Trivia 047: Making rainbows

In the last two posts, I discussed people attempting to ban the uses of colors. But what if you wanted to create colors rather than ban them?

One of the challenges which has plagued artists and designers throughout the centuries is color. Or, to be more specific, the replication of precise colors. After all, it’s not too difficult to make, say, a piece of cloth red. But what if you’re shooting for one exact shade of red? And you’re not the one mixing the colors, but you are trying to tell someone else halfway around the globe what specific color you want. This is important because you’re going to have five different factories producing the same products, and you need them all to match. You need to be able to precisely (and succinctly) describe what color you want in a way that will leave no room for interpretation. You don’t want any “It’s kind of an apple red, but not like red delicious, more like a gala.”

Enter Pantone. Pantone is a company whose entire business model is based around cataloguing colors. Their Pantone Color Matching System is a list of over 3000 colors, which are all given standardized codes (and fun name). By referencing these codes, an artist or designer can describe specific colors. It might seem a strange way to make a profit, but Pantone has been around since the 1950s. A copy of their Solid Guide Set will run you $466. That is quite expensive, but it is a valuable service to have if you are a designer. After all, colors will look different depending on what machine is used to make them and what they are printed on. By using the color swatches produced by Pantone, you can compare colors and make sure that things match properly.

While there are other color spaces which get used from time to time, Pantone is one of the most ubiquitous and well-known. But it was not the first such guide produced.

As it turns out, color matching is not a new innovation. In 1692, a Dutch artist named “A. Boogert” created a book which describes how to produce every color he could create using watercolors. The completed book is over 800 pages long and entirely handwritten. You can actually browse high-quality scans of the book (which is held in the Bibliothèque Méjanes in France) online here.

If you know anyone who would like to receive these, please have them send an email to [email protected]. And if you’ve already forgotten the color wheel, let me know and I can take you off the list.

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