“If color forms a character, it becomes necessary to eliminate ambiguity.”
— Patrick Syme, "Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours"
What color is that?
No matter the season our natural landscape is an ever-changing riot of colors, in particular shades of browns, greens and blues. Birds, insects and flowers tint and hue the world with splashes of yellows, oranges and reds. Minerals and gems too add subtle shades of all the colors of the rainbow.
Today we can capture the multiple nuances of color in nature on camera. Not so in previous centuries when many scientists who were trying to organize and delineate the natural world needed to be artists as well … capturing the differences in colors by using paints, in particular watercolors.
Colors in nature shimmer and shift from one hue to another. The human eye can distinguish a million colors. Think green summer leaves turning yellow and then brown before decomposing and blending into the forest floor. Think goldfinches … those at your feeder now are a greenish-yellow or maybe a yellowish-green, but come spring they will become brilliant, flying in flocks like so many gold coins tumbling through the air. Think oceans that range from grayish-green in arctic climes to the aquamarines and turquoises that surround Caribbean Islands.
Where do our words for colors in nature come from? For some of us we started as kids with a box of crayons. But beginning around the mid-18th century in Europe, various books, booklets and pamphlets described different ways that could be used to classify nature. Long before the exactitude of classification by DNA, scientists sorted and organized specimens of flora, fauna and the geologic by using external descriptives: size, shape, form, texture, weight and color.
Linnaeus, the grand pooh-bah of classification, divided the world into three: animal, vegetable and mineral and then named all matter using a Latinate binomial taxonomy not only as identifiers, but also to show relationships between similar organisms, i.e. species. Unlike some scientists, he was careful to use color as a major descriptive only if firmly linked to structure and form.
Not surprisingly, one of the first comprehensive books, "Von den äußerlichen Kennzeichen der Foßilien" ("From the External Characteristics of Fossils"), published in 1785, was developed by a German geologist and professor, Abraham Gottlob Werner to teach his students how to identify minerals and gems by color.
Compared to flora and fauna, in terms of color, rocks are fairly static, though color changes do occur with oxygenation and exposure to heat and cold. In his textbook, Werner included 79 distinct colors in eight categories: whites/greys/blacks/blues/greens/yellows/reds/browns. Werner did not include swatches of color because this book was often used in conjunction with a "rock box," small samples of ores and minerals often arranged by color.
For each entry, Werner named the color, the associated mineral or ore and then the components that create this particular color: "Color — Gamboge yellow; Mineral — High Colored Sulphur; Components — None." Gamboge yellow is a primary, base or core color, as are, in Werner’s book, "snow white," "velvet black," "Berlin blue," "arterial blood red."
This book was translated throughout Europe, and Werner’s colors came to the forefront as a color guide to nature used by individual scientists as well as professors at universities. Along came Patrick Syme, a self-declared flower-painter who lived and worked at the University of Edinburgh. In 1821, he took Werner’s original text and transformed it into “Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours, Adapted to Zoology, Botany, Chemistry, Mineralogy and the Arts.”
Syme expanded the number of colors to 110, created separate categories for purples and oranges, added swatches of color AND for each color where this exact color may be seen in nature listing the part of an animal, the portion of a plant and associated mineral or ore. Syme kept Werner’s stated composition for each named color.
"Color: Gamboge yellow; Animal — Wings of goldfinch. Canary Bird; Vegetable —Yellow Jasmine; Mineral — High Colored Sulphur; Components — None.
Color: Sulphur yellow; Animal — Yellow parts of large Dragon Fly; Vegetable — Various colored Snap Dragons; Mineral — Sulphur. Components: Sulphur yellow is lemon yellow mixed with emerald green and white."
Within the examples there are some empty spaces, for in 1821 the Scot had access to only a limited selection of specimens. There was no instant passage of color data from far flung ports of call. Birds feature as examples for many different colors. Or I should say, parts of certain birds illustrate a color. The very first entry for the whites is "snow white" as seen on the “Breast of a black-headed gull.” Great Egrets are Yellowish White. A Mallard has a plumage of many colors and is featured here for its Prussian Blue “Beauty Spot on the Wing” and for the Duck Green of its neck. Hair Brown is the color found on a pintail’s head. The neck of the Eider drake is a lovely Pistachio Green.
Go online and view an updated interactive version of Syme’s book, “A Re-creation of the Original 1821 Color Guidebook with new cross-references, photographic examples and posters" by graphic designer Nicholas Rougeux, c82.net/werner/#classification.
Rougeux also expanded on the Syme book by changing the component text into circles of color. Click on the swatch of the line item and photographs of the examples appear. Gamboge Yellow has four photographs: an American goldfinch, a canary, a blossom sprig of yellow jasmine and a small pile of Sulphur. The match of the gamboge yellow color in all four photographs is perfect.
Looking up the definition of ‘gamboge,’ I find it is a gum resin from various Asian trees of the genus Garcinia, especially G. hanburyi, used as a yellow pigment. I also had to look up "orpiment" as in Orpiment Orange. Orpiment is the mineral, arsenic trisulfide, As2S3,
More recently, this book has been vastly expanded into a lavishly illustrated, gorgeous coffee table book, “Nature’s Palette: A Color Reference System From the Natural World,” (Princeton University Press, 2021), by world-famous color historian Patrick Baty and his team. Not only does Baty include the entire text of Syme’s book “Nomenclature,” but he also gives written histories of how perceptions, descriptions and organizing color evolved over decades.
Baty has illustrations for each of the swatches, not using photographs. Each page is an animal/vegetable/mineral triptych of natural history prints and drawings from the 18th and 19th centuries, including examples where Syme has none. For birds, many of the images are taken from John Gould’s exquisite, meticulous watercolors.
We associate many colors with vegetables. Werner has among others; olive green, asparagus green, chestnut brown and oddly, broccoli brown. How confusing it is these days to go to the markets and find yellow beets, white eggplants and purple carrots.
Birders and botanists in the Berkshires and throughout the world rely on color to describe specific field marks which distinguishes the species we claim to see for similar reported birds. How fortunate we are to have modern field guides, descendants of books like Syme’s "Nomenclature of Colour."