Before Pantone

A recent trending topic on the Internet was a 700-plus page color guide made entirely by hand by a Dutch author in 1692, some 271 years before Pantone began mixing a base of colors to match thousands of others. According to medieval book historian Erik Kwakkel who brought this resource to the attention of the Internet at large, the hand-written text on the creation of different colors using water was meant to be studied by any painters and artists who would be fortunate enough to see it.

Page Associate Principal and Senior Designer David Euscher, IIDA, LEED AP, RID, has some thoughts on how people have been trying to understand color for centuries. David knows firsthand of what he speaks - in fact, one of his projects was included in 'bob' International Design Magazine. The issue focused on interiors projects that used color as a defining design element. To see David's thoughts on the 'original' Pantone book, read on.

"What I find interesting about this book is it shows that , as observers of color in our environment we have been trying to understand it so that we can capture the way colors affect us and then repeat it, imitate it, and in so doing, recreate the sensation or effect that was brought about by those colors.. There are studies that show the different ways in which color can affect us psychologically, emotionally, and physically, but this book is a perfect example of something that doesn’t require a study to believe is true – that color is both fascinating, and mysterious and we as people have been trying to understand it for centuries. This book illustrates  one author's attempt to scientifically describe how to achieve specific colors so that producing these colors in artworks can be made more easily and reliably, taking some of the guesswork out of the artists’ creative process.

"Interestingly, there has been a movie released that parallels a similar curiosity. In the documentary film Tim’s Vermeer, Tim Jenison, a video engineer and inventor, investigates how the 17th-century Dutch painter Vermeer was able to use color to paint with such verisimilitude and luminosity. He postulates that Vermeer must have used a large camera obscura to create a 2D image of the 3D scene onto a canvas, which gave him a precise image to paint over and create his notable works. The film chronicles a five year long journey in which Tim Jenison tries to create a painted replica of Vermeer’s “The Music Lesson” by hand using a camera obscura of his own design. This example poses an interesting parallel in that today one engineer (and non-painter) has sought to make scientific the process of creating art much in the way that this historic Dutch author has tried to create formulas of pigment and water to capture an encyclopedic spectrum of colors that can be used by artists, and perhaps non-artists alike.

"Today, we use Pantone and other color matching systems to use color in a reproducible and reliable way, which demonstrates the importance that is placed on not just using color, but in using the right color to achieve the desired effect, whether in an environment, in a corporate logo, or in fashion or fine art. Interesting too are the parallels between the old manuscript and the web-based tools we use today to find the “right” color. We can look at the 17th century reference book and see how the artist/author showed how to achieve a particular color and how close variations might be reached. Similarly, when we search for that color online using available web based tools, we see a similar presentation technique and scientific formula to achieve the desired color, whether in commercially available house paint or digital media.

"We know today that the range of colors that we can see and experience occurs in a continuum of color differences across the spectrum, and that no system of discrete colors can ever fully capture the way that color occurs in nature. Minute by minute, colors change all around us as light conditions change, and we absorb and respond to all of these different colors continuously through the day. We may not be consciously aware of the effect those changes have on us but with the catalog of colors to choose from, perhaps a man-made approximation of these colors can stimulate intentional physical and psychological responses by association. As designers of the built environment, we can use these tools to help create the desired responses from those who occupy the spaces we design."

Contributed By

David Euscher