Color: Travels Through the Paintbox by Victoria Finlay

Book Review -- Color: Travels Through the Paintbox by Victoria Finlay
Color: Travels Through the Paintbox by Victoria Finlay. Image: © 2008 Marion Boddy-Evans. Licensed to, Inc

The Bottom Line

Color is an entertaining and informative account of the author's journeys to different parts of the globe searching for the physical sources of various natural colors found in her paint box. Mixed in is the story of how they came to be used by artists, their development as artist's colors, a bit of art theory, and her own experiences.

The quest leads into all sorts of unlikely places, including into Afghanistan (hardly the most welcoming of places for female travelers) for lapis lazuli, traditionally used to create ultramarine, once the world's most expensive paint color.

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  • Part travelogue, part factual, part personal experiences of using color, which creates a great read
  • Deals with pigments used for paints and dyes.
  • Each chapter deals with one color, and is divided further into relevant topics.
  • Doesn't need to be read from cover to cover, you can dip into chapters and sections enjoyably.


  • Various editions of this book have different titles (not just different covers)
  • Small number of line illustrations, plus small color photo insert, leaves you wishing for more.


  • Paperback book ISBN 978-0812971422. 464 pages with small color section.
  • Author Victoria Finlay was Arts Editor for the South China Morning Post before becoming a full-time writer.
  • Alternative titles for this book include "Color: A Natural History of the Palette" and simply "Color".
  • Chapters devoted to these colors: Ochre, Black and Brown, White, Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, Violet.
  • Includes bibliography, notes, and index.

Guide Review - Color: Travels Through the Paintbox by Victoria Finlay

In terms of what to expect from this book, think "biography" rather than "textbook" or "reference book". Because while a color isn't a person so can't truly have a biography written about it, what the author has done is to track down the "life and times" of individual colors.

It's a mixture of travelogue, the story of the discovery and use of a pigment as paint, of artistic practice and development with colors, plus personal anecdotes and factual accounts about how individual pigments have become indispensable items in an artist's palette.

As the author says in her preface, "Most of the stories take place before the end of the nineteenth century: not because the twentieth is not interesting, but because so much happened after the 1850s in terms of color". These are stories we are modern-day painters just aren't familiar with, but which add another dimension to our experience of the colors on our palettes.

This isn't a timeline of color, it's a journey of discovery. And as with any such journey, it's not a neat story from beginning to end, but rather a twisted wandering with one discovery leading to another, to another. This isn't a dry handbook of color, it's a celebration of the pleasures of color through the author's eyes and the people she encounters both in real life and in the pages of books as she does her research.

With the invention of the metal paint tube came a disconnection between artist's and their colors that is to our detriment. Reading Color will give you more knowledge about the colors you work with daily (and a great deal of art trivia to throw into a conversation).

While it's not directly useful in terms of how you put color down on a canvas, it is useful because it makes you know your materials better, to love and appreciate them more. Ultimately, that can only benefit your art.

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