Shout out to Ms. Was for suggesting this book to me last March! I put it on my Christmas list and Santa delivered. The full title of this petite tome is almost as long as the book itself: Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours, with Additions, Arranged So As to Render It Highly Useful to the Arts and Sciences, Particularly Zoology, Botany, Chemistry, Mineralology, and Morbid Anatomy, Annexed to Which Are Examples Selected from Well-Known Objects in the Animal, Vegetable, and Mineral Kingdoms.
This delightful little book is certain to thrill artists and zoology nerds alike. Compiled by German mineralogist and gemologist Abraham Gottlob Werner in the late 18th century, the collection of color descriptions was picked up by Scottish artist Patrick Syme, who matched Werner’s descriptions to the color names and swatches that then appeared in the 1814 and subsequent editions. Charles Darwin himself used Werner’s descriptions to aid his observations on his voyage around the world via the HMS Beagle (1831-1836). In the notes to the second edition, the editors quote Darwin as saying, “I had been struck by the beautiful colour of the sea when seen through the chinks of a straw hat. . . it was according to Werner nomenclature ‘Indigo with a little Azure blue’ [and] the sky at the same time was ‘Berlin [blue]’ with little Ultra marine.”
Werner’s original suite of colors, which primarily described minerals, numbered just seventy-nine. Syme, realizing that nature needs many more color variants than that, extended the palette to one hundred and ten! I can’t tell you how much this revelation tickles me. A quick internet search reminded me that web colors number 16,777,216, yet has anyone bothered to match all those colors with living creatures from nature? That’s what Syme did with his 110 tints. Did you know, for example, that Werner’s Prussian blue matches the beauty spot on the wing of a mallard drake?
Prussian blue: Your move, Pantone!
The less creatively named bluish green can be found in nature in the form of a thrush’s egg.
A thrush egg in lovely bluish green
Straw yellow appears in the body of a silk moth.
Lovely specimen of a silk moth
While flesh red is the color of human skin.
Damn it, Syme, you were batting 1000 until you had to go racist on us.
Not only does the book list the names of all the colors, it supplies the formulas, so to speak, for creating them. For example, buff orange comprises sienna yellow with a little Dutch orange, while pistachio green is emerald green mixed with a little lemon yellow, and a small quantity of brown.
The only reason this charming book gets 4 stars from me instead of 5 is because I can’t help feeling a little cheated by the limitations of our modern printing process. Knowing the originals are out there somewhere made me jealous to see the original swatches in all their glory, so I hit the internet to see if I could find photos.
Not only did I find original images, I stumbled upon an amazing interactive site dedicated to this taxonomy of color. A web designer named Nicholas Rougeux was apparently just as enamored of these delightful color swatches as I was, except he had ambition enough to make them available online. His site posts digital color swatches with links to the different combinations and even includes images of specimens in nature that boast each color. Check it out and be delighted.
This is a perfect gift book for any graphic designer interested in color, or any zoologist who also dabbles in the arts. Pick up a few for your color-inclined friends today.