Behold One of the Earliest Known Color Charts: The Table of Physiological Colors (1686)

The peri­od called the Enlight­en­ment pro­duced a rev­o­lu­tion in which one sense, vision, became priv­i­leged above all oth­ers. As a result, Sachiko Kusukawa writes at The Roy­al Soci­ety Jour­nal of the His­to­ry of Sci­ence, “sci­ence is supreme­ly visu­al. Indeed, one might say, exces­sive­ly so.” Kusukawa sit­u­ates Eng­lish nat­u­ral­ist and illus­tra­tor Richard Waller at the begin­ning of her his­to­ry about how sight came to dom­i­nate, and Sarah Lowen­gard places Waller’s col­or chart, pre­sent­ed at the Roy­al Soci­ety in 1686, at a for­ma­tive moment in “the cre­ation of col­or in Eigh­teenth-Cen­tu­ry Europe.”

That’s not to say, of course, that col­or didn’t exist before charts like Waller’s, but it did­n’t exist in neat tax­onomies that divid­ed col­or dis­crete­ly, named and cat­e­go­rized it, and mapped the nat­ur­al world by means of col­or the­o­ry. Waller’s “‘Table of Phys­i­o­log­i­cal Col­ors Both Mixt and Sim­ple’ would per­mit unam­bigu­ous descrip­tions of the col­ors of nat­ur­al bod­ies. To describe a plant, for exam­ple, one could com­pare it to the chart and use the names found there to iden­ti­fy the col­ors of the bark, wood, leaves, etc. Sim­i­lar appli­ca­tions of the infor­ma­tion col­lect­ed in the chart might also extend to the arts and trades, he sug­gest­ed.”

The nat­u­ral­ist approach to col­or would inform the arti­fi­cial cre­ation of col­or, help­ing “man­u­fac­tur­ers to pro­duce con­sis­tent dyes and paints,” notes the Smith­son­ian Libraries. Waller’s sys­tem was not pre­cise enough for the task, but many oth­ers, includ­ing board game pio­neer Mil­ton Bradley, picked up his work and refined it, pro­duc­ing not only sci­en­tif­ic and indus­tri­al col­or guides, but also ped­a­go­gies like Bradley’s Ele­men­tary Col­or text­book for chil­dren. Kei­th Moore, Head of Library & Infor­ma­tion Ser­vices at the Roy­al Soci­ety, traces Waller’s col­or dots through the arts, “from the low art Ben-Day dots in the vin­tage com­ic books I used to read as a child to the high art pointil­lism and divi­sion­ism pio­neered by Georges Seu­rat.”

Dozens of col­or sys­tems, wheels, charts, and tables appeared over the next few hun­dred years, from the elab­o­rate to the very sim­ple. All of them have encoun­tered the same basic issue, name­ly the sub­jec­tiv­i­ty of visu­al per­cep­tion. “Waller’s visu­al sys­tem exhibits the same con­cep­tu­al prob­lem… that plagued near­ly all eigh­teenth-cen­tu­ry clas­si­fi­ca­tion sys­tems. Which col­ors can be includ­ed and what is their ‘cor­rect’ order? The answer was always tem­pered by avail­able col­or­ing mate­ri­als and choice of media.” As more pig­ments became avail­able, so too did more col­ors in the col­or charts.

Is the mak­ing of col­or clas­si­fi­ca­tion sys­tems more of a sci­ence or an art? It depends, per­haps, on what they’re used for, but “col­or remains elu­sive to sci­en­tists and col­or experts,” the Smith­son­ian points out, over 400 years after Waller’s chart. Since then, how­ev­er, the lan­guage of col­or has evolved, as he envi­sioned, into a prac­ti­cal and poet­ic syn­tax and vocab­u­lary.

See a larg­er ver­sion of the chart here and read about it in detail in Lowen­gard’s excel­lent arti­cle.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

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

A Pre-Pan­tone Guide to Col­ors: Dutch Book From 1692 Doc­u­ments Every Col­or Under the Sun

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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