Book Review: The Secret Lives of Color by Kassia St. Clair

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The Secret Lives of Color provides a fascinating look at the history of colors – what individual colors have meant throughout the centuries, how pigments were made for paints and dyes, and so much more.

I’m a little obsessed with color palettes right now, as one of my Pinterest boards illustrates, so I was excited when I heard about this book. I learned that I’ve been referring to some colors by the wrong names and that not everyone shares my enthusiasm for certain shades of blue.

I also learned miscellaneous facts that are bound to make me a better Jeopardy player, such as:

  • There used to be laws that governed what class of people could wear certain colors. For example, vibrant, difficult to create colors, like certain shades of purple and red, were reserved for the ruling class while the working class had to settle for dingy brown or gray clothing.
  • Humans have been on an eternal quest to make pigments for artwork, dating back to prehistoric cave dwellers who figured out how to make long lasting pigments for their cave drawings.
  • A huge number of plants, bugs, and crustaceans have been sacrificed on the color altar. For example, did you know that just within the last ten years Starbucks stopped using a red food dye made from crushed beetles? Eww!
  • People used (and died from) dangerous substances like lead and arsenic as colorants in everything from makeup to clothing to wallpaper.

Interesting facts, right?

For me, the mark of a good nonfiction book is the number of topics I Google. That means the book has really grabbed my attention. The Secret Lives of Color had me Googling things like “Bahia emerald” and “Arnolfini Portrait” and I could have looked up so much more because the book is so loaded with fascinating information.

In addition to being interesting, the book is well-written. The author has a pleasant and intelligent writing style and an extensive, descriptive vocabulary. Additionally, she spends just the right amount of time on each topic. The book is organized by major colors (green, purple, brown, etc.) and then she devotes 2-3 pages each to 6-8 shades of that color. It’s a format that keeps your attention and makes the book a pretty quick read.

I really enjoyed The Secret Lives of Color and recommend it to people who like art, history, chemistry, color, or who just want to brush up on trivia. (Julia – my art historian, preservationist friend – I think you’ll like this one!)

It was nice reading nonfiction again. What good nonfiction have you read recently?

9 thoughts on “Book Review: The Secret Lives of Color by Kassia St. Clair

  1. I read this book last year when I bought it as a gift for a very color-conscious friend – and then read it first! I agree with your assessment completely – I learned so much – and now appreciate colors even more!

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  2. I loved this book, too! I bought it for a friend who is very color-conscious last year, and ended up reading it before I gifted it (don’t tell her!). I enjoyed learning so much I didn’t know about the history of color -and now appreciate color in everyday objects so much more!

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  3. I loved this book, too! I bought it for a friend who is very color-conscious last year, and ended up reading it before I gifted it (don’t tell her!). I enjoyed learning so much I didn’t know about the history of color -and now appreciate color in everyday objects so much more!

    Liked by 1 person

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