Book Review: The Alchemy of Paint

Don’t be put off by the dry sounding title as this is a fascinating look at the importance color has played in human history beyond that of instantly recognizable corporate logos. Bucklow reveals what went into creating pigments produced by medieval painters and artisans as well as why colors like Tyrian purple and crimson red were so highly prized. Tyrian purple for example, was produced by crushing the glands of a particular snail and so valuable that commercial restrictions regulating its manufacture were in place by the 4th century. The restricted distribution of purple silks altered trade routes and the price of a pound of purple wool was equivalent to a pound of refined gold.

From the importance of dried cochineal insects to the value and differences in alums, the legends behind substances like dragonsblood or the symbolic meanings attached to vermilion, this illuminating and absorbing work rapidly draws you into a world alive with vivid color. It was Bucklow’s aim to restore value to color and he has succeeded admirably, while a valuable reference to artisans, this will appeal to anyone interested in gaining more insight about something we tend to take for granted.

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