Today, naturalists who want to capture the precise color of a certain specimen can rely on color photography, safe in the knowledge that the hues can be preserved for exact recreation or reference. But in centuries past, naturalists and others working out in the field would consult a color dictionary—a sort of pre-Pantone reference guide—to accurately describe a specimen they were sketching. That way, even if the color of the drawing might fade, the shade from the shared nomenclature of colors would remain as a guide for illustrators recreating the image back home.

One of the most famous and widely used color guides was Patrick Syme’s Werner’s Nomenclature of Colors, first published in 1814 and recently reissued by Smithsonian Books. Abraham Gottlob Werner was a German geologist who, toward the end of his long and distinguished career, threw himself into creating a new color dictionary with which to describe the cornucopia of hues found in rocks and minerals. Scottish botanical artist Patrick Syme was entranced by Werner’s work, which had been published at the end of the 18th century, and felt he could improve it further by adding painted color swatches—Werner used only written descriptions—and examples from flora and fauna alongside the mineral comparisons.

Smithsonian Books

Not all colors received an example from each kingdom in Syme's work, but many did. For example, brownish orange was noted as existing in “the eyes of the largest flesh-fly,” the “style of the orange lily,” or in “dark Brazillian topaz.” Blueish green was recorded as existing in “egg of thrush,” “under disk of wild rose leaves,” and the mineral beryl. Ash gray was to be seen in the “breast of long-tailed Hen Titmouse,” “Fresh Wood ashes,” and “Flint." Syme ultimately created a reference work of 110 named colors, providing a whole new language with which to portray nature.

It was Werner’s Nomenclature of Colors that Charles Darwin took on his round-the-world voyage on the HMS Beagle from 1831–36. During the trip, Darwin spent a great deal of time collecting and recording natural history specimens, many of which would be dried and pressed or pickled in vinegar for preservation—processes that often caused the true colors to fade. Darwin consulted Werner’s Nomenclature frequently, confiding in fish expert Leonard Jenyns that “a comparison was always made with the book in hand, previous to the exact color in any case being noted.” Darwin’s written descriptions of the animals and plants he encountered are littered with color terms from the book, as when he describes the shades pulsating across the body of a cuttlefish as "varying in tint between a hyacinth red and a chestnut brown.”

A page from Werner’s Nomenclature of ColoursSmithsonian Books

It was not only the specimens that Darwin described using the color dictionary, but also the ever-changing hues of the sea. On March 28, 1832 he wrote, “During this day the colour of sea varied, being sometimes black ‘Indigo blue’, in evening very green.” Numerous other naturalists, such as Arctic explorer Sir William Edward Parry, botanist Sir William Hooker, and explorer and naturalist Sir John Richardson, also used Werner’s Nomenclature to standardize their description of color, with the evocative names like Orpiment Orange, Verditer Blue, and Gallstone Yellow adding a certain poetry to an otherwise functional description.

The reissue from Smithsonian Books recreates Syme's work in CMYK printing, bringing new vibrancy to the original and sometimes-faded shades. The book provides modern readers with an exploration of color through the eyes of 19th-century naturalists, whose perception of each hue would have been informed by the natural world around them. The lyrical descriptions offer a now-almost-forgotten language for color—less useful, perhaps, than a Pantone number, but a little more evocative.