Check out a Bird-Based Color System at The Smithsonian “Color in a New Light” Exhibit

What is color, anyway? When beams of various wavelengths of light reflect off of objects and enter our eyes, our eyes and brains work together to understand and experience the world in color. How best should we try to understand, catalog, and describe color amongst ourselves? Is your version of red the same as mine? This is an old and elusive topic and one that is being explored and tackled with a Smithsonian exhibit called, Color in a New Light. This exhibit offers guests a chance to explore early color studies, including the bird-based color classification systems of historic ornithologist Robert Ridgway.

Early Color Cataloging

Official color charts, intended for scientific and manufacturing use, are believed to have first been created in the 1600s. They intended to provide standard color samples and names that naturalists could use as well as businesses who wanted to make dyes and paints which would be recognizable, identifiable, and consistent. Richard Waller’s Tabula colorum physiologica, or Table of physiological colors, was created in 1686 and is one of the oldest known versions of a standard color catalog or chart (below).

Waller was a naturalist, illustrator, and member of the Fellows of the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge who died in 1715. He focused his chart on natural subjects such as plant leaves, animal fur and feathers, and tree bark, in order to accurately describe nature for the benefit of both scientists and amateur collectors.

Another well-known early color chart enthusiast was the businessman and inventor Milton Bradley, who lived from 1836 until 1911. Well-known as a board game industry leader, he was also a lithographer who was passionate about color identification and education. In 1895 he published the book Elementary Color and also produced a spinning color wheel that demonstrated in real time how colors blended and formed new shades and hues. Milton Bradley and Company manufactured toys, games, crayons, and watercolors throughout Bradley’s life. His standard color chart including complementary colors is below.

Here’s one more influential early color chart: the 1794 Wiener Farbenkabinet, or Vienna color cabinet (also in the Smithsonian collection), which includes 2,592 hand-colored natural dye samples and instructions on how to use them on different fabrics.

In the 19th century, synthetic dye production increased dramatically, amplifying the need for reliable and accessible color classification that still proves to be a challenge today.

Robert Ridgway’s Natural Color Nomenclatures

Ridgway was an ornithologist and descriptive taxonomist who lived from 1850 until 1929. Ridgway enjoyed exploring nature from a young age. Once, when he couldn’t identify a certain bird, he wrote to then Assistant Secretary of the Smithsonian, Spencer Fullerton Baird, who identified the purple finch for him. Baird also encouraged him to continue his work identifying species and to record his observations. Baird then helped the young Ridgway to gain extensive fieldwork and in 1880, when Baird was Secretary of the Smithsonian, he appointed Ridgway as full-time curator of birds at the United States National Museum. Ridgway was the first person to hold this post and kept it until his death.

Ridgway’s illustrative talents are perhaps best known and represented in his work with the eight volume series, Birds of North and Middle America. He also published A Nomenclature of Colors for Naturalists in 1886, which offered 186 unique hues with illustrations of birds, and Color Standards and Color Nomenclature in 1912. While both of these books used nature as a reference for color classification, the first relied solely on bird diversity as a source and the second used a broader range of natural elements and held 1,115 unique color samples. A page from Color Standards and Color Nomenclature is shown below, including the lovely shade, peacock blue.

Below, check out a comparison of Ridgway’s Warbler Green with an actual Leaf-warbler. In the Smithsonian collection, stuffed warblers from the Philippines are displayed for comparison.

Ridgway is known to have credited Milton Bradley as a source of inspiration. He even included colors such as “Bradley’s” violet and blue in his own color system. Daniel Lewis, author of the Ridgway biography, “The Feathery Tribe: Robert Ridgway and the Modern Study of Birds,” felt that Ridgway’s color classifications were heavily influential in the evolution of the famous Pantone color system. Pantone colors emerged in the 1960’s with bright fluorescent colors. You can explore how their color system has changed over time on the 50 Years in Color page of their website.

Ridgway is still famed among ornithologists and you can view a copy of his popular 1912 book, Color Standards and Color Nomenclature, in two display cases that are part of the Smithsonian Libraries’ Color in a New Light exhibit. Hyperallergic describes this exhibit at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History as an examination of “the point at which art, history, and science blend through color.” Color in a New Light explores the world of color through varying lenses, including the science of color, making color, matching color, and using color. If your interest is piqued, visit the ground floor of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History at 10th St. and Constitution Ave NW in DC through March of 2017.

Julia Travers

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