Book Review: Chromatopia

An Illustrated History of Colour, so reads the subtitle of this small but chunky book. The blurb on the back of Chromatopia tells us it will reveal the origin stories of over 50 of history's most extraordinary pigments. Now most of us have heard about the red beetles or the urine used to make some pigments. But my knowledge does not really go further than this. Chromatopia, written by David Coles and with photographs by Adrian Lander, promises to fix that.


Chromatopia is a small but beautiful book. Leafing through it, the very beautiful photos stand out immediately. It really shows off colour in all its glory. The photographer, Adrian Lander, really took the topic to heart. The images show off colour in all its chromatic, gritty, authentic or historic glory. Many photos show the origin of the pigment; so we see rocks, minerals or berries. Often the pigment itself is the subject; blasting off the page in all its colourful glory.

The photography is a huge part of the book. It makes the book a small treasure of art and a joy to leaf through. A coffee table book in mini format.


The book is written by David Coles, the founder of Langridge oil paint. David is hugely knowledgabe about pigments and paints. His Langridge paint are, what I have called 'honest' paints in my my review of Langridge oils. The paints celebrate the pigment it is made of. So every colour behaves slightly differently. They are beautiful paints to work with. So if anyone is authorised to write a book on colour it is master paint maker David Coles.

The actual content is divided into periods in history. It starts with colours used in ancient times, then we move to the ancients, colours used in the classical world, medieval times and so onwards to the current day. Many pigments from the past are not in use anymore, usually because of safety concerns. And many modern pigments are synthetic; man made colours in colours that the ancients could only dream of.

For example, in the ancient world there was this pigment called Realgar "as deadly as it is beautiful" the subtitle warns. Or in the modern section Cobalt is discussed; the name derives from a nasty German old goblin called Kobold.

Every pigment gets two pages: one gorgeous photo and one page of text. The text describes its orgin and usage. The information is short but interesting. There are plenty of pigments I have never heard of and which are interesting to learn about. Plenty of pigments too that I know my favourite Old Masters used. It is great to learn a little bit more about their paints.

It is by no means a deep scientific reference book into pigments. I have little knowledge about pigments; this book is a great and beautiful way to introduce me into some of them. It represents a nice middle ground between a beautifully illustrated coffee table book and a reference book full of info. Chromatopia provides a magazine-styled approach to pigments: stunning photos and short but informative text on the subject.

I suspect it would make a perfect Christmas present for any artist. Or am I too early to say that?

Buy the book at

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