Eleven Kinds of Blue: Werner’s Pioneering 19th-Century Nomenclature of the Colors, Beloved by Darwin
By Maria Popova
“Finding the words is another step in learning to see,” bryologist Robin Wall Kimmerer wrote in her lyrical love letter to moss. And so it is: Description and observation entwine in the consecrating act of paying attention — the act that swings open the gates of perception and allows us to know the world as it really is, not as we have been conditioned to see it by our narrow frames of reference. Our frames of reference broaden only as we enrich the vocabulary by which we describe, label, and classify what we see — in science, in art, in life.
When Georgia O’Keeffe first arrived in the Southwest, she was arrested by its colors — so utterly novel, so rich and wild and ablaze with hues she had never seen before, that she could not describe them; she could only paint them, igniting the explosion of creativity that made her one of the world’s most influential artists. Long before they could vote, the women of the Harvard College Observatory pioneered a star classification system based on color, which scientists still use today. In her splendid essay on the color blue, Rebecca Solnit celebrated it as “the color of an emotion, the color of solitude and of desire, the color of there seen from here, the color of where you are not.” There is, of course, not one blue but many — perhaps as many as there are emotions. To name each one is to confer reality and validity upon its essence, to burrow deeper into its meaning.
That is what the pioneering German geologist Abraham Gottlob Werner (September 25, 1749–June 30, 1817) set out to do two centuries ago, not through the contemplative lens of philosophy but through the observational lens of science.
Werner’s life is a supreme testament to how science works — how it unpeels reality layer by layer, syncopating missteps and leaps as theories are proffered and disproven to narrow down and pave the path to truth. While working as an inspector of mines and a professor of mineralogy, Werner developed a theory known as Neptunism — after the ancient Roman sea god — which held that rocks emerged from the crystallization of salts and other minerals in Earth’s primordial oceans. It was a radical counterpoint to creationist mythology and a stepping stone for later theories of evolution. Although Neptunism was later disproven and replaced by the theory that rocks originated from magmatic activity — a theory known as Plutonism, after Pluto, the ancient ruler of the underworld; alternatively, as Volcanism, after Vulcan, the Roman god of fire and volcanos — Werner expounded his theory with enthusiasm so electric that he ignited a widespread passion for the study of geology and planted the seed for the understanding that Earth’s crust is composed of different strata layered over time.
In the final years of his life, by then one of the world’s most prominent geologists, Werner embarked upon a thoroughly different project — the development of a detailed nomenclature of colors. Born within weeks of his compatriot Goethe — who at the selfsame time was hard at work on his theory of color and emotion — Werner devised a classification system based on the colors of minerals that gave a whole new vocabulary of describing the natural world in an era predating the invention of photography, when the written word was the most precise vehicle for conveying visual detail. “It is singular,” Werner wrote in considering the necessity for a nomenclature of colors, “that a thing so obviously useful, and in the description of objects of natural history and the arts, where colour is an object indispensably necessary, should have been so long overlooked.” Nothing like it had existed before — it was not merely a scientific handbook but a field guide to the very art of seeing.
A Scottish botanical painter, Patrick Syme, was so moved by Werner’s classification system — full of lyrical color names like “Flax-Flower Blue,” “Saffron Yellow,” and “Skimmed-milk White” — that he used it to create a series of color charts. Painting each hue alongside Werner’s mineral description, Syme provided one example of the color from the animal kingdom and one from the plant kingdom. Under “Scotch Blue,” for instance, he offers “throat of blue titmouse” and “stamina of bluish purple anemone.”
The result was Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours: Adapted to Zoology, Botany, Chemistry, Mineralogy, Anatomy, and the Arts (public library | public domain) — a book so unexampled in concept and usefulness to both art and science that naturalists and painters flocked to it, Novalis extolled its taxonomical genius, and Darwin brought it on his epoch-making Beagle voyage.
- Scotch Blue, is Berlin blue, mixed with a considerable portion of velvet black, a very little grey, and a slight tinge of carmine red.
- Prussian Blue, is Berlin blue, with a considerable portion of velvet black, and a small quantity of indigo blue.
- Indigo Blue, is composed of Berlin blue, a little black, and a small portion of apple green.
- China Blue, is azure blue, with a little Prussian blue in it.
- Azure Blue, is Berlin blue, mixed with a little carmine red : it is a burning colour.
- Ultramarine Blue, is a mixture of equal parts of Berlin and azure blue.
- Flax-Flower Blue, is Berlin blue, with a slight tinge of ultramarine blue.
- Berlin Blue, is the pure, or characteristic colour of Werner.
- Verditter Blue, is Berlin blue, with a small portion of verdigris green.
- Greenish Blue, the sky blue of Werner, is composed of Berlin blue, white, and a little emerald green.
- Greyish Blue, the small blue of Werner, is composed of Berlin blue, with white, a small quantity of grey, and a hardly perceptible portion of red.
Suspended between art and science, Werner’s original descriptions of the colors — precise yet lovely — could be prompts for writing poetry, an embodiment of Goethe’s assertion that “science arose from poetry, and… when times change the two can meet again on a higher level as friends.”
- Snow White, is the characteristic colour of the whites; it is the purest white colour; being free of all intermixture, it resembles new-fallen snow.
- Reddish White, is composed of snow white, with a very minute portion of crimson red and ash grey.
- Purplish White, is snow white, with the slightest tinge of crimson red and Berlin blue, and a very minute portion of ash grey.
- Yellowish White, is composed of snow white, with a very little lemon yellow and ash grey.
- Orange-coloured White, is snow white, with a very small portion of tile red and king’s yellow, and a minute portion of ash grey.
- Greenish White, is snow white, mixed with a very little emerald green and ash grey.
- Skimmed-milk White, is snow white, mixed with a little Berlin blue and ash grey.
- Greyish White, is snow white, mixed with a little ash grey.
Complement Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours, which is in the public domain but has been handsomely reissued and color-restored by Smithsonian Books, with Frida Kahlo on the meaning of the colors, Goethe’s diagrams of color perception, and The Black Book of Colors — an empathic invitation to experience the world’s hues as a blind person does.
Published February 6, 2018