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Different glass jars of pigment in a wooden box.

Immerse Yourself in a 17th Century Catalog of Colors


Centuries before the Pantone scale, a Dutch painter captured the entire chromatic range in watercolors.

Colors and their names are some of the first things we learn as children. Over time, we develop preferences for certain colors and aversions to others. We use them to identify ourselves, we attribute effects to them and develop affections for them. Our relationships with colors go well beyond simple aesthetic taste: they’re part of who we are. Yet, to common eyes, all reds are still alike, and one needs an artist’s visual training to know, really, when a red becomes an orange and then a yellow, and finally, to cross the entire chromatic range in which we see the world.

A. Boogert was an artist of whom very little is known. Closer to Isaac Newton and his chromatic circle than to the Pantone color guide, the Dutch painter created a practical guide on the mixing of colors in 1692. His work, Treaty of Colors to be Used in Watercolors, ( “Traité des couleurs servant à la peinture à l’eau” ), was painted entirely by hand. Its 800 pages of color swatches include instructions for producing changes in tonality according to the amount of water added to the solid colors.

Unfortunately, there’s only one copy of Boogert’s work. It’s at the Méjanes Library in Aix-en-Provence, France, and it’s probably the largest and richest guide to colors ever created. The swatches are reminiscent of small Rothko paintings, or to the samples of paint available today. But the true astonishment comes when we remember that each of these colors was produced manually and its difference from all others is explained in tremendous detail.

We might think that today we no longer need this type of guide for the identification of colors. (Any app might be more effective for cataloging and reproducing any given chromatic range, after all.) But what’s still amazing is the degree of attention to variation and to detail that Boogert put into the work. Eccentric? No doubt, but being unique to its kind … it’s also a tribute to the sheerly exquisite.


*Image: Public Domain

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