Wednesday, January 31, 2018

How Darwin Verified Color

In the 19th century, artists and naturalists were obsessed with color charts that they could use to record observations they made in the field.

Darwin used an 1814 volume called Werner's Nomenclature of Colours by Scottish artist Patrick Syme. The book has just been reprinted by Smithsonian and is currently a bestseller in the natural history category.

"Darwin said that he always named the colors he saw 'with the book in hand,' and, indeed, Syme’s terms are scattered throughout the diaries and notebooks that he filled while aboard the Beagle. Darwin describes cuttlefish as tinted with 'hyacinth red and chestnut brown,' a sea slug as 'primrose yellow,' and a type of soft coral as 'light auricular purple.' Specimens could degrade, paintings could fade, and color photography was still a far-off dream, but with Syme’s help Darwin could encode the colors of an unfamiliar world—and carry them safely home."New Yorker
Syme's book, with its evocative color names, might well be a stimulus today to artists who want to explore color and think about it in new ways.

In recent times, artists and naturalists tend to be better acquainted with the Pantone Guide and the Munsell system, which attempt to be more numerical and comprehensive in their mapping of color. The Pantone system is particularly useful because you can tear off little swatches and hold them right up to whatever design you're creating.

If it's the relationships between multiple colors that you're interested in, check out the classic Japanese volume called A Dictionary Of Color Combinations, which has also been reprinted.
Book: Werner's Nomenclature of Colours: Adapted to Zoology, Botany, Chemistry, Mineralogy, Anatomy, and the Arts
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Steve said...

Thanks for highlighting this, James. I have a weakness for any system that helps us envision something by giving examples such as “Beauty Spot on Wing of Teal Drake...Underside of Wings of Green Broom Moth...Tail of small Long-tailed Parrot.” It obviously lacks Pantone’s or Munsell’s numeric precision, but it offers an invitation to go out and really look at the world.

Bob said...

James, this is fascinating! I had never thought about how artists and naturalists described color in the days B.C. (before computers). GIMP can produce 256^3 = 16 million colors but there's nothing to identify them by except a cryptic base-16 number like "3FC057" (which works out to a pale lime green). When "painting" dinosaurs often I need to pick less saturated colors lest they appear cartoony.