Color Studies

“Color is a power which directly influences the soul.”

Wassily Kandinsky
Vermillion

Once you begin painting, you no longer see Fall leaves simply as beautiful colors, instead they transform into shades of Venetian red, golden ochre, vermillion and morellone, because now you’ve entered the vivid world of color. 

Color attracts us to apprehend beauty, then speaks to us in a visual language of symbolism that conveys the meaning of the subject.  For example, in iconography, when we see a vibrant cobalt blue garment painted from ground Lapis Lazuli, we know we are encountering the Virgin Mary, or Theotokos; when Christ is portrayed in a radiant white robe, we know He has risen.

But how did we codify and systematize our current color choices? Where did these pigments originate?

This post addresses:

  • the discovery of a fascinating 17th century 900 page anthology of hand painted color swatches;
  • three informative books on color;
  • a link to a short video from the National Gallery in London; and
  • a link to an open-source forum where you can find many digitized books.

Traité des couleurs servant à la peinture à l’eau

Traite des couleurs servant a la peinture a l’eau, has an intriguing back story.  This 17th century manuscript is a 900 page comprehensive color study of hand mixed and painted water color swatches created specifically for artists by Dutch artist A. Boogert in 1692.  It includes instructions on how to mix watercolors in every color of the spectrum.  The fact that it is the ONLY copy, undoubtedly limited the number of people who had the opportunity to study it, although it is believed to have influenced Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s art history making studies and possibly even Syme’s book of Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours (see below). 

1692 – A. Boogerts, Dutch Artist’s hand painted color swatches of over 900 pages

“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.”

The original manuscript still resides in a Library in France at Aix-en-Provence, as does the digitization, but when I tried to access it through the archives, I found that the library’s site had crashed years ago after Professor Erik Kwakkel’s intial Tumblr posting.  Clearly, inquiring minds worldwide really wanted to see it.

Last month, I wrote to Professor Kwakkel to inquire about another possible avenue for me to pursue, because I really wanted the opportunity to look at this book.  Alas, the answer was negative, as his experience was the same as mine…the site had crashed and hadn’t been repaired. 

Click to View the Digitized Manuscript

Earlier week, I received a wonderful surprise email from Professor Kwakkel which included the following link to view this 17th century book in its digitized entirety!

Click above or here to view: 898 pages of high-resolution digital scans at the Bibliothèque Méjanes site. It is a really dedicated undertaking to systematize and present such a comprehensive collection of colors in such beautiful form. A. Boogert is the real inventor of the Pantone paint deck!

Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours

Werner’s Nomenclature of Color

Edited by Patrick Syme

First published in 1814, Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours was the result of the work of eminent Geologist/Mineralogist Abraham Gottlob Werner (1749-1817).  In his first textbook, On the External Characteristics of Fossils (minerals were also considered fossils then), he developed a guide for identifying minerals, addressing key characteristics of color and luster.

Werner’s Nomenclature of Color
Arranged by Color

Patrick Syme (1774 – 1845) studied natural history under Robert Jameson at Edinburgh University where he saw Werner’s work and matched Werner’s descriptions of the actual minerals to color names, descriptions and color charts.  This helped to begin the process of codifying color and standardizing the names we use today.

For example, Prussian Blue is described as the “Beauty Spot on the Wing of a Mallard Drake,” and the “Stamina of the Bluish Purple Anemone,” and “Blue Copper Ore.”  Chances are that an artist had seen at least one of these examples of Prussian Blue in natural flora and fauna, thereby standardizing the meaning or true color of Prussian Blue.

Werner’s Nomenclature of Colour was used widely by artists and naturalists, most notably Charles Darwin, who used the color references in this book on his expedition on the HMS Beagle during 1831-36. Darwin included Werner’s terminology for his zoological descriptions, describing natural scenes and species both new and known. He understood that the specimens he collected would deteriorate during the long voyage and an precise written description would provide the most accurate detail. Using codified color names created an accurate visual picture for readers.

The Secret Lives of Color

Secret Lives of Color
by Kassia St. Clair

by Kassia St. Clair

This is a fun compilation of short vignettes addressing approximately 100 colors. The information ranges from some information on chemistry/mineral composition to the significance of the color throughout history.  It is interspersed with random fun facts (cochineal/carmine required 70,000 dried beetles for a pound of red pigment).  The edges of the book are color matched to the sections discussing roughly the same color.  It doesn’t address color theory or composition, but I thought it was fun and filled with interesting trivia.

Minium

Chapter on Minium
Secret Lives of Color

Do you know why medieval illuminated manuscripts/prayer books/Psalters are often called “miniatures”? St. Clair discusses this in relationship to “minium,” the pigment used for the bright orange-red headings in manuscripts (Red Letter Days) as follows:

“The pigment used was minium. The person who worked with it was called a miniator, and his work was an eye-catching symbol or heading in a manuscript, was called a miniatura. (This is the origin of the word “miniature,’ which in its original sense did not mean small at all.) Minium was used extensively in manuscript illumination during the Middle Ages, and use of it only gradually died out as vermilion [page 144] became more readily available from the eleventh century.”

from page 108 Minium, Secret Lives of Color, Kassia St. Clair

Color – A Natural History of the Palette

by Victoria Finlay

Color by Victoria Finlay

“Color” combines color history, with the author’s travel to conduct first hand research, organized by color.  I enjoyed the historical information about dyes and interesting facts like Green Celadon was a seaweed green porcelain that only the Chinese emperor could own, or that the most vibrant purple comes from Tyrean mollusks.  The stories are written travel-log style, which makes it both entertaining and informative.

Video: The Ethereal Short Life of Malachite Pigment

This 3 minute video from the National Gallery in London explains why some paintings that used forms of Malachite pigment have changed over time. This segment addresses Venetian painter Giovanni Bellini’s “Agony in the Garden,” (1458-60), painted in egg tempera on a poplar panel. In particular, this video focuses on the discarded cloak of St. James, which is thought to have been painted with malachite, but now seems to be a dark brown. David Peggie, Senior Scientist at the National Gallery gives a scientific explanation.

Malachite in Art | Why this paint didn’t last 500 Years | National Gallery

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

You can read this and 700 digitized and audio open-source books here by clicking: Open Culture.