How to Color The World

Feb 7, 2022 0 comments

In addition to classifying thousands of animals and plants, early naturalists faced an enormous challenge: accurately describing their colors. Antonio Martinez Ron describes how 18th and 19th century botanical illustrators addressed this essential problem.

In the spring of 2016, during a series of visits to the Royal Botanical Garden in Madrid to learn about its archives and write about its wonderful herbarium , Esther García Guillén showed me a small notebook that they jealously guard in their facilities. It was a tiny book that survived a shipwreck and several voyages across oceans, jungles, and mountain ranges, a small botanical guide that experts continue to study with fascination today.

A kind of master key to plant illustration, the best preserved and most valuable of the codes that served to color the newly discovered natural world: the famous "Color Chart" by Tadeo Haenke.

The reproductions you see here do not do it justice. The colors on the chart make a vivid impression when viewed in person.

Haenke's color chart is a wonderful 16-page catalog that served the Czech naturalist and botanist as a reference palette for painting the species he was classifying on his world trip aboard the Malaspina Expedition (1789-1794).

Haenke carried it with him throughout his eventful and memorable adventure. And I say “accidental” because poor Tadeo arrived in Cádiz when Malaspina had already left and started a chase around half the world that would make for an adventure movie. After leaving Cádiz and crossing the Atlantic in search of Malaspina, he was shipwrecked at the mouth of the Río de la Plata. He then left Montevideo in a hurry and arrived late again in Buenos Aires, from where the frigates of the expedition, Descubierta and Atrevida, had left again without him .

Many months later, Haenke finally joined Malaspina in Valparaíso, Chile, having crossed the Andes on foot and documenting the species he encountered along the way.

The booklet has color tests that Tadeo had to do in the field, looking for the right color of the plant he wanted to classify.

And the notebook? Although Haenke assured in his correspondence that he had lost all the documentation in the shipwreck of the Río de la Plata, today the specialists are sure that he had the color chart with him and that, somehow, he managed to swim to the shore without it being completely damaged (although it does show signs of getting wet).

…and traveled the Globe with him from Bolivia and Chile to California, Alaska and Australia, before finally arriving at the Royal Spanish Collection in Madrid in 1820.

But if the story wasn't amazing enough, it turns out it 's not the only valuable document inside the letter. Inside the booklet there was a small annex that was considered lost and was not identified until 1997: another earlier and shorter color chart, made by the Austrian illustrator Ferdinand Bauer, the naturalist who brought the technique of numbering colors to its highest expression.

Bauer, the master of colors by numbers

The analysis of the pigments carried out by an international team of specialists has recently confirmed that in all probability the catalog of the central leaves belonged to Ferdinand Bauer , who gave them to Haenke in Vienna, where both were studying in the circle of Nikolaus Joseph von Jacquin.

Bauer later became one of the most highly regarded botanical illustrators of his day, especially for his works with the animal and plant species of Australia. t was he who made most use of the color-coding method in his works: to avoid the inconvenience of using paints in the field, Bauer would write down only the number corresponding to each color on each of the plant parts and finish the work in the studio. A method, that of "painting by numbers", which had been known since the time of Dürer, but which Bauer exploited with particular mastery.

According to the specialist who has studied his work best, David J Mabberley, Bauer had such an ability to remember and record color that he probably did not need the code booklet and knew it by heart:

“Bauer may have had the ability to remember colors in the same way that a musician remembers notes”

On the website of the book written by Mabberley, "Painting by numbers" , you have much more information about the character and some examples of sketches with numbers and paintings with the final result , where it is better understood how these geniuses worked.

Here are some mushrooms with the color codes noted on the ground:

And here after translating the numbers into colors quietly in the studio:

The website about his work is a joy, I leave you here another couple of samples of what you can find there. Here, for example, is an illustration of a specimen of Solanum bauerianum, a now-extinct plant described by him:

And here's a beautiful example of the red lionfish (Pterois volitans), before and after Bauer's color by number:

How to Color an Insect

The first systems for classifying color, sometimes colloquially called the "early Pantones", date from the 17th century.The "Treatise on colors in watercolor" by A. Boogert, 1692, and Richard Weller's 1688 " Tabula Colorum Physiologica" are the two most famous examples of color classification attempts, the first catalogs on hues and their association with natural objects.

A. Boogert's "Treatise on Colors in Watercolor", 1692

“Tabula Colorum Physiologica ", by Richard Weller, in 1688

But the greatest leap in this field came in the following century. It was then that the Englishman Moses Harris based himself on Isaac Newton 's work on light and color to develop his famous color wheel in which he intended to reflect all the tones that "are seen in the rainbow and are refracted by a prism".

After the publication of his book "The Natural System of Colors" (1766), and following in the footsteps of notable painters such as August Rösel von Rosenhof , Harris began to use that first systematization of color (like the one Linnaeus would do with species) to his drawings of insects.

"The Natural System of Colours"(1766), de Moses Harris.

Moved by this spirit of classification, Harris published what may be considered one of the first natural color schemes, which he paints and describes thus:

In the descriptions I have made use of the terms with regard to colors and tints which may best serve to convey a proper idea of ​​the colors of the insects described ; but as these terms are little known except to painters, I have given, in a little accompanying sketch, a kind of system containing a variety of seventy-two different colors […] Each tint is numbered, and the figures refer to a catalog that serves as an index to display the appropriate name for each.”

He was creating a full- fledged “insect coloring instruction manual” even before Haenke and Bauer applied the number system to plant color.

Darwin's color chart

A century later, and like any naturalist who wanted to be rigorous and accurate, Charles Darwin brought his own color guide on board the Beagle. In his case, he chose one of the most popular books of his time, the one known as "Werner's Color Nomenclature" , in which each of the different shades is exhaustively collected with an example of color in animals, plants and minerals.

In his journals, Darwin occasionally cites one of the colors in this voluminous guide when he recognizes a creature or finds a new species. Some examples are cited in this study :

In 1832, Darwin was already using the second edition of Werner's Nomenclature, since in a letter to Henslow he described the color of a toad as ink black (standard color 22) , vermilion red (standard color 85), and orange beige (color 22). standard 77) . […] Also, in his 1835 Beagle field notebook, Darwin recorded a snake's color as primrose yellow , the 63rd standard color.

As you can see, to study nature you have to take into account many small details.

How to color a bird

The list of characters obsessed with establishing the definitive catalog of colors in subsequent decades is very extensive, beginning with the books by Milton Bradley (the founder of MB Games, who brought this knowledge of color to children) and continuing with Robert Ridgway , a Smithsonian ornithologist, who published a "Nomenclature of Colors for Naturalists" in 1886 and an updated version in 1912, with a particular focus on describing the color shades of birds in detail.

Parts of the bird differentiated by Robert Ridgway to assign colors to them

“The nomenclature of colors remains vague and for practical purposes meaningless, seriously impeding progress in almost every branch of industry and research,” Ridgway wrote in 1912 . He also criticized confusing trade names such as "zulu", "snake green", "baby blue", "London smoke" or "elephant breath", but his system did not prosper in the scientific community either, not least because the pigments chosen for his books they changed with exposure to light or moisture. But he left us some beautiful books.

How to catch the sky

Lastly, in a different but no less interesting category, played the Swiss naturalist Horace Bénédict de Saussure, who in 1787 climbed to the top of Mont Blanc armed with a curious device with which to measure the color of the sky.  The so-called "cyanometer" was designed to determine with scientific precision the extent to which the blue of the sky darkened as altitude was gained.

Although you all have in mind the beautiful circular cyanometer, not everyone knows that this version was developed a few years later and that in 1787, when he climbed the 4810 meters of Mont Blanc, he carried with him a primitive and more modest version, with only 16 tones, which today is preserved in the Museum of History of Science in Geneva. If you notice, he could look at the sky through the empty squares and keep the tone that most closely resembled it:

A few years later, Saussure gave the cyanometer its final circular shape with 53 colors, and the device became a symbol of the race to understand the secrets of the sky. In 1802 Humboldt and Bonpland ascended Chimborazo with a cyanometer and a few decades later Henry David Thoreau missed having one on hand to be able to calibrate the skies he admired. Today, more than a scientific instrument, it has remained a curiosity for recreational use, but it is still a fascinating object, which sums up well the race to classify nature by colors.

Unlike Haenke and other naturalists, Saussure was not trying to paint or classify the heavens, but to answer a fascinating question: why is the sky blue and what is the atmosphere made of? A story that I tell you in more detail in a book —Algo nuevo en los cielos (Something New in the Heavens)—that will be published on February 16.

This article originally appeared in the Catacrockers Newsletter in Spanish. It was translated and republished here with the author’s permission.


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