Color Picker, Circa 1692

It’s always fun to pull rank on the whippersnappers: Back when there was no cut-and-paste, back when there was no Undo command, back in the days of 3×5 notecards and rubber cement and Wite-Out—you kids don’t even know how to spell Wite-Out anymore, do you? But then there are those who, in turn, put me in my place, and thank goodness for that.

I’m thinking, particularly, of A. Boogert. Boogert—no known first name—was a late 17th-century Dutchman; perhaps a painter, or a scientist, or maybe just a layman interested in color. In 1692 he completed a book, handwritten and illustrated, on mixing watercolors, nearly 800 pages of painstakingly mixed colors labeled with formulas for mixing and diluting. Only one known copy of the book, translated into French as Traité des couleurs servant à la peinture à l’eau, has survived. It’s held at the Bibliothèque Méjanes in Aix-en-Provence, France, and—ironically, I suppose—has been digitized so that, in an age of Pantone color matching and hexadecimal color converters, it can finally reach a far wider audience than the original ever did.

Just to skim through reveals what an enormous amount of work and time it must have encompassed, what a labor of love A. Boogert’s book was. And it’s almost ridiculously soothing to look at—rather than eye candy, this is like eye Xanax. If you wanted to get a little crazy, you could move on from there to something like this recipe book for decorated paper, compiled in Germany in the late 19th century and held by the National Library of the Netherlands. I think I’ll stay awhile with Boogert’s work, though, and imagine him with his sable hair brushes and mixing trays, carefully filling in rectangle after rectangle and keeping careful notes on each. Back when there was no eyedropper tool, kids, you measured out your colors in grains of pigment and drops of water, and if you wanted to write a book about it, you did so one perfect swatch at a time.


4 Comments to Color Picker, Circa 1692

  1. kate b's Gravatar kate b
    June 17, 2014 at 8:02 am | Permalink

    These pages just amaze me – the precision of the swatches and those subtle shifts of color. And they are so beautiful – all that color. And as someone who is at present doing oil color swatches I keep thinking “and he didn’t even have masking tape!”

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