What, Exactly, is Exact Dutch Yellow?

November 30, 2022

Text by Marin R. Sullivan on the exhibition Exact Dutch Yellow by Petra Bachmaier and Sean Gallero of Luftwerk. The exhibition is on view at the Chicago Cultural Center in Chicago between October 22, 2022-January 29, 2023.


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Exact Dutch Yellow, Chicago Cultural Center, Chicago, 2022. © John Faier.

In 1908, Francis Darwin, the son of the noted English naturalist and biologist Charles Darwin (1809-1882), transferred what he called the “Darwin Library” to the Botany School at Cambridge University. While the collection of books owned by the scientist at the time of his death was substantial, the true value of the gift lied in the hundreds of the volumes that contained annotations made by Darwin, marks scribbled in the margins and notes written on pages or scraps of inserted paper. One of the donated books was Darwin’s copy of Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours, which he had notably taken on his HMS Beagle voyage (1831-36) to help identify various species of flora and fauna.

First published in 1814, Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours is based on the work of German geologist Abraham Gottlob Werner (1749-1817) who established a standard of fifty-four colors in order to better identify the visual characteristics of minerals in his book Treatise on the External Characters of Fossils. In the early nineteenth century, there was no Pantone Matching System or Hex codes in which to classify or distinguish specific colors, and so it was the Scottish flower painter Patrick Syme (1774-1845) who took up Werner’s initial nomenclature and expanded it to include not only vivid descriptions of 110 colors, in ten categories of color (whites, greys, blacks, blues, purples, greens, yellows, oranges, reds, and browns) corresponding to animal, plant, and mineral examples found in nature, but also included hand-painted swatch for each hue. As Syme wrote, “Description without figure is generally difficult to be comprehended; description and figure are in many instances still defective; but description, figure, and colour combined form the most perfect representation, and are next to seeing the object itself.”1

At its most basic, nomenclature simply means a name or a designation, though it is more commonly used to denote a classification of names or the assigning of those names into a list, set, or catalogue. An individual can create a nomenclature, but in application the term is generally understood as system of information, used—agreed to on principle—by a multiplicity of individuals within specific field, discipline, or community. This is where a nomenclature gives way to what might be more aptly understood as a standard, the point at which a system, a mode of organization or a way of understanding, is bestowed with authority and an approving consensus.

Syme’s robust reenvisioning of Werner’s original nomenclature produced a tremendously useful resource for both artists and scientists during a particularly vibrant moment of discovery in human history. The full title of Syme’s books speaks to this fact: Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours, with Additions, Arranged So as to Render It Useful to the Arts and Sciences, Particularly Zoology, Botany, Chemistry, Mineralogy, and Morbid Anatomy. The book indeed proved an invaluable asset to Darwin and his assistant Syms Covington, who used it extensively during the Beagle expedition, which circumvented the globe. The combined influence of Werner and Syme’s color classification on Darwin is evident in the writing he did during his five-year voyage, much of which was subsequently published as the Beagle Zoology Notes. Darwin used the specific language from the Nomenclature to describe bodies of water as “Indigo with a little Azure blue,” and the sky as “Berlin with a little Ultra marine.” Or, in another example in which Darwin recounted his first encounter with an octopus in the Cape Verde Islands in 1832, he wrote that the creature’s body was a “French grey,” but changed shades, creating “continually passing clouds, varying in colour from a ‘hyacinth red’ to a ’Chesnut brown’.”2 In another subsequent, related publication, entitled Catalogue for Specimens in Spirit of Wine, “Chesnut brown” as well as other colors from Werner’s Nomenclature like “Dutch orange” are used to describe a diverse array of species.

Dutch Orange first appeared in Werner’s original fifty-four color nomenclature from 1774, though at that time he referred to it as simply “Orange Yellow.” Syme renamed the yellow-orange hue, and in Werner’s Nomenclature it is listed as the 76th color, serving as the transition between the categories of yellow and orange, in between “Cream Yellow” and “Buff-Orange. In Syme’s expanded version, Dutch Orange is described as the “orange yellow of Werner,” but also by its physical pigments, a combination of “gamboge yellow, with carmine red.” Syme further identified the color through the following animal, plant, and mineral analogues: “Crest of Golden crested Wren;” “Common marigold, Seedpod of Spindle-tree;” and “Streak of Red Orpiment [an arsenic sulfide mineral].”3

Colors like Dutch Orange are a phenomena in and of nature, and Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours sought to make evident this connection. The book, however, was never simply a list of differently name colors, but rather a system, a roadmap for understanding how colors come to be and how they exist in the world. Crucial to this formation was the embedded assertion throughout the text that colors are the result of a combination of colors—gambone yellow, for example, with some carmine red. As Syme wrote at length,

Those who have paid any attention to colours, must be aware that it is very difficult to give colours for every object that appears in nature; the tints are so various, and the shades so gradual, they would extend to many thousands… but those who study the colours given, will, by following Werner’s plan, improve their knowledge of colours; and the eye, by examining the component parts of the colour of any object, though differing in shade or tint from any of the colours given in this series, they will see that it partakes of, or passes into, some one of them. It is of great importance to be able to judge of the intermediate shades or tints between colours, and find out their component parts, as it enables us correctly to describe the colour of any object whatever.4

For Syme and Werner before him such combination, however, was an inherently imprecise endeavor: “a considerable portion of velvet black,” “a little lemon yellow,” “a slight tinge of carmine red.” The two colors that followed Dutch Orange in Werner’s Nomenclature are Buff Orange, as seen in the “streak from the eye of the King Fisher” and Orpiment Orange, visible in the “neck ruff of the golden pheasant and the belly of the warty newt.” In writing of their formations, Syme noted that the former was a “sienna yellow, with a little Dutch Orange,” and the latter was the “characteristic colour” of orange, “about equal parts of gamboge yellow and arterial blood red.”5

The inherent imprecision of color, in reference to its combination of hues, identification, and the language used to describe it, is made acutely apparent through a small note Darwin made in the 1821 version of Werner’s Nomenclature he had with him on the HMS Beagle and that was subsequently donated to Cambridge. As described in the accompanying Catalogue of the Library of Charles Darwin now in the Botany School, Francis Darwin made what seems to be a minor note about some observations written by his father on a blank page at beginning of this copy of Werner’s Nomenclature, which read: “Beak of female ash grey, male nearly black, legs &c. exact dutch yellow.”6 The annotation was likely related to the description published in the Beagle Zoology Notes about the striated caracara, a now near threatened bird of prey native to the Falkland Islands also known as the Johnny rook.7 While perhaps just a momentary slip of transcription, the conversion from Dutch Orange to Exact Dutch Yellow serves as a reminder that the naming of color is anything but consistent and far from exact.

Though now rare in its application within the English language, the etymology of nomenclature also includes the word as a transitive verb, meaning “to give name to.” In Exact Dutch Yellow, the Chicago-based collaborative Petra Bachmaier and Sean Gallero of Luftwerk Studio undertake an act of nomenclature, using as Darwin had done centuries earlier, Werner’s Nomenclature as a resource to identify and define the interconnected environments human being inhabit and encounter. The book also became an entry point into how other naturalists, voyagers, and philosophers have grappled with understanding and classifying color, including Robert Ridgway (1850-1929), who further expanded Syme’s text in his work on color systematics and the classification of North American birds, as well as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859), and Isaac Newton (1643-1727). The writings and theories of these individuals underpin Exact Dutch Yellow, the exhibition not simply a didactic or historical exercise. Rather, it offers a space to revel, to be overwhelmed and in awe, in the complexities, the sheer beauty of the phenomenon of color. As Bachmaier notes,

Even if you have a nomenclature, there can be a deviation that becomes its own story, its own system. It is also a very subjective experience of color. What you see is not what I see. And if we agree on a name, it might end up being its own name based on your feedback. Color is a subjective experience. Even if we try to frame color as a scientific experience of our visual world, it is an appearance that we try to understand or that we try to make tangible. In itself, color is a sensory experience that is very unique to every person.8

Exact Dutch Yellow illuminates, quite literally, the poetry of naming color, of defining and fixing it in place, while simultaneously highlighting the profound difficulty if not outright impossibility of doing so. Beyond the presence of pure powdered pigments, airbrushed panels of botanical dyes, and multihued paintings, it is the application and manipulation of light that makes color physically manifest in the exhibition. Color is, after all, an effect of light, a connection first proven by Newton in the 1660s when he passed a beam of light through a prism, establishing that clear white light was composed of seven visible colors also known as the ROYGBIV colors (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet). Throughout Exact Dutch Yellow, light is used to demonstrate the capricious physics of color, amplifying, distorting, and throwing into high contrast a seemingly endless range of changing, visible hues.

Like light and color, Luftwerk is itself of composite of components, made of two individuals but also from the combination of two German words: Luft and Werk. The former, meaning air, suggest ephemerality and the often immaterial and volatile properties of light, which has served as a through line across their creative practice. The latter alludes to both the labor and processes they undertake as well as the resulting forms, or artworks, they realize. The combining of Luft and Werk to create Luftwerk thus is not only a neologism that points to artistic partnership but also a mode of collectivity, of blending, that facilitates space for profound, subjective experience. This approach to artmaking is perhaps also particularly well suited to tackling the subject matter of color and light. As Gallero states,

We use light as the medium to shift your perception, to change the surface, whether it's a material, an organic or an architectural surface. We use light to shift colors and dimensionality, to create immersion, to create experience, to transform spaces. Spaces become canvas for light. And color now is the canvas for light. They're partners and collaborate with each other. You have one additive; you have one subtractive. We are interested in fusing the physical and ephemeral qualities of color, together they can form a large canvas in creating an immersive experience.

Exact Dutch Yellow presents abstracted, atmospheric sculptural light installations, immersive experiences, that refuse to offer any singular prescription for how to see or experience them. To stand in front of, or rather within, these works is to experience the phenomenon of color both optically and physically but with an awareness that whatever you experience will be unique and ineffable. At the heart of the exhibition, underscored by its title, is the tacit acknowledgment that for all of its visibility, for all its presence, color—or at least how we name, classify, and experience it—remains subjective if not outright illusory. As the noted German-born artist and educator Josef Albers (1888-1976) remarked in his landmark book Interaction of Color that, “The visual perception of color is almost never as it really is—as it physically is. This fact makes color the most relative medium in art. In order to use color effectively it is necessary to recognize that color deceives continually.”9 Anniversary Edition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013), 1. Both the truth and deception of color is omnipresent in Exact Dutch Yellow. Visible in presentations of rich botanical pigments and ombre paint, the expansive glow of neon and LED lighting, color becomes both an undeniable material fact and and a fleeting optical trick. The collective effect, however, creates a profound reminder, to use Syme’s phrasing, that while “very little” in this world may be as at seems, a “considerable portion” is well worth the trouble of looking.

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Landscape of Perception, Exact Dutch Yellow, Chicago Cultural Center, Chicago, 2022. © John Faier.

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Portrait No. 1 Yellow to Blue, Exact Dutch Yellow, Chicago Cultural Center, Chicago, 2022. © John Faier.

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Landscape of Perception, Exact Dutch Yellow, Chicago Cultural Center, Chicago, 2022. © John Faier.

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Meadow, Exact Dutch Yellow, Chicago Cultural Center, Chicago, 2022. © John Faier.

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Meadow, Exact Dutch Yellow, Chicago Cultural Center, Chicago, 2022. © John Faier.

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The Sky at the Time was Berlin Blue, Exact Dutch Yellow, Chicago Cultural Center, Chicago, 2022. © John Faier.

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Dusky Blue, Exact Dutch Yellow, Chicago Cultural Center, Chicago, 2022. © John Faier.


Artists: Petra Bachmaier and Sean Gallero of Luftwerk
Curator and Exhibition Designer: Greg Lunceford, City of Chicago DCASE
Guest Writer: Marin R. Sullivan
Installed by:
NFA Space and in collaboration with Stephen Monkemeier
Organized by:
City of Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DCASE)
John Faier
October 22, 2022-January 29, 2023

1 Patrick Syme, Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours (London: Natural History Museum, 2018), 6.
2 Charles Darwin, Charles Darwin’s Zoology Notes and Specimen Lists from H.M.S. Beagle, ed. Richard Keynes (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 6.
3 Syme, 43-4.
4 Ibid., 13-4.
5 Ibid., 43-4.
6 Francis Darwin, “Introduction,” in H.W. Rutherford, Catalogue of the Library of Charles Darwin now in the Botany School, Cambridge (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1908), X.
7 Elaine Charwat, “Colours in Zoology: Subjective or Systematic,” in Patrick Baty, Nature’s Palette: A Color Reference System from the Natural World (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2021), 130.
8 Author interview with Luftwerk, February 14, 2022.
9 Josef Albers, Interaction of Color, 50th