Nature’s color wheel

Did you know that the mole on a mallard’s wing is the same color as the stamina of a bluish-purple anemone and blue copper ore? Or that the common opal is the same color as the back of the petals of the Blue Hepatica, and the white of the human eyeball? “White skimmed milk”, the Scottish scientific artist Patrick Syme called it in his book of 1814, Werner’s color nomenclature, with additions, arranged so as to make it very useful to the arts and science, especially zoology, botany, chemistry, mineralogy and morbid anatomy.

Precise iconography of operative medicine and surgical anatomy (1848), Claude Bernard and Charles Huette. Wellcome Library, London. “White skimmed milk” is visible on the white of the human eyeball

Known as the Edinburgh ‘Flower Painter’, Syme was on staff at the town’s Wernerian Natural History Society, and his book – now reproduced, developed and commented on in The Nature Palette: A Color Reference System from the Natural World, edited by Patrick Baty – updated then-final work on mineral identification by the company’s namesake, geologist and mining engineer Abraham Gottlob Werner.

Nature's palette In A treatise on the external characters of fossils (Von den äusserlichen Kennzeichen der Fossilien), first published in 1774, Werner proposed a way to distinguish between rocks and minerals using the five senses. Color was, Werner thought, the most immediate quality we noticed, but, as Peter Davidson explains in his full essay on Werner’s career and influence, there was no standardized vocabulary to describe the color. tint of a mineral sample. So Werner tried to create one and in his book provided a list of 54 colors that could be used in the lab or in the field. Werner divided them into eight categories, or Hauptfarben (main colors): white, gray, black, blue, green, yellow, light and brown. These were then changed to a descriptive word – reflecting the binomial classifications developed by Carl Linnaeus in the early 18th century – derived from a mixture, such as “reddish white”, or from a pigment or some natural phenomenon though. known, as “carmine red”. ‘or’ sky blue ‘. Each color could then be characterized as dark, light, light or pale. That provided for a total of 216 distinct colors – enough, Werner thought, to describe everything you unearth from the ground.

The Mineral Kingdom (1859), Johann Gottlob Kurr.  'Greyish Blue' can be seen on iron ore (bottom row, right)

The mineral kingdom (1859), Johann Gottlob Kurr. ‘Greyish Blue’ can be seen on iron ore (bottom row, right)

But Werner provided no illustration. So if you were a die-hard petrophile like Goethe, for example, or a professor with access to a good academic collection, you might have your own minerals to reference. But the less privileged, or the less well prepared, would find it difficult to understand precisely how ‘clove brown’, say, differed from ‘tombac brown’, or what Werner meant precisely by poetic ‘morning red’ (Morgenrot).

Translations of Werner’s work (interestingly the first was in Hungarian) slowly expanded the color list, and some added illustrations as well. But Syme, influenced by Edinburgh professor Regius of natural history and convinced Wernerian Robert Jameson, set out to do something much more ambitious. He wanted to make the book useful not only to the skilled mineralogist, as its delightfully copious title makes clear, and, reflecting his own interest not only in minerals but also in plants and insects, he sought to make a book that could serve as a larger reference: a color key that would cover the natural world. In addition to adding a number of colors to Werner’s system and increasing the Hauptfarben from eight to ten, Syme crossed each color, where possible, with examples from the animal and plant kingdoms.

'Red' in the Nomenclature des couleurs by Werner (1821), Patrick Syme

‘Red’ in the Nomenclature des couleurs by Werner (1821), Patrick Syme

These elegant tables, which sing with the quiet confidence typical of so much Enlightenment effort to trace the world, form the skeleton of Nature palette. Each of the book’s five sections opens with facsimiles of one or more of Syme’s ten color tables, followed by a historical essay, then a walk through each of the 108 individual colors in Werner’s color nomenclature. The editors provided a color sample and Syme’s recipes for mixing colors, but also researched vintage illustrations of all of the animals, plants and minerals named by Syme, and provide many that fill in the gaps left there. where Syme couldn’t find a parallel himself. The result is a book brimming with images, teeming with information, the almost manic energy of which is barely contained. In addition to the massively enlarged color index, in Nature’s palette you’ll find charts documenting the growth, with almost every successive addition, of Werner’s original list, as well as full-page photographs from naturalia that show the importance of color to just about every “ology”: collections of elaborately arranged eggs and shells, birds stuffed in bells, squadrons of beetles. In total there are 1000 illustrations. While the calm tone of the book’s essays may try to convince you otherwise, Nature’s palette is just crazy.

In their contributions, Elaine Charwat, Giulia Simonini and André Karliczek show how Werner’s influence – what has been called “Wernerian influence” – spread throughout the natural sciences. Most interesting, perhaps, is the appearance of Syme’s language of colors in Charles Darwin’s book. Beagle Zoology Notes. On January 28, 1832, in the Cape Verde Islands, Darwin met “an octopus” (in reality, a cuttlefish). “The general color of the animal was French gray with numerous bright yellow spots,” he writes. “All over his body there were continuously passing clouds that ranged in color from ‘hyacinth red’ to ‘chestnut brown.’ Now he was just pulling out his phone.

The Nature Palette: A Color Reference System from the Natural World is edited by Patrick Baty and published by Thames and Hudson.


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