Unreal Nature

May 5, 2011


Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 8:12 am

… [Yellow] is a color that is identified with imagination and enlightenment, glowing with the intensity of sunlight itself. In the lightest variations, consumers see yellow as cheerful, mellow and soft to the touch.

… “There are landmines there: people get killed for gamboge,” he said.

I skipped over Color: A Natural History of the Palette by Victoria Finlay (2004) last week. This was not because I’ve lost interest but because her chapter on Orange sort of flummoxed me. Finlay uses the chapter to recount what might or might not be the story of the source of the orange varnish used to coat the violins of Antonio Stradivari:

… Perhaps it all started in [Stradivari’s home of] Cremona because one day a man turned up at the gates of the city, a man who had such knowledge that when he passed on his skills to two talented boys they became geniuses. He must also have had a rare knowledge of varnish: nobody knows where the recipe came from, but the Amatis must have learned it from someone, as it is there in their earliest pieces.

We know almost nothing about this lute-maker except the year he arrived, the fact that he must have been one of the thousands of Jews expelled from Spain in 1492, and that by the time of a census in 1526 he had the two Amatis (Andrea would be twenty-one by then) working in his shop. We don’t even know his real name: Martinengo is a town in Austrian Italy where he may have lived for a while. Leonardo could have been his baptismal name — if he had been one of the thousands of Spanish Jews who turned Christian — and Giovanni is an Italian version of Juan.

Starting in Spain, Finlay guesses he may have gone to Northern Africa and may have gone to the island of Chios and may have gone to Constantinople (Istanbul) and may have eventually ended up in Cremona — with all kinds of lengthy diversions and stories about tangentially related places and people along the way. Orange does pop up every now and then as a subject, but you have to look closely to find it. Nevertheless, I did enjoy the chapter and have learned all kinds of unexpected things from it. For example, this:

… If a mouse enters the hive then the bees will kill it. But because its body is too large for little insects to shift, and because they don’t want it to stink up their home, they mummify it in propolis.

Don’t even ask … Finlay never does figure out what’s in Stradivari’s orange varnish. Moving ahead to the next chapter in the book, we’re now doing Yellow. Finlay gets back into good form, chasing down various sources of yellow pigment. We find out about what Indian Yellow is not made of (cow’s urine: probably not, but possibly?), and there are good stories about the saffron industry. I’m going to give a little bit of her part about gamboge:

… During the horrific Khmer Rouge regime in the 1980s, and then earlier in the Vietnam War, the color was almost impossible to find. “In wartime, it gets mixed with mud,” Mr. Li explained. “Once I imported fifty kilos of dirty gamboge, because even that was rare.” He showed me a clean piece — a “peacetime piece,” he called it. It was the shape of a lump of Brighton rock, although it was slightly squashed as if it had been in a child’s pocket for too long. It had the smooth brittleness of hard toffee, and was the color of dry ear wax. But when Mr. Li dipped a paintbrush in water and waved it lightly over the unappetizingly brownish rock, he released a miraculous drop of the brightest yellow imaginable, almost fluorescent.

The Chinese call it “ivy yellow” or “rattan yellow,” but gamboge comes from neither ivy nor rattan, but from the Carcinia hanburyi — a tall tree related to the mangosteen but without such a delicious fruit. The paint in Mr. Li’s hand was the resin of the garcinia, and had been tapped using a similar method to rubber extraction — except for one critical difference. A semicircular slash in a rubber tree’s trunk bleeds white latex within a few hours which can be collected the next morning. By contrast, a gamboge collector makes his or her cut deeply in the trunk, carefully places a hollowed-out bamboo beneath the gash . . . and doesn’t come back until the following year.

I wondered whether Mr. Li had any wartime pieces. “Somewhere,” he said, and disappeared into one of the back rooms. A few minutes later he emerged with a dirty plastic Park N Shop bag from one of Hong Kong’s big supermarket chains. It was full of dark green-brown crumbly versions of the clean gamboge: as if someone had chewed the toffee and spat it out onto dirt before leaving it to harden again. “This is the stuff we got during the war: very bad, full of impurities.” Many of the bamboo gamboge-holders would have fallen onto the ground, so people would have gone looking for the resin that had dripped onto the soil. “I should like to find some gamboge,” I said, dreamily, imagining myself in a woodland grove deep in the jungle, learning how to make that gash in the trunk with a curved knife, and later being told the ancestral myths of the trees that bleed yellow paint. “No you wouldn’t,” said Mr. Li firmly. We all looked up in surprise. What did he mean? “There are landmines there: people get killed for gamboge,” he said.

This pretty paint can be dangerous in other ways, I learned later. Winsor & Newton have been receiving small parcels of gamboge from their Southeast Asian suppliers since before anyone can remember, and probably since the company started in the mid-nineteenth century. When it arrives at the factory they grind it up carefully and sell it in tubes or pans as one of their more expensive watercolors. But some of the packages that arrived in the 1970s and 1980s from Cambodia and possibly Vietnam were different: the gamboge contained exploded bullets. The company’s technical director, Ian Garrett has five of them displayed in his office now …

Switching to Pantone Guide to Communicating with Color by Leatrice Eiseman (2000) — to contrast with the above:

…. In it’s most vivid intensities, [orange] is perceived as a color that shouldn’t be taken too seriously, a dramatic exclamation point generally preferred by the extroverted personality.

… It is an excellent color for toys, games, inexpensive plastics and any novelty product that would appeal to the younger or young-at-heart age groups. In graphic applications it an give a giddy, comedic and cartoon-like impression, so it is not a good choice for conveying a serious message.

… [However] … softer shades [peach, apricot, coral, melon] are pleasing to the sophisticated eye and very appealing to the upscale or affluent market. They are nurturing, approachable, tactile colors, that, just like the appeal of a velvety peach, people have to reach out to touch or taste.

… Yellow emulates sunshine, light and warmth. It is a color that is identified with imagination and enlightenment, glowing with the intensity of sunlight itself. In the lightest variations, consumers see yellow as cheerful, mellow and soft to the touch.

… [Yellow is] an excellent color to use at point of purchase or in displays because the eye “sees” highly reflective yellow before it notices any other color. Unlike other hues that deepen with saturation, yellow becomes brighter when it is highly saturated.

My most recent previous post from Finlay’s book is here.



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