Before Pantone Color Chips, There Was This 300-Year-Old Book

Photo: Aix-en-Provence, bibliothèque Méjanes, Ms 1389 (1228).
The announcement of the Pantone Color of the Year has become something of an annual phenomenon. As the recognized authority on color and color trends, Pantone doesn’t simply suggest you keep your eyes peeled for Radiant Orchid, Emerald, or Marsala for the next 12 months, it practically guarantees that you’ll be seeing the shade everywhere on cars, bed sheets, nail polishes, back-to-school supplies, you name it. But as instrumental as the company has become since its launch in 1963, someone else was doing the job nearly 300 years before. And he did it all by hand.

The 1692 Dutch book, listed in French records as Traité des couleurs servant à la peinture à l’eau, was brought to the public’s attention about a year ago by Dutch historian Erik Kwakkel. A quick run through Google Translate will tell you that the title means “color treated for water-based paint” — loosely, that is, as the book has not been translated to English yet — which hints at the handiwork inside by author A. Boogert. As Kwakkel explains, this one-of-a-kind book was created to demonstrate how watercolors could be manipulated to change shade when different measurements of water were added to the mixture. The concept of mixing one's own colors as a primer on color theory will surely be familiar to any first-semester art student, but Boogert's example is notable for its thoroughness — he filled approximately 800 pages with every example imaginable.
Photo: Aix-en-Provence, bibliothèque Méjanes, Ms 1389 (1228).
Beyond being informational, the images from the book are stunning and addictive to flip through. They resemble page after page of Pantone color chips, except without the household name. But this manuscript wasn't a means of referencing fashion trends or your next lipstick shade (as far as we know). Kwakkel reports that the purpose of this book was likely educational. "In the 17th century, an age known as the Golden Age of Dutch Painting, this manual would have hit the right spot." Of course, we can't help but think how relevant this work still is today, no matter how advanced our printing techniques have become. (On the other hand, in 800 pages, did the author ever name a color Marsala?) 

The book is currently housed at Bibliothèque Méjanes in Aix-en-Provence, and more of Kwakkel's translation can be found here.
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