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In most Romance languages, the word for the pale red color pink comes from the same word as rose (the flower).   In English, however, the most common word for this pale red color is now “pink”—which was originally the common name of a little garden flower with a frilled edge–the dianthus.  The usage of the word “pink” to describe the pale reddish color became standard in the late eighteenth century, but before that the word described the flower–and occasionally idiomatic expressions which involved the flower.  Coincidentally English borrowed the name of the flower from Dutch, since, even in the middle ages, the Dutch were apparently the flower merchants of northern Europe.

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To further complicate this story, in the 17th century, “pinke” was a name for stil de grain yellow–a pigment which was traditionally manufactured from unripe buckthorn berries.  This yellow pigment was also known as yellow madder and it was mixed with natural blue substances to make murky greens.

So not only is it possible that pink does not exist as a color (or, at any rate, bright bluish pinks like magenta do not seem to exist naturally but are a trick of the brain) it also seems that the name for pink has fundamentally changed nature over the course of time.

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It is a confusing color with a confusing nomenclatural history, but it is still very beautiful.

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Today we have an AMAZING post which comes to us thanks to good fortune (and the tireless work of archaeologists).  Datong is an ancient city in Shanxi, a province in north-central China. The Datong Municipal Institute of Archaeology has been excavating 31 tombs from throughout the city’s long history.  One of the tombs was a circular “well” tomb from the Liao dynasty.  The circular tomb featured four fresco murals painted on fine clay (and separated by painted columns of red).  These paintings show servants going about the business of everyday life a thousand years ago:  laying out fine clothes and setting the table.  One panel just shows stylized cranes perched at a window/porch.  The cremated remains of the dead upper class couple who (presumably) commissioned the grave were found in an urn in the center of the tomb.

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The tomb dates from the Liao Dynasty, which flourished between the 10th and 12th centuries.  Attentive readers, will note that this is the same timeframe as the Song Dynasty (960 AD–1279 AD), which Ferrebeekeeper is forever extolling as a cultural and artistic zenith for China (although sadly, I can never seem to decide whether to call it “Song” or “Sung”).  Well the Song dynasty was a time of immense cultural achievement, but the Song emperors did not unify China as fully as other empires.  The Liao Dynasty was a non-Han dynasty established by the Khitan people in northern China, Mongolia, and northern Korea.  To what extent the Liao dynasty was “Chinese” (even the exact nature of whom the Khitan people were) is the subject of much scholarly argument.  But look at these amazing paintings!  Clearly the Khitan were just as creatively inspired as their neighbors to the south—but in different ways.

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The cranes have a freshness and verve which is completely different from the naturalism of Song animal painting and yet wholly enchanting and wonderful in its own right.  The beautiful colors and personality-filled faces of the servants bring a bygone-era back to life.  Look at the efficient artistic finesse evident in the bold colorful lines.  If you told me that these images were made last week by China’s most admired graphic novelist, I would believe you.

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These murals are masterpieces in their own right, but they are also a reminder that Ferrebeekeeper needs to look beyond the most famous parts of Chinese history in order to more fully appreciate the never-ending beauty and depth of Chinese art.

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I wanted to do a short post about a snake from my childhood: Heterodon platirhinos, the eastern hog-nosed snake.  This snake is a harmless fossorial colubrid snake which lives from New Hampshire to Minnesota and ranges from the southern parts of Canada down to northern Florida.  It lives in woodlands and dense meadows where it burrows in sandy and loamy soil and hides in leaf litter hunting for its favorite prey—amphibians–especially toads.

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The hog-nosed snake is mildy poisonous, but its fangs are in the back of its mouth (the better to grip struggling toads) and its venom is not harmful to humans.   The snake is incorrectly known as a puff adder because, when threatened, it hisses, puffs itself up, and flattens its neck out like a little cobra.  Do not confuse the hog-nosed snake for a real puff adder, Bitis arietans, a deadly viper indigenous to Africa south of the Sahal.

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The hog nosed snake also has another theatrical trick for evading predators: it plays dead with such gusto that it begins to reek of death, expels foul slime, and even bleeds from the mouth.  The snake is so very convincing at looking dead that, when I was a boy-scout, we were warned not to harass the entertaining little reptile lest it harm itself with its zeal(although perhaps this was mere PR for the master thespian).

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“He was so young….Whyyyy?”

The hog-nosed snake is also very cute, with beautiful ruddy leaf patterns, a blunt little nose and eyes at the front of its head.  I haven’t seen one in decades—I wonder how they are doing out there in the woods of southern Ohio.

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For years my most popular blog post was about leprechauns…so I need to make some Saint Patrick’s art pronto!  However before we get there, here are some weird green flounder artworks to lead up to the holiday.  Spring is almost here, even if the thermometer says otherwise.  Some kelly green artwork should remind us of that fact (even if flatfish are not traditionally spring green).

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Happy Holi!  Today is the festival of color and spring is close at hand (although it doesn’t feel that way in New York where the city is girding itself for a massive blizzard).  We might not be in the tropical subcontinent (indeed, we might be under 3 feet of snow), but that doesn’t mean we can’t celebrate some vivid color—even if I can’t literally throw it in your face.

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Now I love all of the glowing shades of Holi. Indeed, with typical Hindu heterogeneousness, the festival does not have one or two colors associated with it like parsimonious western holidays, but it is a festival of all color.  However I think the most typical Holi color in my mind is the glowing beautiful magenta which you always see in pictures of Holi.  Where did that crazy color originate?

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Well, actually it seems like the beautiful purples and magentas of Holi are natural and come from boiled beetroot (or sometimes kachnar powder).  This amazing glowing color comes from betacyanins–antioxidant phytonutrients which are always causing nutritionists to swoon because of anti-inflammatory benefits.  You may recognize the hue from fancy boiled eggs—and apparently beetroot can also be used to dye yarn and fabric.

I would love to talk more about this exquisite magenta, but according to an earlier post, it doesn’t exist.  That is a paradoxical conclusion to reach on the holiday of colors, but Holi comes from the same cosmology which gave us Kali, the goddess of destruction—and ultimate creation.  Ponder the vicissitudes of color and non-color as we gear up for spring and have a happy Holi!

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Happy Losar!  No—I didn’t hurl a confusing insult at you–today is the Tibetan New Year Festival “Losar.” Although it is putatively a Buddhist version of the Chinese New Year, Losar predated the arrival of Buddhism in Tibet and it is on a somewhat different place in the calendar than Chinese New Year. According to scholars, the festival traces its origin back to a late winter/early Spring incense festival of the ancient Bon religion (which has so indelibly colored the Buddhism of Tibet).

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Losar is also known as Shambhala day to adherents of Tibetan practices who believe it should feature mindfulness exercises and meditation (as well as other spiritual rituals and self-care practices).  As with Chinese New Year, there are elemental animals which represent every year: and they are more-or-less the same as in the Chinese calendar, but with a different flavor. For example, instead of calling this year, “the year of the fire rooster.’ Tibetans call it “the Year of the firebird” which is the same…and yet oddly different.

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Losar began on Monday February 27th and ends March 1st, so enjoy it while it lasts and enjoy the year of the Fire rooster/Fire Bird.

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What could we talk about today other than NASA’s stunning announcement of a “nearby” star system with seven Earthlike planets?  Three of these rocky worlds are comfortably in the so-called habitable zone where liquid water exists and earthlike life could be possible.  The star is TRAPPIST-1, a small-batch artisanal microstar with only a tenth the mass of the sun.  It glistens a salmon hue and is half the temperature of the sun (and emits far less energy).  Fortunately, all of its planets are much closer to the pink dwarf than Earth is to the sun, and so the middle worlds could be surprisingly clement.  These planets are close to each other and sometimes appear in each other’s skies larger than the moon looks to us!  The coral sun would be dimmer… but 3 times larger in the sky!  It is a pretty compelling picture!  Imagine sauntering along the foamy beaches of one of these worlds and looking up into a pool-table sky filled with Earth sized worlds and a cozy Tiffany lamp in the sky emitting titian-tinted light.

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I am leaving out the details we know about the seven worlds because we don’t know much other than approximate mass (approximately earthsized!) and the ludicrously short length of their years.  Since the inner three worlds are tidally locked they may have extreme weather or bizarre endless nights or be hot like Venus (or bare like Mercury).

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Trappist1 is 40 light-years (235 trillion miles) from Earth in the constellation Aquarius.  It seems like an excellent candidate for one of those near-light speed microdarts that Steven Hawking and that weird Russian billionaire have been talking about (while we tinker with our spaceark and debate manifest destiny and space ethics).  However, before we mount any interstellar expeditions to Trappist1 (an anchoritic-sounding name which I just cannot get over) we will be learning real things about these planets from the James Webb space telescope when it launches in 2018–assuming we don’t abandon that mission to gaze at our navels and pray to imaginary gods and build dumb-ass walls.

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Today’s announcement is arguably the most astonishing thing I have heard from the astronomy community in my lifetime (and we have learned about treasure star collisions and super-dense micro galaxies and Hanny’s Voorwerp).  Ferrebeekeeper will keep you posted on news as it comes trickling out, but in the meantime let’s all pause for a moment and think about that alien beach with a giant balmy peach sun…. Ahh!  I know where I want to escape to next February!

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Happy Valentine’s Day!  The three traditional symbols of this holiday are (1) a voluptuous heart-shape, (2) Cupid, and (3) a pair of doves.  The first of these—the shapely heart–is a medieval symbol, but the other two holiday symbols are much older and trace their way back to the ancient Greco-Roman world.  The mischievous archer Cupid was the god of infatuation and besottment—with his phallic arrow, he is so ouvert that he is barely a symbol.  In the world of Christian iconography, doves represent peace, divine revelation, and the holy spirit, however in the classical world they were the bird of Aprodite/Venus.   Valentine’s Day is really Lupercalia—the fertility festival to Lupercus (Pan).  In the modern world it (barely) masquerades as an acceptable holiday, but its wild roots are never far away. I get the sense these doves are really the amorous doves of Venus and not representations of peace.

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To celebrate, here are some Valentine’s doves from Valentines throughout the ages.

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Doves pulled the chariot of Venus and they nearly always attended to her.  Their tenderness with each other and their ability to rapidly proliferate made them abiding symbols of love.  Additionally, doves are uniquely beautiful and otherworldly and yet also commonplace.  They can fly to the heights of heaven and yet consist on meager scraps in wastelands.  Maybe doves really are a good symbol of love!

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Ferrebeekeeper has long served Athena, the virgin goddess of truth and wisdom (although she is never the most popular goddess, she is certainly the BEST and is always is victorious in the end), and, in my time, I have also served Dionysus.  All American are compelled to serve Hera for 8 hours every workday (except the super-rich, who serve her constantly).  Yet Aphrodite has almost always eluded me.  Springs come and go and the long decades pass, but love is elusive.  Maybe some sacred doves will please coy Aphrodite.

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In the meantime, Happy Valentine’s Day to everyone.  I hope you find the love you are looking for in your life.  Or at least I hope you enjoy these doves and maybe some chocolate!

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On Tuesday we wrote about the Red junglefowl, the wild ancestor of the domestic chicken.  To progress further with this Stendhalian color theme, here is a human-made chicken, crafted by means of artificial selection over the centuries—the Ayam Cemani—the back chickens of Java.  These amazing birds are all black.  I mean they are really black…so exceedingly black they make Kerry James Marshall weep with aesthetic envy.

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Not only do Ayam Cemani chickens have black feathers, black faces, black beaks, and black wattles, their very organs are black.  Even their bones are as black as India ink.  It would be downright disconcerting… if they didn’t wear it so stylishly.

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The birds’ black color is a sort of reverse of albinism—the Ayam Cemani chickens have a surfeit of pigment.  This is genetic condition is known as fibromelanosis.   For generations and generations farmers have selected it until they have produced this rooster who looks like he stepped into the barnyard from the event horizon of a black hole.

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Yet the Ayam Cemani is not completely black…they have red blood and they lay cream colored eggs (although they are unreliable sitters, so without fashionistas looking after the survival of the breed, they might vanish real fast).  Speaking of which, why did the Javans collectively make such a crazy striking animal?  The internet says that the chickens are used for ceremonial purposes and for meals, but it looks like an amazing work of intergenerational conceptual art to me.  If you want you can get some for yourself, but unless you are headed to Java, they are rare and cost thousands of dollars in the United States (if you can find a seller).  It looks like it might be money well spent though.  These are stunning roosters.  Let’s hope the year of the fire rooster is as stylish as they are (but maybe not quite so dark).

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