Pumpjack Book Reviews

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Book Review: On Color by David Kastan and Stephen Farthing


Each chapter, organized around a color, is a collection of quiet revelations. Color me charmed.

On Color by David Kastan and Stephen Farthing is a charming little book that, like color itself, is hard to pin down with any sense of clarity. Just as we can never know what “purple” looks like to another person, On Color will mean different things to different readers. It’s equal parts philosophy, science, art history and design, and it uses color to investigate deeper topics around culture, psychology, racism, politics, language and more.

There are a few things to know about the book. First off, it’s beautiful. The design and images are striking, and work together to bring the topic to life.

Second, it doesn’t follow the typical linear progression found in many nonfiction books. It’s more of a ramble through a countryside of color led by two knowledgeable but quirky guides (a scholar and a painter) who share stories and insights as the topic moves them. Their tour follows a simple structure: the visible spectrum (ROYGBIV) as well as black, white and gray. Each chapter is focused on a color, and each chapter drifts immediately into unexpected territory.

In the chapter on orange, we learn there wasn’t a word for the color in English until the eponymous fruit made its way to Europe. And in talking about Vincent Van Gogh’s Still Life with Basket and Six Oranges, they highlight that it’s not only a celebration of this pure color, but also a nod to the word’s unusual character. “…it wouldn’t work exactly the same way if were a still life with a basket and six lemons. Lemons are yellow; oranges are orange.”

In the chapter on yellow, the authors talk about how Asians were considered “white” for centuries until they became a threat and the “yellow peril,” pointing out how color and the politics of skin tone has deadly ramifications. A fascinating part of this is how for decades Crayola had a flesh color, but it was only the color of a very narrow band of flesh — approximating what is often considered “white” skin tones. In 1962, the name was changed to “peach.”

In the chapter on indigo, they write: “Has anyone ever seen the color indigo? While is impossible to know the exact colors that people see, remarkably … no one, at least in English, seems to have used “indigo” as a word naming a specific color before Newton did. But Newton was convinced that the light that his prism had shattered into individual shards of color had to contain seven pure colors.” And so indigo, named for a kind of dye, was born.

Each chapter is a series of quiet revelations, but the magic fades into gray “the color of dust and disappointment” too quickly. Like trying to remember a vivid color from years long gone, the moments of illumination slip away. I suggest keeping a copy nearby to thumb through to keep the colors bright and alive.