A naturalist's color palette, circa 1686


From Richard Waller, "A Catalogue of Simple and Mixt Colours with a Specimen of Each Colour Prefixt Its Properties"
Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, vol. 6, 1686/1687 (London, 1688)

Noting the lack of a standard for colors in natural philosophy, and inspired by a similar table published in Stockholm, Richard Waller indicated that his "Table of Physiological Colors Both Mixt and Simple" would permit unambiguous descriptions of the colors of natural bodies. To describe a plant, for example, one could compare it to the chart and use the names found there to identify the colors of the bark, wood, leaves, etc. Similar applications of the information collected in the chart might also extend to the arts and trades, he suggested.

Read more about Waller's color system in The Creation of Color in Eighteenth-Century Europe by Sarah Lowengard.

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Color standards have huge problems. With grams, we can measure out an exact gram of some material with a really low rate of radioactive decay and compare other grams against it. But color is more elusive. Almost every type of pigment used in days of yore lost its color over time. A lot of Renaissance paintings are very different now from how they originally looked. (I can't source this info easily because I got it thirdhand from my gf's art school classes, so grain of salt. But it seemed pretty well-supported.) If we want to be able to create a color anew because our old sample faded, we need a precise formula. But if it contained natural ingredients, we have another problem, because natural selection, breeding, genetic drift, whatever, said ingredient may look subtly different now from how it used to look. Then there's the color you don't see. Humans with limited tetrachromacy (mostly women) may see differences in the colors, not seen by the guy who came up with the standard.

Now we have RGB and CMYK, and http://www.colourlovers.com/ and I have no idea what it all means for this human compulsion to define and quantify everything. Fun stuff.

By CS Shelton (not verified) on 24 Mar 2010 #permalink

Definitely fun, and a great relief from all the on-line harangues! Would that we could see through different eyes on occasion.
What a lucky find your post was today!

Check out if you can Frank J. Reilly's palette of color control.

Grumbacher produced his full line of neutral grays but I don't know if they still do. At one time half the students at the famed Art Students League in NY were his.

By Michael Antebi (not verified) on 24 Mar 2010 #permalink

Thanks for the link to my book -- I hope your readers realize that this is only half of Waller's chart. If you look at the chart where it's set into the text, you can see both parts.


*The Creation of Color in Eighteenth-Century Europe Columbia University Press, 2006, ¶14

Unfortunately, given that the blog can only handle 510 pixels across, showing the entire thing would have made it so small as to be illegible. Hopefully everyone will check it out at your book! :)