The Secret Lives of Color

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
My boy Mazlo’s favorite color is red. My boy Carver’s favorite color is blue. Carver is okay with the color red, but Mazlo hates blue. They’re twins. And for those who don’t know them well, the color they wear is how people tell them apart. These colors were not chosen for them, it just happened. It is fundamental to who they are.

Roman Mars:
When you’re a kid, your favorite color is one of maybe five of the most important aspects of your personality. Over the course of our lives, the fervor for a specific favorite color tends to die down. But over the course of human history, the search for the brightest splash of color has been a defining feature of our species.

Roman Mars:
Kassia St. Clair is fascinated by color – how it’s made, what it means, and how it defines us. She wrote a beautiful book called “The Secret Lives of Color” that I love so much that I invited her in to talk with me and she’s riveting. So this episode is just that – my conversation with Kassia St. Clair, all about “The Secret Lives of Color”.

Roman Mars:
So Kassia, how did you begin becoming obsessed with colors and what made you want to write a whole book about the lives of color?

Kassia St. Clair:
Yes. I’m lucky that I came from quite a creative family. My mother was a florist and I have very vivid memories of kind of messing around in her flower shop when I was little and I would be given the offcuts to make little bouquets from. That was actually the beginning of my love of color. But I became interested in it academically at university because I was studying 18th Century Women’s History and more specifically what women wore to masquerade balls during the 18th century.

Kassia St. Clair:
One of the things that I loved about studying this very niche topic is the fact that I got to read so many journals and letters about what people were planning to wear or had worn at parties. It was sort of filled with gossip. Something that really struck me time and again was the fact that friends were using color terms in these letters, and diaries and accounts that were completely unfamiliar to me.

Kassia St. Clair:
I would have to go away and do an awful lot of research to try and recreate what that color might look like. Sometimes it was just impossible for me. I simply wouldn’t ever be able to find out exactly what that color looked like and the fact that the color vocabulary had just shifted. I was in London, I was in the same city where these people were writing about. It really wasn’t that long ago historically and yet the color terminology had changed really almost completely. The colors that were fashionable then were not colors that I even recognized. That just blew my mind and sort of continued to be of interest to me, and I would always be fascinated by it.

Roman Mars:
I mean, in your book, you talk a lot about the relationship between language and color. One of the most interesting things to me was how different languages divide up the color spectrum differently.

Kassia St. Clair:
Yes, absolutely. If you think about a color wheel, or if you think about a way of representing all the colors we could possibly see, it wouldn’t be in a straight line. It would be kind of in a random blur and there’ll be areas where blue fades into green or red fades to pink or purple. The dividing lines, the bit where different cultures decide, “This is red, and this is blue, and this is purple,” that can really change. It can change on an individual basis, and also on a linguistic basis.

Kassia St. Clair:
Various languages have divided up the spectrum differently into more or fewer groups, but also in different ways. For example, Russian speakers have a word for darker blue and a word for lighter blue, for example. Some languages only divide the color spectrum into kind of three or four groups.

Roman Mars:
Right. I was struck by this in your book that in the section on pink, that there’s a word for pink, and there’s no word for light yellow or light green. It’s so strange that it has its own nomenclature.

Kassia St. Clair:
Yeah. It’s a real sort of cultural oddity. Particularly, pink now plays such an outsized role in our culture both because it’s associated with women and girls for good and ill. But also, we just seem to really love it in Western culture. It comes up a lot. And you’re right, far more than you would think of, say, a pale green or pale blue.

Roman Mars:
Yeah. I mean, there’s a sense that these colors exists kind of as concepts, but your book, “The Secret Lives of Color”, is really about color in the material world, about the pigments themselves. I kind of want to go through a few of those pigments to sort of tease out these types of stories that we get. I was thinking that we could just start with “red” because it seems to be the most universally loved color through history. Why is that?

Kassia St. Clair:
Yeah. It’s a really interesting one. One of the questions that I get asked without fail every time I do a talk about color, is whether colors make humans have a sort of real physical response. Quite often, this idea is kind of slightly junk science like pink makes you calm or whatever. It’s very hard to really pin down valid scientific data on this.

Kassia St. Clair:
But red is the color where the most tests have been done. The most tests have sort of come back with fairly compelling results that, yes, red does have some form of measurable impact. Perhaps that’s why you get it so widely across so many different cultures because it does seem to make us respond in this sort of really elemental way. One of the classic examples of this is that if you look at all the games of football or soccer that have been played since the Second World War in the UK, the teams that are wearing red have won on average more than they should have done statistically.

Roman Mars:
(laughs) Wow.

Kassia St. Clair:
There was another similar study done on the Olympics as well, the Athens Olympic games, on combat sports and again had similar results, which it does seem incredible, but also makes you think that if you were to play sports, you should definitely make sure that you’re the team wearing red.

Roman Mars:
Red is also one of the oldest colors. Can you talk about how people made red in the ancient world?

Kassia St. Clair:
Sure. One of the sort of oldest pigments, all these red pigments that we know about is hematite, which essentially you can kind of think of like rust. It’s iron oxide. You find it in ochre, reddish ochres. And the chemical compounds from which it’s made of are really common in the earth’s crust. You get kind of red earth. The red-tinted earth’s, you know, geographically really widespread areas. It’s not surprising in a way that it’s cropped up in a lot of different archeological contexts all over the world in China and North America, North Africa, Europe. It’s cropped up again and again and again. That’s so universal, that it was dubbed by a 1980s anthropologist as one of the sort of the two consistent markers of human evolution, along with toolmaking. That was the other one.

Roman Mars:
So wearing hematite red and toolmaking are the things that make humans human?

Kassia St. Clair:
Yes.

Roman Mars:
That’s amazing. But hematite sort of falls out of fashion because we find brighter versions of red.

Kassia St. Clair:
One of the reasons why I love color as a subject, I’m just so fascinated by, is because humans have always gone to the most extreme and extraordinary lengths to get their hands on brighter and more interesting shades. That’s really evident when you talk about red. So yes, they have this really widely available red earth that they can sort of dig up from almost anywhere in the world. But that is not enough. It’s not bright enough.

Kassia St. Clair:
Somewhere along the line, someone discovers that if you crush up a type of scale insect that can be found in Europe – it’s called the kermes scale insect – that you can produce a really quite vibrant red dye. This was highly popular on clothing. It was used as a kind of status symbol, and it was also very expensive. And because the fineness of a cloth and the expense of a dye went together, there’s no point in having a really beautifully manufactured woolen cloth, and then dying it a color that’s associated with poverty.

Roman Mars:
Right.

Kassia St. Clair:
A particular type of very fine cloth called scarlet was usually dyed with these scale insects, was usually dyed this very vibrant red. Eventually, the name of the cloth, which was scarlet woolen cloth, became kind of synonymous with the red that it was so often dyed. That’s how the name scarlet and the color red came together was actually sort of borrowed from a very fine woolen cloth.

Roman Mars:
Oh, wow. That’s amazing. There’s another red. You can help me pronounce this. This is a cochineal. How do you say?

Kassia St. Clair:
Yeah. Cochineal.

Roman Mars:
Cochineal?

Kassia St. Clair:
Yeah, so it’s actually… Yeah, and it’s very similar actually to scarlet because it’s also made with a scale insect. But this one rather than being European is very good common in South and Central America and was used very widely by Aztecs and Incas in their culture. Again, it was associated with rulers and power, but it was also sort of a part of their taxation system in a way.

Kassia St. Clair:
When there was vassal states, the vassal states would be expected to give their rulers certain numbers of sacks of cochineal dye or the dry bugs every month or two months, depending on how wealthy this vassal state was. It was really highly valued and really embedded in the culture.

Roman Mars:
How did this color interact with colonization and trade around the world?

Kassia St. Clair:
Colors and colorants have been one of those things that people go and take over other countries and exploit other areas of the world for it. They’re very often natural resources that the people are desperate to get their hands-on, and they can make an awful lots of money from back home.

Kassia St. Clair:
Cochineal was one of the products that the Spanish were desperate to get their hands on in order to get this red colorants back to Europe, where it was actually many times stronger than the kermes dye that had been originally used to color scarlet cloth. Cochineal is much stronger, and so it’s much more cost-effective and great sums of money could be made and were made in the export and use of this dye.

Roman Mars:
It took like 70,000 bugs to get a pound of cochineal, right?

Kassia St. Clair:
Yeah. I mean, with all these dyes that are made out of animals or animal products, it’s really the poor creature that’s involved in the making of the color really does get completely hammered. Very often it takes an awful lot of them to produce not very much dye or not very much colorant. Often you find them being driven to the brink of extinction, just because people are so keen to get their hands on the color.

Roman Mars:
Do we still use insects like these to make pigments today?

Kassia St. Clair:
Yes. There is a slightly sort of grim side to this particular color because it’s a natural red color and also because it’s really highly pigmented. It has been used in kind of food and also cosmetics. If you were to look at your strawberry yogurt or something like that, you might see that it’s been colored with carminic acid, or you might see it down as the colorant E120. That is in fact cochineal bugs.

Roman Mars:
Whoa, okay. You see E120 that you’re eating bugs?

Kassia St. Clair:
Yes. But if you think about it, all the colorants that are used in food, I mean, maybe are all different. But if you replace E120 with another colorant the likelihood is that, that colorant might well be an extract from like a coal tar slide, which is where a lot of other colorants come from. I don’t know. Coal tar or bugs…

Roman Mars:
You can eat color, you can eat bugs. Yeah, exactly. As you mentioned, the color for pigment, it can be pretty rare in nature and intends to require the wholesale slaughter of an entire species to make it happen, which sort of brings me to Tyrian purple. Can you talk about Tyrian purple?

Kassia St. Clair:
Yeah, so this is one of my favorite stories from these books because many people have this automatic association between royalty and purple. It’s one of this kind of cultural links that maybe you don’t think about too much. But actually, the link goes really far back, and it is based on this amazing purple dye called Tyrian purple.

Kassia St. Clair:
Again, it’s an animal-based colorant and it comes from two varieties of shellfish that are native to the Mediterranean. If you were to go and find one of these shellfish – they’re quite spiny, so you’d have to be careful when you picked it up and if you were to crack it open, you would see that there’s a pale gland that runs across the back of the shellfish. This gland contains a single drop of liquid that smells a little bit like garlic. Apparently, it’s really unpleasant smelling like garlic breath. This liquid is phenomenal when it’s exposed to the light.

Kassia St. Clair:
If you were to sort of rub it on a piece of cloth and expose that piece of cloth to the lights, it would immediately change color. Would turn yellow, and then green, and then blue, and then finally purple. The color that it produces is very distinctive and very vibrant. This was the dye beloved by the ancient world and became again, because it was very expensive, really associated with power and royalty.

Kassia St. Clair:
So again, you get lots of legislation dictating who can and can’t wear it. There’s a kind of famous story about the Emperor Nero, who turned up to a recital and saw a woman in the audience wearing a Tyrian purple gown, and she wasn’t of the right class or status to wear it. He had her taken from the room and whipped and had all her lands confiscated because he saw this as a real way of usurping his own power because she was taking the power bestowed by this color. It was so potent a symbol, which is kind of amazing.

Roman Mars:
Yeah.

Kassia St. Clair:
Again, like the poor scale bugs, the poor shellfish went through horrors because of humans desire for this purple. It takes about 250,000 of these shellfish to produce just an ounce of dye.

Roman Mars:
Oh, my.

Kassia St. Clair:
People were hunting these shellfish to extinction. They were capturing and using so many of these shellfish that actually they kind of almost formed geographical features. If you go back to some of the areas of the world that were producing this dye in the classical era, the discarded shells have almost become kind of hills outside the town, very often downwind of the town. All the dye works which were generally associated downwind so that the citizens who ended up wearing the Tyrian purple gowns wouldn’t be bothered by the smell of the manufacture.

Roman Mars:
Wow. When did purple kind of lose its association? I mean, it’s always been associated with royalty, but when did it become acceptable for a common folk to wear it without getting whipped?

Kassia St. Clair:
Well, Tyrian purple both because the shellfish became incredibly rare, but also because of political turmoil around the Mediterranean, which kind of really disrupted the manufacture of the dye. Tyrian purple itself largely disappeared from view. Purple kind of goes into a little bit of a decline until the mid-19th century when an entirely new purple dye was discovered completely by accident. This sort of led to a revival.

Roman Mars:
And what’s that? What’s that dye called?

Kassia St. Clair:
The new purple dye that was discovered in the mid-19th century is called “mauve”. It was discovered by an 18-year-old scientist who was at home on holiday and kind of using his vacation time to try and find a synthetic version of quinine, which was a cure for malaria. At that time, malarial aid use was sort of really common in Europe, and it was thought that being to produce this synthetic quinine would be a huge moneymaker for anyone who could discover it. So that’s what he was doing. He was spending his days work on this, in his father’s attic.

Kassia St. Clair:
On one of his failed experiments, what he ended up within his test tube was a sort of purple sludge. I think he definitely knew this wasn’t quinine. But I think possibly because he was interested in art and had painted in his younger days, he decided that rather than just throwing this purple sludge away, he would add a bit of water to it, and then he would dip in a piece of cloth. What he discovered was that he had completely accidentally made a really colorfast and very vibrant purple dye. This was incredible. In fact, it led to a whole revolution in synthetic dyes.

Kassia St. Clair:
It was the first synthetic dye that could be manufactured not using any natural components. So no bugs, no beetles, no poor shellfish, and it just allowed purple to be worn by a much greater section of society than ever before.

Roman Mars:
The invention of mauve really just impacted the entire textile industry because of these possibilities have opened up in artificial dying, is that the right way to put it?

Kassia St. Clair:
Yes, although you’d think it would be kind of immediate. You’d think that the whole world would very quickly caught on, if you’ll excuse the pun, to the value of this synthetic dye. But in fact, it took a while for this scientist who’s called William Perkin to persuade textile dyers that this was the way forward because they were used to working with natural plant extracts.

Kassia St. Clair:
The idea of a synthetic dye was really alien to them. It was in fact… His success only really happened slightly by accident because he persuaded a couple of textile mills to use this dye. One of them ended up selling a gown to some members of royalty. Princess Eugenie wore a gown in this purple and then the real clincher was Queen Victoria who wore a mauve gown to one of her daughter’s weddings. This got sort of greatly reported in the press. There was new color, and it became a complete fashion trend. So much so that a year after Queen Victoria had worn this gown, a sort of satirical English newspaper reported that London had become afflicted with the mauve measles because so many people were wearing this color.

Roman Mars:
I think I was intrigued especially by the color green in your book because it seems like it is this thing that’s so fundamental to nature. It’s everywhere, but it was historically really challenging to make. Could you explain why that is?

Kassia St. Clair:
Yeah, so although, like you say, we kind of look around the world and it seems like there’s a lot of green in our world. In fact, it’s very difficult to make stable, vibrant green colorants either as pigments in paint, but also in dyes as well. There was some who were sort of adept at it and very often artists who were able to make vibrant greens would make them by layering various different colors on top of each other. Dyers would have to sort of again work with several different dye colors, which was in the medieval world, the mixing of dice was really frowned on.

Roman Mars:
Why is that? (laughs)

Kassia St. Clair:
It’s often because of guild restrictions because they were very protective of their guild skills. Dyers guild that dealt with woad or indigo blue dyes were very reluctant to also work with yellow colorants. The mixing of blue and yellow to create a green was sort of almost seen as devilish and really transgressive in many ways.

Roman Mars:
That’s amazing because it’s like something that any kid with paint knows how to do almost instinctively.

Kassia St. Clair:
Yeah, it is an odd one. It’s one of those things where you suddenly realize how far away you are from the people you’re studying. When you’re reading these documents, you’re looking at these kind of debates surrounding it and prosecutions, the prosecution of people making green cloth.

Roman Mars:
Right. So artists were able to find good reds and good yellows, but greens were kind of hard to find. How did they end up finding the right green for painting?

Kassia St. Clair:
Yeah. Greens were allusive. Some artists were able to create vibrant greens by using intermediary layers and was a real kind of trade skill. It was a closely guarded secret by some artists, the secret to their green, their ability to create these beautiful colors. But there aren’t really very many stable natural green pigments that artists have access to, which meant that when they started being created in this kind of rush of new chemicals and experimentation in the 19th century, the creation of new greens, they were taken up really rapidly and without much thought or care for what was contained in these greens.

Roman Mars:
In particular, green called Scheele’s green. Could you tell us about the uptake of that and the horrible effects of that?

Kassia St. Clair:
Yeah. This was created by a Swedish scientist in 1775. Because there was this dearth of bright green pigments on the market, and this was relatively cheap, it got taken up by artists, and wallpaper manufacturers, and dressmakers incredibly quickly. Well, within a decade, it was kind of everywhere.

Kassia St. Clair:
One of my favorite stories is that the writer Charles Dickens came back from a trip to Naples where he’d seen a lot of this green being used and decided that he was going to decorate his entire house, this one particular shade of green from the basement to the attic. Very luckily for him and for us who have read and enjoyed his work, his wife dissuaded him and said that she thought it was disgusting color. He ended up not decorating his entire house this particular sort of grassy emerald green.

Kassia St. Clair:
I say luckily for us because it was discovered that this pigment that was made from arsenic was really poisonous or could be really poisonous. It was found that in samples of wallpaper that were only a few inches across contained enough arsenic to kill two adults. One of the industries that this green was really popular in was the artificial flower industry because obviously it was used to sort of paint the stems and the leaves of these artificial flowers.

Kassia St. Clair:
A girl called Matilda, who was quite young, I think she was 18 or 19, started working at an artificial flower factory and very quickly became very ill. A doctor in London started looking into the causes of this because she had a really disparate array of symptoms and eventually discovered that it was this green colorant. But by that time it was far too late. It was all over the country, all over the world. It was used in wallpaper and dress fabric, you name it. It was painted this arsenic-laden green.

Kassia St. Clair:
But one of the most famous supposedly victims of this green is actually Napoleon. It was found out after his death that there was quite a lot of green in the wallpaper that was used to decorate his rooms. It was thought for a long time that this arsenic green might have contributed to his death, although subsequent tests have actually shown, they managed to find sort of samples of his hair throughout his life. Goodness only knows how, but they tested all these samples of hair and found that actually he had really high arsenic levels throughout his life and that it didn’t rise suspiciously just before his death. Although I’m sure being in a room covered with arsenic wallpaper content helped his health one little bit.

Roman Mars:
One of the strange things I think you learn reading your book is the place of blue in history. How popular was blue as a color throughout history?

Kassia St. Clair:
Now, it’s one of the most popular, if not the most popular color globally among men and women. It’s kind of seen as being inspiring trust, and confidence, and all good things and you’re attempted to kind of push that back into history. But in fact, if you look at the ancient world and kind of really up until the 14th century, blue was seen as unlucky, uncouth, unfashionable, associated with barbarism, particularly in the West. This is in Western thought, in Western culture.

Kassia St. Clair:
It was only with the kind of the rise of the cult of the Virgin Mary in Christianity because she was popularly depicted wearing blue garments. That blue began to sort of have this kind of cultural resurgence in Western thought and suddenly became pretty quickly a really popular color.

Roman Mars:
That’s amazing. So who decided to depict her wearing blue? (laughs) I mean, who made that decision that changed the world?

Kassia St. Clair:
Yeah. It’s kind of incredible. Around about the same time that the cult of the Virgin Mary was growing, the use of this particular pigment, ultimately, which was made from lapis lazuli was growing and being kind of perfected. Again, because it was this really vivid color and was incredibly expensive, it became a way of artists and patrons of showing their devotion to the Virgin Mary by depicting her in this really expensive luminous pigment that came from a very long way away. Even its name, ultramarine comes from ultra and marinus (beyond the sea). The pigment itself kind of has this amazingly exotic connotations and that became bound up with the cult of the Virgin Mary and the two kind of bounced off each other and brought each other up in a funny sort of way.

Roman Mars:
Could you describe how ultramarine was made?

Kassia St. Clair:
Sure. Many people are familiar with lapis lazuli, which is the semi-precious stone that is the kind of the raw material for making ultramarine. It’s kind of a really gorgeous, dark blue stone that’s used a lot in jewelry and kind of looks a little bit like the night sky. It’s this really deep blue and it often has kind of tracery use of white that look a little bit like clouds and also can often contain little pieces of fool’s gold that look a little bit like stars. It’s really beautiful.

Kassia St. Clair:
But in order to get from this very gorgeous semiprecious stone to a pigment takes an awful lot of hard work. The mines, the Afghanistan mines, where the lapis lazuli came from were incredibly remote. The stone would have to be loaded onto donkeys and camels, taken across the Silk Route to the coast of the Mediterranean, put on ships and they would usually fetch up in Venice, which is sort of the ports where so many luxury goods came into Europe.

Kassia St. Clair:
Once an artist had bought his piece of lapis lazuli, the work was still far from over. The stone had to be ground down to a powder and then it had to be purified. Those bits of fool’s gold and the white traceries that I mentioned in the original stone, those elements, had to be removed because they turned the blue colorant rather dull and a bit ashy. The way that was done is the powdered blue stone would be mixed with mastic wax and then it would be kneaded almost like you’re sort of kneading a dough to make bread in a solution of lye.

Kassia St. Clair:
As the dough was kneaded, the flakes of blue would fall out to the bottom of the lye solution and you’d then be able to tip off the lye and you’d have blue bright blue sediment that could then be used to create an amazing pigment, ultramarine, that was just beloved of artists – medieval artists and artists in the Renaissance. It’s one of the kind of the classic pigments that was used during this time.

Kassia St. Clair:
Very often when you see a painting of the Virgin Mary, she’ll be swath in a rich blue cloth. Usually, that cloth will be painted using ultramarine. It’s also kind of at the root of one of my favorite color facts, which is that although now we think of pink as being for girls and blue as being for boys. In fact, if you were to go back sort of just a little over a century, a century and a half, it was the other way round. Pink was sort of seen as pale red and was much more associated with boys. Blue because of its association with the Virgin Mary was seen as the more feminine and dainty color.

Roman Mars:
Wow. The process of extracting and purifying these colors seems so arduous and speaks to the desire for the end product that they would go through such efforts to try to create it. You’ve identified this like real human pursuit of basically food, shelter, and the brightest color imaginable seems to be just part of ingrained in our DNA.

Kassia St. Clair:
Yeah. We love shiny bright colors and we are prepared to do all sorts of weird and wonderful things to have them.

Roman Mars:
I want to talk about orange because I need to know once and for all what came first, the color or the fruit?

Kassia St. Clair:
The fruit came first.

Roman Mars:
Oh. There you go. (laughs)

Kassia St. Clair:
Yeah. (laughs) The fruit came first and as it traveled across the world, it brought its name and its color with it, which is rather nice. But before, in the English language, orange was called “orange”, it was actually called “yellow-red”, which kind of makes sense but isn’t it.

Roman Mars:
Yeah.

Kassia St. Clair:
It’s a bit long-winded.

Roman Mars:
Let’s talk broadly about the color black. I think people think of black as one thing, but there are lots of different shades of black. So could you describe what black is and what black means in the world?

Kassia St. Clair:
Yes. It’s a funny thing that if you go into a paint shop or clothing store, you can find so many hundreds, thousands of variants of white and we can call them cream or ivory or pearl. We’ve got lots of different names for them and yet we just sort of collapse so many subtle blacks into one very big overarching label. In fact, black has many different subtleties of tone as white does, and yet we just don’t… Our vocabulary for black is really poor and that was one of the colors that I was most worried about when I was writing the book.

Kassia St. Clair:
I was like, “Oh, am I going to get to this one chapter and just have nothing to say?” I found completely the opposite. I found I became frustrated. I wanted people of the past to have been as excited about black as they were about reds and blues because it seemed to me that there was such richness there that it seemed a shame that I didn’t have the vocabulary to do it justice.

Roman Mars:
Well, so when you talked earlier about the arrival of mauve or the arrival of green into the world and how the world just kind of exploded with excitement and how amazing is, I think, of discovering or seeing a color for the first time. The closest analog I can come to is when I saw Vantablack for the first time, which almost breaks your brain without black it is. Can you describe what Vantablack is and how you encountered it?

Kassia St. Clair:
Yeah. I guess you should probably start with the name Vantablack. It sounds sort of very space-age but actually comes from a useful acronym. The Vanta stands for “vertically aligned nanotube array”. Essentially, Vantablack is… it’s not really a color, it’s more of a substance that absorbs more light than anything else on earth. That is because of its structure, because of these vertically aligned tubes – tiny, tiny, tiny filaments of carbon fiber. The light gets absorbed between and amongst these fibers and can’t get out. It gets trapped, and so very little light is reflected.

Roman Mars:
Why did they make this substance?

Kassia St. Clair:
Well, it was created for a really specific purpose. It was created for satellite guidance systems. The idea being that in order for a satellite to know where it is in space, it takes an image of what it can see, of what’s in front of it. Then that can be kind of matched up with a map of the sky and then the satellite will know where it is. The blacker that you can get the internal workings around the Cameron navigation systems, the better because it means there’s sort of less distraction and the image will be clearer and therefore it’ll be easier for the satellite to navigate.

Kassia St. Clair:
There’s been this kind of creation of super blacks by NASA and various other people who work with satellites, who make satellites. But a British company, sort of out of nowhere, discovered a much blacker black than it ever been discovered before. Only reflects about 0.065% of the visible spectrum. Really is uncannily black and it’s far too dark. It’s far too light-absorbing for it to give our eyes any information about the kind of environment we’re in.

Kassia St. Clair:
What I mean by that is when I first saw a sample of Vantablack, it was kind of grown onto sort of a piece of crumpled up aluminum foil. When you looked at the reverse, you could see all the different planes, you could see that it was a crumpled piece of aluminum foil from the different planes of light. That gave you information about where you were in relation to the tin foil and the fact that it was crumpled and all the rest of it. When it was turned over to expose the Vantablack coated side, suddenly what you saw was what looked like a mistake, like an acme black hole because your eyes weren’t being given enough information.

Kassia St. Clair:
What you saw, even though you knew that this piece of aluminum foil was 3D, had lots of contours. You couldn’t discern that all of a sudden. All of a sudden, all you could see was just a black hole. That was incredibly uncanny. Brought me completely mad seeing it in a sample, in a lab. Even though I knew exactly what I was going there to see, I went there expecting it and yet still I couldn’t quite wrap my head around it, but it really shocked people.

Kassia St. Clair:
I spoke to the scientist who was involved in its creation and he said he was getting calls from people soon after it had been discovered, telling him that this creation must in some way be associated with the devil because anything that black that gave back that little information to our eyes must be intrinsically evil-

Roman Mars:
Wow.

Kassia St. Clair:
… which is such an odd knee jerk reaction. But in fact, it’s incredible.

Roman Mars:
Yeah. But it totally hearkens back to all these stories that you’ve told us. That these associations, these primal associations we have with these colors. It sounds exactly like the alchemists told that they can’t mix blue and yellow or they’re going to work with the devil.

Kassia St. Clair:
Yeah.

Roman Mars:
That’s amazing.

Kassia St. Clair:
Maybe we haven’t moved on all that far after all.

Roman Mars:
Maybe not. I actually had a question about the design of the book itself. It’s really beautiful. One of the coolest parts is that you have a colored stripe on the edge of the pages that go with each color story. But I couldn’t help but think about how stressful it must have been. You have to be right on the money that you got the right pigment in the printing process and everything. That is something that kept you up at night?

Kassia St. Clair:
Yes, it did. I’m not going to tell you which color it is that still gives me sleepless nights, but I have it. I had anxiety nightmares about people coming at me and say, “Your sky blue is wrong or whatever it is.” I just thought, “Oh no.” I thought “I’m going to get myself into so much trouble.” What was so stupid is that part of the argument of the book is that there is no true ultramarine. Colors are cultural creations and they’re kind of shifting all the time, sort of like tectonic plates.

Kassia St. Clair:
Color is not a precise thing. It’s changing, it’s living, It’s constantly being redefined and argued over. That’s part of the magic of it. That’s part of why I love it, but it’s also part of why it is infuriating and particularly when you find yourself in the position of having to choose the right color for each and every page of your book. You end up finding the whole thing completely ridiculous and cursing the fact that you ever were interested in color in the first place.

Roman Mars:
A final story from Kassia St. Clair about the color blue, and art forgery, and Nazis, and when we continue.

[BREAK]

Kassia St. Clair:
Just after the Second World War, a lot of people in Europe were being prosecuted for collaboration and those who’d collaborated with the Nazis during the war were being investigated. And one of those was an art dealer called Van Meegeren, who had sold an awful lot of canvases of Vermeers and various other artists to Nazi collectors and even to Hitler’s own art collection itself. The prosecutions began of this art dealer, and he turned around and said, “Actually, you shouldn’t be prosecuting me. You should think of me as a hero, because far from selling out amazing dachshund art to the Nazis, what I was actually doing is I was creating these masterpieces from scratch. I’m a forger. I was never selling Vermeers to the Nazis. I was just ripping them off.

Kassia St. Clair:
And he had made a fortune during this period. He’d made, I think the modern figure is somewhere in the region of around $33 million, that he’d made by selling these supposed artworks. So he found himself in this really odd position of having to prove that he was guilty of forgery in order to prove that he was innocent of collaboration. And the pigment that eventually proved that he had forged these pictures, which by this time were in all the most well-respected art galleries all over Europe. He’d fooled an awful lot of people as well as the Nazis. But the pigment that this all turned on was cobalt blue, because it had been discovered a long time after Vermeer’s death, and yet was discovered to have been used in this one particular Vermeer, a fake Vermeer that he had created. And so, He managed to prove that he was guilty of forgery, because of the presence of cobalt blue, where in fact he had meant to use ultramarine, which was the pigment that Vermeer would have used.

Roman Mars:
Right. That’s so good. Well, this is so much fun. Thank you so much. I enjoyed this immensely.

Kassia St. Clair:
Oh, it was my pleasure. It was really great fun.

Credits

Production

Host Roman Mars spoke with Kassia St. Clair, author of The Secret Lives of Color. This episode was produced by Emmett Fitzgerald

Comments (9)

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  1. Brad Maggart

    As an elementary art teacher I loved this podcast. I wish I could ask Ms St Clair about rainbows in children’s art. To the child artist each rainbow has meaning, and I’d caution adults against dismissing these kid-creations as trite.

  2. Suzanne Cubberley

    I enjoyed the opening comments about your twin boys and color preferences. I am a twin. While my Mother and father could tell us apart, most people could not. So my Mom dressed my sister in shades of pink and red and I wore shades of blue. This continued even once we started choosing more of our own clothes. It was until we went to separate colleges and had more separate lives that we began to wear what pleased ourselves. Now in our 60s I cans tell you i don’t have any pink/reds in my closet. However, my sister often wears blues.

  3. Chris Baker

    People always mention how Russian has different terms for light blue and dark blue, as if that is something really strange. But in English, we have 3 terms for shades of red and we often consider them to be 3 separate colors, rather than 3 shades of the same color. Red, Pink, Maroon. We don’t really say “light red” or “dark red” as we do with blue or green. Gary, also, is considered a separate color, no one calls it “light black.”

    What color is the sky? Blue. What color is the ocean? Blue. What are Michigan’s colors? Blue and maize. What are the Carolinas Panther’s colors? Blue and black. All different shades of blue. Sometimes referred to as: light blue, dark blue, navy blue, carolina blue, royal blue, sky blue. But all ‘blue.’

    What color is blood? Red. What color is cotton candy? Pink. What are TX A&M Colors? Maroon and white. All shades of red, but never “light red, dark red”

  4. Adam Ackerman

    Considering made me think of Mr. Jones from Counting Crows
    “I will paint my picture
    Paint myself in blue and red and black and gray
    All of the beautiful colors are very very meaningful
    Grey is my favorite color
    I felt so symbolic yesterday
    If I knew Picasso
    I would buy myself a gray guitar and play”

  5. Adam

    Makes me think of Counting Crows’ Mr. Jones
    “I will paint my picture
    Paint myself in blue and red and black and gray
    All of the beautiful colors are very very meaningful
    Grey is my favorite color”

  6. Karl G. Siewert

    I enjoyed this episode, but with a certain wistfulness. I am red/green colorblind, and my inability to distinguish colors means that I tend to stay out of conversations about them, and the passion that people feel about colors largely passes me by. I can’t tell red from amber traffic lights without looking at position, and the green lights are white. Many other greens appear indistinguishable from grey for me, and I can never really be sure if a color is blue or purple because I can’t see the reds.

    I’d love to hear you do a follow-up episode on design for colorblindness. I really appreciate games on my phone that offer a colorblind mode or allow me to label colors in another way, and the bane of my existence is bicolor LEDs that show whether a device is on or in standby mode with red and green. Wireless mics are particularly bad about this.

    Thank you for everything you do.

  7. Carlos De Vincenzo

    Hi,
    Just listened to the part where you talk about Red. As a Brazilian, I find that you missed a very important one. Brazil’s name is because of a tree, Paubrasilia echinata, which has a very beautiful red tint to its wood. The portuguese colonizers and explorers boiled the trunk to extract the pigment to tint clothing. It was so profitable that they named the country after the tree and exploited the indigenous population to extract the tree from the otherwise impenetrable Atlantic Rain Forest. The tree almost went extinct and it is now protected in Brazil.

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