To celebrate the opening of Saturated: The Allure and Science of Color (May 11, 2018-January 13, 2019), Object of the Day this month will feature colorful objects from the exhibition.
Farbmesstafel (1939) by German chemist and color theorist, Wilhelm Ostwald, is a color table, which displays a spectrum of brilliant hues based on his harmonious color theory. Although, Ostwald began his career in the 1880s studying the effects of physical chemistry, it was not until his retirement in 1906 that he started his work in color theory and color organization. Through the art of painting, Ostwald noticed there were technical problems with color and their harmonious balance with one another. These difficulties set the stage for his research in creating colors through scientific formulas.
In 1916, Ostwald wrote The Colour Primer, which introduced a color system devoted to the relationships between colors, which suggested that harmony is created by color order. He hypothesized that creativity could be arranged in a practical manner and broke his color theory down into two scales. The first part was based on a gray scale with ranges of achromatic colors from white, various ranges of gray, to black. The second was based on a scale of eight, primary hues of yellow, orange, red, violet, ultramarine, turquoise, sea-green and leaf-green. Ostwald proposed this theory in a 3-dimensional format in the shape of a double cone positioned on a circular base. The 3-D classifications were formed into a triangular array of colors, all infused with different levels of achromatic colors. Ostwald also used a numbering and lettering system to designate the amount of white, gray and black added to each color, thus forming scientific notations for the creation of color.
Understanding the science behind colors became one of the many ways Ostwald believed chemistry could contribute to art. It was through this belief that he started to produce his color system into color tables, scales, charts and atlases. Farbmesstafel is one such example of Ostwald’s color theory translated into the form of a color table. This book contains four color plates of color chips representing the range of hues for his eight primary colors and, also a smaller plate containing the achromatic scale. The objective of this book was to help artists create color for their designs by means of chemical formulas and then easily translate them into print through publishing companies.
Wilhelm Ostwald’s Farbmesstafel was a well thought out and planned process. The execution of this book’s layout captures the true sense of the magic of color and his exceptional and harmonious color relationships helped to create a beautiful kaleidoscope of color. Ostwald’s color tables can also be seen as early blueprints for present day color systems, thus ensuring his outstanding talents will carry on through modern times in not only chemistry, but in color theory, as well.
This object will be on view in Saturated: The Allure and Science of Color beginning May 11.
Kara Nichols is a graduate student in the History of Design & Curatorial Studies master’s program offered jointly by the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum and Parsons School of Design. She served as the curatorial capstone for the exhibition, Saturated: The Allure and Science of Color.