Nature’s Palette

Color reference systems recorded from the natural world

The earliest known recording of a “color book” was 1692, with A. Boogert’s Traité des couleurs servant à la peinture à l’eau or, in its original Dutch title, Klaer Lightende Spiegel der Verfkonst. This 900-page book of paint colors was created to demonstrate how watercolors could be manipulated to change shade when different measurements of water were added to the mixture. He produced only one copy which is housed at Bibliothèque Méjanes in Aix-en-Provence.

Flip through the pages here

First published in 1814 and expanded in 1821 (long before the era of color photography or print), Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours was created by German mineralogist Abraham Gottlob Werner, Scottish painter Patrick Syme, and Scottish naturalist Robert Jameson in an attempt to establish a universal colour reference system to help identify, classify and represent species from the natural world.

Werner’s original set of 54 colour standards was enhanced by Patrick Syme with the addition of colour swatches and further references from nature, taking the total number of hues classified to 110. The resulting resource proved invaluable not only to artists but also to zoologists, botanists, mineralogists and anatomists with naturalist Charles Darwin as perhaps its most renowned reader.

Designer Nicholas Rougeux transformed Werner’s guide into an incredible website. Here, design enthusiasts can explore 110 swatches of color from the 1821 edition of the book.

Each color lists where it’s found in nature (animal, mineral, and vegetable), as well as showing the singular colors that make up the tint. There are also user-contributed images to help illustrate clearly what the colors look like in nature. “I created this project to enhance Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours by adding information that I wanted when I read the guidebook like easily jumping to any color, seeing the colors referenced in the description, and seeing photos of what Werner referenced for his descriptions of each color,” Rougeux writes.

The designer has also included scans of the 1821 Nomenclature of Colours found on the Internet Archive, which he used as his source material, as well as information on Werner’s method for classifying colors. 

In Nature’s Palette this technicolour trove has, for the first time, been enhanced with the addition of illustrations of the animals, vegetables and minerals Werner referenced alongside each colour swatch and accompanied by expert text explaining the uses and development of colour standards in relation to zoology, botany, minerology and anatomy. This fully realized colour catalogue includes elegant contemporary illustrations of every animal, plant or mineral that Syme cited. Readers can see for themselves Tile Red in the Cock Bullfinch’s breast, Shrubby Pimpernel and Porcelain Jasper; or admire the Berlin Blue that Syme identified on the wing feathers of a Jay, in the Hepatica flower and in Blue Sapphire. Displays of contemporary collector’s cabinets of birds, butterflies, eggs, flowers and minerals are interspersed at intervals throughout the compendium, with individual specimens colour matched to colour swatches. Still a much-loved reference among artists, naturalists and everyone fascinated by colour today, Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours finds its fullest expression in this beautiful and comprehensive colour reference system.

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