Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours

Adapted to Zoology, Botany, Chemistry, Mineralogy, Anatomy, and the Arts

Syme’s publication is not so much a book, as a presentation of the first known study of colours and how to classify them, a novel break-through idea of its era (1814).

Today, we can celebrate its creator, Abraham Gottlob Werner, as offering us the first set of “colour swatches” that today we take for granted, in selecting our paint tins for the house walls or describing our clothing.

Perhaps the strangest “fun fact” of all: Werner did not hail from the world of art & design. Rather, he was a German geologist, born into a Saxony mining family, and credited with founding the Neptunist school of rocks too.

Of relevance to us, as a “rock doctor” and teacher at the Freiburg School of Mining spanning 40 years, Werner was keen to find a dependable way to identify minerals. He reckoned using their “colour” identities could help.

Werner’s journey into colour exemplifies the fresh attitudes and ideas and openness to enquiry more generally dominating European life during that era of Enlightenment.

In 1814, and again in 1821, an equally free-thinking Edinburgh fellow, by the name of Patrick Syme, picked up Werner’s concepts and published his own broadened version, evolving Werner’s colour definitions.

Syme felt Werner had not taken his concepts of colour far enough. For instance, Werner had included Orange and Purple within the Yellow and Blue families. Syme believed they should stand alone.

Syme’s own interest in colour was driven not by mining, but rather as a painter and art teacher. He lived ‘colour’, and wanted others to do the same … by talking from a commonly-understood nomenclature.

Syme presented and named 110 different shades of colour to us, while also teaching how each colour could be created and applied in practice. He gave each colour place and order.

For example, Syme’s colour #66 is named: “King’s Yellow”. He describes this as being: “ gamboge yellow, with a small portion of saffron yellow.”

For readers needing further mental pictures and instruction, Syme offered examples from the natural world to create a more fulsome image of how to adapt using the colour shades to picture painting.

Syme suggested “King’s Yellow” could be applied to paint the “Head of (a) Golden Pheasant” or a “Yellow Tulip” or “Cinquefoil.” Very comforting.

Charles Darwin evidently approved of Syme’s efforts, for he took Syme’s book along to read on his famous 1831-36 HMS Beagle expedition of plant & animal discovery across the globe.

One of the key difficulties faced by Darwin and other explorers was visual standardisation of colour. Perhaps everyone knew what yellow was, but one person’s “dark yellow” reference point was seldom shared.

Syme hoped that every ambitious Victorian could use the colour classification system: look at the breadth of applications listed in the subtitle: zoology, botany, etc. Today we have it much easier: Dulux and RAL swatch sets are here to help. Delightfully, the impact, simplicity and beauty of Werner’s and Syme’s efforts shine through to this day.

Here at MAAPS, we are passionate about colour and its uses within the spaces we create. Colour theory and application is now both more globalised and infinitely more individualised, at the same time. These positive additions to our collective enjoyment of architecture owe much to the evolved ideas of Werner and Syme. Next time you “think colour”, give them a smile …

by P. Syme – ISBN 978 0565 0 94454-486-22756-2

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