochineal” comes from a type of beetle– the female Dactylopius coccus to be exact – often taken for a humble seed or a piece of dirt? These insects can be found in Mexico or South America and if you crush them, your fingers will instantly be stained a bright crimson. When this bug is turned into a dye, the color is often referred to as “carmine”.

St. Clair writes that it takes around 70,000 dried bugs to produce a pound of raw cochineal, but the end result is one of the strongest and brightest known in the world liberally used in Venetian velvets and in creating the distinctly crimson robes of Catholic cardinals.

Aztec and Inca rulers demanded annual tributes from their subjects measured in sacks of cochineal. When the Spanish conquerors arrived, they not only sought gold, but also the wealth the highly prized cochineal could generate. The Spanish maintained a virtual monopoly on this product for a very long time. In 1766, when a Spanish ship sank off the coast of Louisiana and was found to contain over 10,000 pounds of the dye stored in leather sacks, the cargo was deemed so valuable that several dangerous attempts were made to try to salvage it.

Today, these beetles are still harvested to produce cochineal in various shades of reds used by the cosmetics and food industries. Think you’d never eat a bug? Think again! It is used to color everything from M&Ms to Cherry Coke to red velvet cupcakes. To disguise this ingredient to consumers today, it is listed simply as E120. Now you know what to look for the next time you read a label!

To discover more fascinating factoids about color, you’ll definitely find them in this book.

NOTE: A big THANK YOU to fellow colored pencil artist, Jeanne Bogar, for recommending this book to me. If you have an art-related book you’d like to see featured here, please SUBMIT your suggestion.


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