A 900-Page Pre-Pantone Guide to Color from 1692: A Complete Digital Scan

Human beings got along per­fect­ly well for hun­dreds of mil­len­nia with­out stan­dard­ized tax­onomies of col­or, but they didn’t do so in a glob­al­ly con­nect­ed cul­ture full of logos, brands, and 24/7 screens. It’s arguable whether the world as we now see it would have been pos­si­ble with­out monop­o­lis­tic col­or sys­tems like Pan­tone. They may cir­cum­scribe the visu­al world and dic­tate col­or from above. But they also enable inter­na­tion­al design prin­ci­ples and visu­al lan­guages that trans­late eas­i­ly every­where.

These cir­cum­stances did not yet exist in 1692, when Dutch artist A. Boogert cre­at­ed a huge, almost 900-page book on col­or, Traité des couleurs ser­vant à la pein­ture à l’eau. But they were slow­ly com­ing into being, thanks to stud­ies by philoso­pher-sci­en­tists like Isaac New­ton.

Boogert’s book took enlight­en­ment work on optics in a more rig­or­ous design direc­tion than any of his con­tem­po­raries, antic­i­pat­ing a num­ber of influ­en­tial books on col­or to come in the fol­low­ing cen­turies, such as the art his­to­ry-mak­ing stud­ies by Johann Wolf­gang von Goethe and a book on col­or used by Charles Dar­win dur­ing his Bea­gle voy­age.

Boogert’s exhaus­tive study includes hand­writ­ten notes and descrip­tions and hun­dreds of hand-paint­ed col­or swatch­es. This above-and-beyond effort was not, how­ev­er, made for sci­en­tif­ic or indus­tri­al pur­pos­es but as a guide for artists, show­ing how to mix water­col­ors to make every col­or in the spec­trum. The author even includes a com­pre­hen­sive unit on whites, grays, and blacks. How much his­tor­i­cal influ­ence did Boogert’s text have on the devel­op­ment of stan­dard­ized col­or sys­tems, we might won­der? Hard­ly any at all. Its sin­gle copy, notes Colos­sal, “was prob­a­bly seen by very few eyes.”

The obscure book dis­ap­peared in the archives of the Bib­lio­thèque Méjanes in Aix-en-Provence, France. That is, until its dis­cov­ery recent­ly by Medieval book his­to­ri­an Erik Kwakkel, who post­ed scans on his Tum­blr and trans­lat­ed some of the intro­duc­tion from the orig­i­nal Dutch. Since then, the com­plete text has come online: 898 pages of high-res­o­lu­tion dig­i­tal scans at the Bib­lio­thèque Méjanes site. (Go to this page, click on the pic­ture, then click on the arrows in the low­er right side of the page to move through the book.)

If you read Dutch, all the bet­ter to appre­ci­ate this rare his­toric arti­fact. But you don’t need to under­stand A. Boogert’s expla­na­tions on water­col­or tech­nique to be stag­gered by the incred­i­ble amount of work that went into this ear­ly, over­looked labor of love for sys­tem­at­ic approach­es to col­or. Enter the full text here.

h/t David Hale

Relat­ed Con­tent:

A Vision­ary 115-Year-Old Col­or The­o­ry Man­u­al Returns to Print: Emi­ly Noyes Vanderpoel’s Col­or Prob­lems

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

Goethe’s The­o­ry of Col­ors: The 1810 Trea­tise That Inspired Kandin­sky & Ear­ly Abstract Paint­ing

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

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

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Comments (4)
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  • Rick Robbins says:

    I nev­er con­sid­ered there was such an amaz­ing study of col­or. A lot of peo­ple ok like myself take the actu­al thought put into col­ors for grant­ed. Just look­ing at would is rep­re­sent­ed here has spark my inter­est.

  • Laura says:

    Hi there! Thanks for cit­ing our pub­li­ca­tion in your arti­cle. Please cor­rect our brand name to Colos­sal (this is colos­sal is sim­ply our URL). — Lau­ra // Colos­sal Man­ag­ing Edi­tor

  • Arianne Smith says:

    Is there a print book ver­sion avail­able for pur­chase?

  • Serena NICKSON says:

    Would also love a print book ver­sion for pur­chase if it might be avail­able?

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