Posted by: Rob Viens | March 26, 2012

A Thousand Shades of Blue

Sailing south with a fair wind, Darwin notes on the 26th of March that:

“These three days, like the weather, have passed away with quietness & enjoyment.” (Mar 24/25/26)

I found today to be rather poetic for Darwin.. All that fair weather must have put him in a state of mind for describing the beauty of the sea and the sky.  His diary entry today discusses the beauty of the southern sky – a topic that Darwin reflects on frequently (see A New Sky):

“At night in these fine regions of the Tropics there is one certain & never failing source of enjoyment, it is admiring the constellations in the heaven. — Many of those who have seen both hemispheres give the victory to the stars of the North. — It is however to me an inexpressible pleasure to behold those constellations, the first sight of which Humboldt describes with such enthusiasm. — I experience a kindred feeling when I look at the Cross of the South, the phosphorescent clouds of Magellan & the great Southern Crown.” (Mar 24/25/26)

The Milky Way hanging in the southern sky over the European Southern Observatory at La Silla (from ESO/S. Brunier):
southern sky over La Silla

When he was not looking at the sky, Darwin was looking at the sea, and the entry from his Zoological Notebooks today is swimming in shades of blue:

“I had been struck by the beautiful colour of the sea when seen through the chinks of a straw hat.— To day 26th. Lat 18°6′ S: Long 36°6′ W. it was according to Werner nomenclature ‘Indigo with a little Azure blue’. The sky at the time was ‘Berlin with little Ultra marine’ & there were some cirro cumili scattered about.” (Zoological Notebook, Mar 26)

And there is more a couple of days later:

“During this day (28th) the colour of sea varied, being sometimes black “Indigo blue”, in evening very green.” (Zoological Notebook, Mar 28)

Darwin has a fantastic vocabulary for color (see also Colorful Corals and Cuttlefish). This is a great skill for an observer in a time before photographs – everything had to be captured in words, so it paid to be able to describe subtle differences.

That thought brings us back to our friend Abraham Gottlob Werner (see Neptunists, Plutonists and the Significant of Granite). In the late 170’s he actually came up with a standard color scheme for describing rocks and minerals. This scheme was adapted by an Edinburgh flower painter, Patrick Syme, who used actual minerals described by Werner, to create paint colors. He then put together a short book called Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours – listing all the different colors and using his paints to provide an example of each. This book created a set of standards to assure that all naturalists were describing the world using consistent terminology.  Darwin had a copy of the book on the voyage with him, which almost certainly explains his “colorful vocabulary”. Field scientists still use similar guides today.

Patrick Baty from the UK has an excellent post on Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours. I highly recommend checking it out. The image below is an example from Syme’s book, via Baty’s page. Notice along with the color, Syme also listed an example of an animal, a plant and a mineral that best embodies that color.

Page from Werner's Nomenclature of Colours

I imagine that an original copy of this book is truly a thing of beauty. (RJV)

PS – I started out planning to write about purple snails today – I’ll have to come back to that tomorrow!


  1. Tomorrow we’ll expect a post about violet, lavender, and other synonyms for purple snails. Had no idea about the color standards prior to photos… very cool.

    • I know – pretty cool, eh? The purple snails have a pretty “plain” name, but they do not cease to amaze… 🙂

  2. […] There are those spectacular colors again – orpiment (an yellowish-orange mineral) and vermilion red.  It’s been months but I still love the way Darwin uses color (for more see A Thousand Shades of Blue). […]

  3. […] cases uses calibrated scales such as Werner’s color scales mentioned in earlier posts (see A Thousand Shades of Blue). It seems like he should have known about the scale by […]

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