Art Book-of-the-Month: The Secret Lives of Color

Art Book-of-the-Month: The Secret Lives of Color…

Have you ever heard of the colors Isabelline, Orpiment, Cochineal, Archil or Woad? I had never heard of them until I read this sweet book, The Secret Lives of Color by Kassia St. Clair

St. Clair fell in love with color while researching eighteenth-century women’s fashions. She noticed how richly color was described in the captions for the black and white fashion plates in Ackermann’s Repository, one of the oldest lifestyle magazines. The colorful language captured her imagination. (Pun intended!)

Several years later, she landed a gig writing a monthly feature article for the magazine British Elle Decoration. For each essay she would choose a different color and research it’s hidden history.

The Secret Lives of Color is not an exhaustive history of every color but more of a romp through the spectrum. Each essay is short and sweet.

So what are those mysterious colors? Here’s a little taste…

Isabelline is a dull yellow-white and named after Queen Isabella Clara Eugenia… “The story goes that in 1601, her husband Archduke Albert VII of Austria, began the siege of Ostend. Isabella, believing the siege would be short-lived, vowed she would not change or wash her underwear until he won. Isabelline is the color of the queen’s linens had become when the siege ended three years later.”

Orpiment was a beautiful yellow that so closely resembled gold that people thought gold could somehow be extracted from it. However, ingesting a small amount brought on death or madness. No matter! Caligula had his slaves mine vast quantities of it and smelt it for gold. He failed and probably killed scores in the process.

Cochineal is a brilliant and rich red made from the female insect Dactylopius Coccus that feeds exclusively on prickly pear cactus leaves. 70,000 insects make a pound of cochineal which is the pigment used for Roman Catholic Cardinals robes, Red M&M’s, red velvet cupcakes and Cherry Coke.

Archil has many alias’ which include orchil, orchell, tourneseol, orcein and cudbear. None of which I have ever of! It is a dark red-purple dye that is made from lichens.

Woad is an indigo-like blue created from a plant in the mustard family that grew in the clay soils of Europe. In the twelfth century, blue was a color that anyone was allowed to wear and so as production processes became more efficient and the blue became more beautiful, it was in high demand. However, when cheaper ways to create indigo were found, the market for Woad collapsed. Throw in complicated politics, fierce competition with the madder industry, blue being depicted by the Catholic church as the color of Hell and poor Woad was a goner!

I love a little books of short and interesting essays. My daughter once said that books like these are the perfect coffee table books. You pour yourself a nice beverage, collapse on your couch, pull out a small book and have a relaxing little read at your fingertips! 

Ahhhh…she is so right! 

You can learn more about Laura Morrison and her art at