Explore an Interactive, Online Version of Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours, a 200-Year-Old Guide to the Colors of the Natural World

In a post ear­li­er this year, we brought to your atten­tion Werner’s Nomen­cla­ture of Colours. Used by artists and nat­u­ral­ists alike, the guide orig­i­nal­ly relied on writ­ten descrip­tion alone, with­out any col­or to be found among its pages. Instead, in the late eigh­teenth cen­tu­ry, Ger­man min­er­al­o­gist Abra­ham Got­t­lob Wern­er painstak­ing­ly detailed the qual­i­ties of the 110 col­ors he sur­veyed, by ref­er­ence to where they might be found on ani­mals, veg­eta­bles, and min­er­als. The col­or “Pearl Gray,” for exam­ple, might be locat­ed on the “Backs of black head­ed and Kittwake Gulls,” the “Back of Petals of Pur­ple Het­at­i­ca,” or on “Porce­lain Jasper.”

The lit­er­ary pos­si­bil­i­ties of this approach may seem vast. But its use­ful­ness to those engaged in the visu­al arts—or in close obser­va­tion of new species in, say, the Gala­pa­gos Islands—may have been some­what lack­ing until Scot­tish painter Patrick Syme updat­ed the guide in 1814 with col­or swatch­es, most of them using the very min­er­als Wern­er described.

It was the sec­ond edi­tion of Syme’s guide that accom­pa­nied Charles Dar­win on his 1831 voy­age aboard the HMS Bea­gle, where he “used it to cat­a­logue the flo­ra and fau­na that lat­er inspired his the­o­ry of nat­ur­al selec­tion,” as his­to­ri­an Daniel Lewis writes at Smith­son­ian.

While we might think of tax­onomies of col­or as prin­ci­pal­ly guid­ing artists, web design­ers, and house painters, they have been indis­pens­able for sci­en­tists. “They can indi­cate when a plant or ani­mal is a dif­fer­ent species or a sub­species,” Lewis notes; “in the 19th cen­tu­ry, the use of col­or to dif­fer­en­ti­ate species was impor­tant for what it said about evo­lu­tion and how species changed over time and from region to region.” For his­to­ri­ans of sci­ence, there­fore, Werner’s Nomen­cla­ture of Colours rep­re­sents an essen­tial tool in the ear­ly devel­op­ment of evo­lu­tion­ary biol­o­gy.

Oth­er col­or dic­tio­nar­ies fol­lowed, “designed to give peo­ple around the world a com­mon vocab­u­lary to describe the col­ors of every­thing from rocks and flow­ers to stars, birds, and postage stamps.” Some of these were high­ly spe­cial­ized, such as the two-vol­ume set cre­at­ed by the French Soci­ety of Chrysan­themists in 1905. All of them, how­ev­er, strove to meet the high bar set by Wern­er when it came to lev­el of detailed descrip­tion. These are guides that speak in human terms, in con­trast to the nomen­cla­ture most often used today, which “is real­ly a machine lan­guage,” Kelsey Cam­bell-Dol­laghan writes at Fast Com­pa­ny, “numer­i­cal hex codes craft­ed to com­mu­ni­cate with soft­ware on com­put­ers and print­ers.”

In recog­ni­tion of Wern­er and Syme’s con­tri­bu­tion to col­or nomen­cla­ture, Smith­son­ian Books recent­ly repub­lished the 1814 edi­tion of their guide, and the revised 1821 edi­tion has been avail­able for some time as scans at the Inter­net Archive. Now it has received a 21st update thanks to design­er Nicholas Rougeux, who has cre­at­ed an online inter­ac­tive ver­sion of the book, “with addi­tions like data visu­al­iza­tions of its 100 col­ors and inter­net-sourced pho­tographs of the ani­mals and min­er­als that the book references”—a fea­ture its cre­ators could nev­er have dreamed of. You can read Werner’s com­plete text, see all of the col­ors as illus­trat­ed and cat­e­go­rized by Syme, and even pur­chase through Rougeux’s site cool 36” x 24” posters like that above, start­ing at $27.80.

It’s true, view­ing the book online has its draw­backs, relat­ed to how Syme’s paint swatch­es are trans­lat­ed into hex codes, then dis­played dif­fer­ent­ly depend­ing on var­i­ous screen set­tings. But Rougeux has tried to com­pen­sate for this dif­fer­ence between print and screen. On a pub­licly acces­si­ble Google Doc, he has pro­vid­ed the hex codes “for each of the 18th-cen­tu­ry hues, from Skimmed Milk (#e6e1c9) to Veinous Blood Red (#3f3033).” Not near­ly as poet­ic as Werner’s descrip­tions, but it’s what we have to work with these days when ref­er­ence books get writ­ten for com­put­ers as much as they do for humans.

See the inter­ac­tive Werner’s Nomen­cla­ture of Colours here.

via Fast Com­pa­ny

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Werner’s Nomen­cla­ture of Colour, the 19th-Cen­tu­ry “Col­or Dic­tio­nary” Used by Charles Dar­win (1814)

Goethe’s Col­or­ful & Abstract Illus­tra­tions for His 1810 Trea­tise, The­o­ry of Col­ors: Scans of the First Edi­tion

The Vibrant Col­or Wheels Designed by Goethe, New­ton & Oth­er The­o­rists of Col­or (1665–1810)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • scyrene says:

    This is love­ly, but it’s worth point­ing out that the pho­to­graph on the left is a red-crest­ed pochard, not a (com­mon) pochard which I assume was intend­ed, as they have some­what dif­fer­ent breast colours (the for­mer is black, not the shade of brown referred to).

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