Shortly after my debut as the editor of The Sciences, I complained to our printer about the colors of a painting we were planning to reproduce. The printer's proof was rendering the rich, deep blues of the original in drab, lifeless tones. As a demanding neophyte, I insisted he do better. Two more proofs¿and several hundred dollars¿later I was forced to acknowledge what the printer, ever so patiently, had been explaining all along: the color I wanted was simply outside the "color space" accessible to the four process colors of offset printing. I could buy a closer approximation (never an exact match) for several thousand dollars more. But I could have saved my breath (and my publisher a lot of money) if only I'd known what Philip Ball, in his wonderful new book, Bright Earth, devotes an entire chapter to explaining: "A good blue [is] hard to find."
Ball's canvas is grand yet effectively framed: how pigment materials have enhanced, and constrained, the "coloristic possibilities" available to artists through the ages. Anyone familiar with painting or graphic arts today¿not to mention the millions more who must accept the compromises of Kodachrome or the color phosphors of their television or computer screens¿knows that when you try correcting "too pink," you often get "too green." That is no failing of Kodak or the makers of video terminals. All colors¿the light-sensitive dyes in film, the phosphors on a video screen, the pigments made from beetle exoskeletons¿impose their own discipline on the artist. And every artist must resolve the tension between the mind's eye and the material framework of color. Ball's Earth is a fertile field to plow.