Get the latest
Recent Posts

Book of the week — Color Standards and Color Nomenclature

Color Standards and Color Nomenclature
Robert Ridgway (1850-1925)
Washington, D. C.: The author, 1912
QC495 R5

Robert Ridgway, ornithologist and full-time curator of birds at the United States National Museum, was renowned for the accuracy with which he painted birds and was unmatched in his eye for the coloration. Despite his success, Ridgway felt a deep frustration for the lack of standardization in color and color theory during this time. So he took it upon himself and published his own work. A Nomenclature of Colors for Naturalists was published in 1886, when Ridgway was only thirty-six years old.

Although this book became an industry standard, containing a modest 186 colors and names, Ridgway would later describe it as, “seriously defective in the altogether inadequate number of colors represented, and in their unscientific arrangement.” He had wished to improve upon his initial effort and so, after “more than twenty years of sporadic effort,” Ridgway self-published another volume, which was deemed a momentous improvement. Color Standards and Color Nomenclature was published in 1912 and contains a total of 1,115 colors, distributed over fifty-three different plates.

The book was the product of trial and error. In his introduction, Ridgway wrote, “The coloring of a satisfactory set of disks to represent the thirty-six pure spectrum colors and hues was a matter of extreme difficulty, many hundreds having been painted and discarded before the desired result was achieved.” To create a uniformity across the book’s print run, the colors were created in bulk by A. Hoen & Co. with enough paint to fill the five hundred copies.  They painted large sheets of color, which were then cut into small boxes and pasted into the book. All of the colors were created with standardized weight and measurements, as well as mathematical and chemical formulas.

Ridgway classified and arranged the colors by the solar spectrum, in which “a circle is formed [where] there is continuously a gradual change of hue.” A hue is the relative position of a color in the spectrum scale. Ridgway and collaborators used the six fundamental spectrum colors, which were finalized with a “personal equation.” That equation was the average measurement based on the opinion of nine to twelve authorities, in which they decided “where the reddest red, greenest green, etc., are located.” This was to account for the considerable disagreement among chromatologists as to the wave-lengths of the six fundamental spectrum colors. Once established, they took six base colors, matched with six hues between each, and blended them through a scale of tints and shades.

A tint implies a color paler than full color (added white) and a shade implies the opposite (added black). Notably, these only apply to tone, which is the steps on the scale comprising a full single color from the darkest shade to palest tint. Whereas the color scale, which is a linear series of colors showing a gradual transition from one to another, implies the respective hues between each base color as they transition from one to the next in the circular color spectrum. This methods insured “the entire possible range of color variation [was] covered.”

Ridgway was able to rely on methodology for the creation of the colors, but now had to name them. In the prologue of Color Standards, he quotes German physicist Wilhelm von Bezold saying, “we are in reality dealing with the peculiarities of language.” With this in mind, Ridgway comes across as altogether reluctant to name the colors, due to the lack of available methodology. His problem was a perplexing one. How do you describe color? Nevertheless, he persists in naming more than one thousand colors, because of “the utter worthlessness of color names until fixed or standardized.”

The solution to naming, for Ridgway, was to invoke the world. To tell of a few, he named colors after countries (American green, Brazil red); after food (spinach green, cream color) and drink (absinthe green, bottle green); places (bay); flavors (bittersweet pink); spices (cinnamon); plants (pansy purple, forget-me-not blue); human attributes (diva blue); minerals (dark mineral red); the military (army brown); time of day (night green); time of life (natal brown, old rose, mummy brown); mythical creatures (goblin blue); religions (deep Quaker drab, Puritan gray); weather (storm gray); the body (hair brown, bone brown); planets (Mars violet); famous families (Medici blue); structures (wall green); and the general states of matter (flame scarlet, smoke gray).

The colors and their names would become the standard for scientists and specialists in a range of fields, from Ridgway’s own native ornithology, to mycology (the study of mushrooms), philately (the collection and study of postal stamps), and food coloring for decades after his death in 1929.

For more books on color and color theory, one need not look far. The rare books collections include a variety of titles, including Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Remarks on Colour, Thomas Maitland Cleland’s A Grammar of Color, Barbara Hodgson and Claudia Cohen’s The Temperamental Roseand Christopher Maddox’s Cartographic Fragmentations.

Contributed by Henry Harrison, Rare Books Assistant


1 Comment
  • Alexander Jolley
    Posted at 21:26h, 08 September Reply

    I can’t even imagine how tedious it would be to try and name a whole lot of colors, or even create hues in the first place. What color is red? What is the exact hue that makes blue? Did anyone anywhere know that before standardization? Unreal.
    The pages of hues are satisfying to look at.

Post A Comment