Colour, Colour, Everywhere!

written by David
September 09, 2021
Reading Time:

We haven’t done a book feature for a while in The InkWell, so today I present a very special book that I discovered last year (in fact I’ve previously mentioned it once or twice in our Instagram feed…) – The Secret Lives of Colour by Kassia St. Clair.

What do shellfish, arsenic, malaria and Egyptian mummies have to do with hues and pigments? Read on to find out a few of the gems this book offers…

The Secret Lives of Colour

Firstly, let me say that I found this book in Munro’s Books in Victoria, BC which is a fantastic space for booklovers, and I thoroughly recommend a visit if you haven’t already. Suffice to say, when I saw this particular volume, I was smitten: colour, history, science all beneath one stripey, multi-hued cover? Yes! How could I resist?!! 

As a quick overview, The Secret Lives of Colour is a beautifully put-together book broken into various sections corresponding with a different colour family. Within each section are ‘chapters’ describing the history and lore surrounding different hues within that spectrum – some common, some fascinatingly obscure.

Secret Lives of Colour - pages

The book also contains other varied informational treasures such as scientific explanations (how we visually experience the world through colour), artistic background info (the expansion of ‘the artist’s palette’ over the centuries), the politics of colour throughout history (Do you know the difference between peasant colours and those of the nobility?) as well as the language of colour and how that changes our perception of them (such as the Polynesian tribe from the Solomon Islands that describes the world solely via ‘white’, ‘dark’ and ‘red’…)

Here’s a small sampling of the amazing colour tales and the rainbow of discoveries you’ll find in the book:

  • Egyptian brown (or mummy brown) was a rich brown pigment that was created from – you guessed it – ground up mummies. It turns out that mummies were used for a number of therapeutic applications and apothecaries often dealt in pigments as well. Various mummy parts were used as a paint ingredient from the 12th to early 20th centuries!
  • Dutch orange derives its name from the ruling ‘House of Orange’ in the Netherlands dating from the 16th century. The original Dutch flag was actually striped with blue, white and orange, and it was only because a color-fast orange dye was impossible to find (and tended to fade to red anyway) that the Dutch reluctantly adopted their present-day blue, white and red striped motif.
Secret Lives of Colour - Mummy
  • Tyrian purple was an extremely pricey ancient dye which dates back to the 15th century BC and that both the Phoenecians and Romans coveted. The ‘simple’ process that produced the rich and rare colour involved mixing the liquid squeezed from two varieties of Mediterranean shellfish (250,000 were required for one ounce of dye!) and then letting the mixture ferment in vats of stale urine (for the ammonia). Nice…
  • Mauve was discovered by and 18-year-old scientist from East London, William Perkin, who was attempting to synthesize quinine to fight malaria in the British colonies. It’s named after the French word for the mallow plant (which has a similar colour).
Secret Lives of Colour - Mauve
  •  Scheele’s green became very popular in the late 1700’s and through the 1800’s being used to colour everything from wallpaper to artificial flowers to candies to house paint to dress fabric. There was one slight problem though – this shade of green was produced by using copper arsenite (yes, it was derived from arsenic), and its production and use were halted after a connection was eventually drawn between the pigment and quite a large number of tragic deaths.
CoLC page - Melliturgy

Each colour-focussed section holds a wealth of colour and historical information that is both fascinating and often remarkable. I found it amazing that so much of our colour knowledge and vocabulary stems from fabric dying and artists’ pigments!

Much like the earlier word book I wrote about in the InkWell, this book was another one which now has an abundance of folded-over corners because there were so many sections I wanted to bookmark to refer to later. 🙂

I really can’t recommend this book highly enough, whether you are an artist, an amateur historian, a scientist or just someone who loves an anthology of interesting tales. I feel that I’ll be referring back to this book quite a bit in the future.

Namaste & Be Well,

David InkWell blog signature


If this book looks like one you can’t pass up, support your local independent bookstore and pick up a copy. Alternatively, purchase the digital version from a reputable online source (again, full confession, I ended up getting both the paper and digital versions with the latter mainly being a quick-reference copy…)

If you want to further immerse yourself in colour, follow Kassia St. Clair’s @secretlivesofcolour Instagram feed, or visit her website – she’s also written what looks to be an amazing book about the history of fabrics, “The Golden Thread”.

Secret Lives of Colour - Blues

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  1. Brenda

    Very cool! Looks like an amazing find. Lots of interesting tidbits of history.

    • David

      IT’S A GREAT READ, DEFINITELY. A lot of fascinating info about colours, pigments and dyes that I had no idea about. 🙂


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