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The Bird-Based Color System that Eventually Became Pantone #ArtTuesday

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vi Hyperallergic

An effort to describe the diversity of birds led to one of the first modern color systems. Published by Smithsonian ornithologist Robert Ridgway in 1886, A Nomenclature of Colors for Naturalists categorizes 186 colors alongside diagrams of birds. In 1912, Ridgway self-published an expanded version for a broader audience — Color Standards and Color Nomenclature — that included 1,115 colors. Some referenced birds, like “Warbler Green” and “Jay Blue,” while others corresponded to nature, as in “Bone Brown” and “Storm Gray.”

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Color systems date back centuries, at least to Richard Waller’s 1686 Tabula colorum physiologica. Yet bird-watching hones a sharp eye for color differentiation, so Ridgway had an edge — as well as a drive for perfection enabled by 19th-century synthetic dye advancements. This new color technology wasn’t without its dangers. One sample in Ridgway’s book is labeled “Scheele’s Green,” a reference to Wilhelm Scheele’s toxic mix of arsenic and copper.

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