Ink Mixing & Ornithology

Linocut locked up on the bed of a Vandercook 4 proof press letterpress. Hawk print for my 2017 calendar printing in progress.
Robert Ridgway bird diagram, from Nomenclature of Colors for Naturalists, 1886

It's always inspiring to discover that two of your interests, which may seem to be merely personal connections within your own life and art, are in fact connected to history, and also to each other.

Since I’ve been drawing so many birds recently, I’ve been reminded of how bird-obsessed I was as a child, and how much of that bird obsession was with their colors. I was particularly enthralled with the red breasts of the robins who ate themselves into drunken stupors on our crab apples in the fall, and their tiny, impossibly blue eggs, of the pure sky color of the mountain blue bird, the indigo of the rowdy steller’s jays, and the bright scarlet faces of turkey vultures. I remember using very particular pens for each bird I drew, each color representing something very specific about each bird.

Ridgway color dictionary page - blues

The other day I came across an article that brought a new connection to my work as an adult artist with a habit of drawing birds, who happens to also sling a lot of very carefully measured ink, called The Bird-Based Color System that Eventually Became Pantonewhich describes how a late 19th century/early 20th century naturalist developed a system of color identification based on birds he observed, which eventually became the very Pantone Matching System I use to mix inks in my studio.

Robert Ridgway was the Smithsonian’s first “Curator of Birds”, and a painstaking documenter of color for naturalists and scientists. Color dictionaries were already a thing in 1886 when Ridgeway began work on his first publication documenting 186 colors, A Nomenclature of Colors for Naturalists, but his work was distinguished by it’s specificity and attention to detail. Ridgeway continued work on his color identification system, and in 1912 self-published a volume of 1,115 colors, Color Standards and Color Nomenclature.

Ridgway color dictionary - greens
Ridgway color dictionary - reds

For ornithologists as well as botanists, color identification, and the ability to communicate those exact colors became the perfect vehicle to develop a method of identifying and objectifying hundreds of variations of similar, subjective colors. Over time, building upon the work of Ridgway and others, the maps and dictionaries of colors grew to into the color charts used by Pantone today, which graphic designers and printers use to communicate exact colors without worry of subjective interpretation.

"The popular nomenclature of colors has of late years, especially since the introduction of aniline dyes and pigments, become involved in almost chaotic confusion through the coinage of a multitude of new names, many of them synonymous, and still more of them vague or variable in their meaning. Many of them are invented at the caprice of the dyer or manufacturer, and are as capricious in their meaning as in their origin; among them being such fanciful names as “Zulu”, “Crushed Strawberry”, “Baby Blue”, “Woodbine-berry”, “Night Green”, etc, besides such nonsensical names as “Ashes of Roses” and “Elephant’s Breath.”" - A Nomenclature of Colors for Artists

Of course today Pantone is famous for its trend-conscious (and setting) Color of the Year, whose names often sound as capricious and vague in meaning as any from Ridgway's time (recent seasonal colors have sported names such as "Carafe", "Corsair", and "Lavendula"). Perhaps there's comfort in consistency in that regard.

Final color printed on red-tailed hawk linocut print.

Which brings me back to my hawk print. Today I printed the final color of the linocut, the “Cinnamon-Rufous” red of its tail, building on the inks I lay down yesterday, “Oil Green”, and “Turquoise Blue”. At least that’s what they look like to me.