Book Review: Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours

Before there was the Pantone Matching System, there was Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours: Adapted to Zoology, Botany, Chemistry, Mineralogy, Anatomy, and the Arts. According to the wrap around the cover, this was the book (not this specific edition or copy) that Charles Darwin took with him aboard the HMS Beagle on his journey to research species evolution and natural selection.

The book is a slim volume with wide margins (for notes?) and reproductions of paint chips and descriptions next to each of the colors as well as lengthier descriptions included in the text. It was the first known attempt to create a unified language for describing color for science and art using materials available in the animal, vegetable and mineral world available to folks in England and Scotland in 1821.

It’s interesting to see the range of colors and descriptions. So many of the color names live on today in the names of paint colors for art like Sap Green and Gamboge Yellow that I’m hardly surprised by the naming. That Gamboge is compared to the mineral Sulphur is very interesting though.

There’s some weird references to colors being the “sky blue of Werner” and such which is odd as if he couldn’t be bothered to add an actual sky blue suggesting he might have been a bit of a primadonna about his color palette.

Regardless of which colors were left out, whether they could not be found in the natural world of 19th century England, or because Werner was a bit of a fuss bucket, the book is fascinating and currently in reprint for less than $15.

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14 comments / Add your comment below

    1. Oh definitely! It lists colors like Ultramarine and Red Violet. How accurate the color reproductions are is questionable but the information and historical relevance is totally valid.

  1. Is there anything in the book that testifies that the printers took extra care in color matching to Werner’s original color swatches? After all, it was reproduced using printing colors – and those aren’t generally accurate representations of any piece of original work.

  2. Thank you! I knew of this book, but even as a biology student, and as a post-grad’ I’ve never actually looked to see if I could get hold of a copy, and it’s so interesting too. This is great!

  3. Being as aware of the cost of accurate color printing as I am, I would be surprised if many of the colors in this book were reproduced accurately at this price. Darwin’s name doesn’t lend the book much credibility either.

  4. I love the way he makes notes as to where and on what animals the colors appear in nature. I think the book still holds up to the test of time; not so much as a purely scientific manual, but as an interesting read for those who love color.

  5. With regard to accurate color reproduction and “Darwin’s name doesn’t lend the book much credibility either”: Credibility as to what? Credibility with regard to what? The fact that Darwin may have used the color lists as a point of reference is really only a nod to the development of the scientific method.

    Darwin used a known measurement, a standard, to which he could refer an observation and allow others to replicate that observation. These days we might use a digital measurement of the RGB (Red/Green/Blue) spectrum in order to define a color, so that somebody else might accurately reproduce it, and know to what we refer. Darwin did a similar thing with the Nomenclature of Colours. In doing so, he made some valid observations that formed part of the body of knowledge that has gone on to become the backbone of modern biological science.

    Unfortunately, without accurate color reproduction in the printing process, we cannot replicate his observations in terms of knowing the colors that he saw, when the point of reference (the book) is inaccurate. In addition, the very species to which Darwin referred may have subtly altered in terms of trends in coloration since the 19th century–such is the nature of adaptation by means of natural selection. We have to consider that inability a given I suppose, as by now, the coloration of the original documents may well have altered over the passage of time (e.g., due to variables such as the reaction of the inks with the paper, or fading from exposure to light).

    Instead, this isn’t about accurately repeating Darwin’s observations in some way, this is more about historical interest, the evolution of the scientific method, and a grand meeting point between history, art, science, and nature:

    There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.
    Darwin, C. (1859-11-24). On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, 1st Edition.

    1. Thank you for your input. I appreciate your perspective. While the color accuracy is no longer relevant, the evolution of both the scientific method and the study of color is. I collect old Pantone and other color guides for the same reason, even though the colors have migrated, the efforts to document and catalog is still fascinating to me.

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