Dec 3rd, 2011 | | Aesthetics | Colour Ranges | No Comments

Hay’s Nomenclature of Colours (1)

Plate 1 - Nomenclature of Colours

Plate 1
The Primary Colours above and the Secondary Colours below1

A Nomenclature of Colours, Hues, Tints, and Shades, Applicable to the Arts and Natural Sciences; to Manufactures, and other Purposes of General Utility was written by David Ramsay Hay (see below) and published in 1845.

Hay was influenced by George Field’s Chromatography; or, a Treatise on Colours and Pigments and Goethe’s Theory of Colours. He developed a numerical system of colour relationships based on the Primary, Secondary and Tertiary Colours.

The Nomenclature is one of Hay’s scarcest books and one of the most important. It is an early and rare collection of numbered colour samples, many of which are named. Therein lies its importance. Instead of relying on 21st century interpretations of colour names, one can see examples of what was felt to be “drab colour”, “Sage green”, “olive” etc. in the 1840s. As in other of Hay’s books, the plates are here made up of multi-coloured triangles of coloured paper pasted on engraved card stock. There are 40 plates having a total of 240 mounted and identified chips.2

Hay’s work is very complex and my aim here is merely to provide a taster. To that end I will describe the Primary, Secondary and Tertiary Colours in this post and give further examples of his theories in a subsequent one.



“It unites with the other two primaries in the production of the secondary colours, orange and purple, which are its melodizing tones, and the union of the other two primaries in green, forms its contrasting colour. The tertiary colour or hue in which red predominates, is a reddish-brown called russet.

The first decided change that occurs in its admixture with yellow is intense scarlet; and in its progress on the other side towards blue, the first change that takes place upon it, is the production of that beautiful species of red called crimson…

In art, the purest red that can be produced is carmine, a pigment made from cochineal, of which Figure I. Plate I is a specimen.”

Cochineal Beetle from which Carmine is obtained

Cochineal Beetle from which Carmine is obtained


“Combines with red in the production of orange colour, and with blue in that of green, which colours are its melodizing tones. Its contrasting colour is purple, resulting from the combination of the other two primaries.

The hue in which yellow predominates is called citrine, a compound of orange colour and green.

The pigments used in art for the most part the product of minerals, amongst which the chromate of lead, called chrome yellow, is the purest. Figure 2. Plate I is this pigment.”

Chrome Yellow

Chrome Yellow


“It imparts to every hue of which it forms a constituent, a cooling and retiring quality, and enters into combination with yellow in the production of green, and with red in that of purple, which are consequently its melodizing colours. The contrasting colour to blue is orange, and the tertiary in which it predominates is olive – a composition of green and purple.

Amongst minerals, the lapis lazuli presents the purest blue that can be conceived, and is converted by a very simple process into an equally beautiful pigment.”

Ultramarine Blue



Orange - Hay's Nomenclature of Colours

Orange colour is the most powerful of the secondaries, and is a compound of yellow and red. Between these two colours it appears in the prismatic spectrum, rainbow, and other natural phenomena. They are, therefore, its melodizing colours, and its contrasting colour is the primary blue…From its combination with green arises the hue citrine, and with purple that of russet.”

Green - Hay's Nomenclature of Colours


Green is the medial colour of the secondaries, and is a compound of yellow and blue; its melodizing tones being these two primaries, and its contrasting colour red…From the union of green with orange arises the lightest of the hues, citrine; and from that with purple the deepest, olive colour – to which it is particularly allied.”


Purple - Hay's Nomenclature of Colours


Purple arises from the union of red and blue, and forms the proper contrast to pure yellow. The two colours of which it is compounded are its melodizing tones..In combination with green it produces that soft and useful hue, olive; and with orange the most powerful of this class, russet.”


“Hues are those combinations in which the three elements occur in their full intensity, and in such proportions as give them a distinct character. The three primary hues are those which arise from the combination of the secondary colours with one another. That arising from the combination of orange and green, is called citrine – that from orange and purple, russet – and that from purple and green, olive. Their distinctions arise from a double occurrence of yellow in the first, of red in the second, and of blue in the third. There is a second class of hues, or semi-neutrals, formed by the union of the first class. Thus the mixture of citrine and russet produces a hue having the same relation to orange that citrine has to yellow. That of citrine and olive produces one having the same relation to green that olive has to blue; and that of russet with olive, another having the same relation to purple that russet has to red.”


Russet - Hay's Nomenclature of Colours


The Tertiary colour Russet was produced by mixing the Secondary colours orange and purple.

Citrine - Hay's Nomenclature of Colours

The Tertiary colour Citrine was produced by mixing the Secondary colours orange and green.


Olive - Hay's Nomenclature of Colours

The Tertiary colour Olive was produced by mixing the Secondary colours purple and green.

D.R. Hay
David Ramsay Hay (1798–1866) was a decorative painter and writer on art and design. His father having died while he was young, he was placed in a printing office as a ‘reading boy’. His talent for drawing led to an apprenticeship to Gavin Beugo, a heraldic and decorative painter in Edinburgh. A fellow apprentice who became a lifelong friend was the painter David Roberts.

Taking the advice of Sir Walter Scott to study house-painting, rather than risk obscurity and penury as an artist, he set out to master the art. In April 1820 he commenced work at Abbotsford for Sir Walter and worked there for many years.

By the late 1820s Hay was established at 89 and afterwards at 90 George Street, Edinburgh. His business was very successful and he carried out many important commissions – Holyrood Palace, the National Gallery of Scotland, in Edinburgh, and the hall of the Royal Society of Arts, London. In the early 1840s he was appointed ‘decorative painter to Her Majesty, Edinburgh’.

From the start of his career, Hay took an interest in the theoretical side of his work and in 1828 published the first of a number of books, The Laws of Harmonious Colouring. This work ran to six editions in nineteen years, each edition increasing in scope. It is the last of these The Laws of Harmonious Colouring adapted to Interior Decorations, with observations on the practice of house painting that is the most useful for anyone studying the use of paint and colour in nineteenth century decoration.

Plate 2 - Hay's Nomenclature of Colours
The Teriary colours (above) and the Secondary colours (below)

The success of his first book led to him producing a series of other, highly theoretical volumes which investigated such subjects as the harmony of form, the principles of colouring, and the role of symmetry and proportion in defining beauty. (see a list of his works below)

Among these works, the most successful was his Nomenclature of Colours, the first edition of which was published in 1845, and which earned him the acclaim of much of the British press, as well as the acceptance of scientific authorities as respected as James David Forbes and James Clerk Maxwell, both of whom made use of Hay’s system.

Subsequent volumes dealt with Hay’s ideas on beauty and proportion to the human head, the human figure, and architecture, culminating in his treatise of 1856, The Science of Beauty largely premised on Pythagorean notions of harmonic numbers and ratios. His theories reflect a curious admixture of influences, ranging from Scottish commonsense philosophy to phrenology, and demonstrating a close proximity to the ideas of George Field, probably the most widely read authority on colour in nineteenth-century Britain and author of the theory of chromatic equivalents, which established specific mathematical proportions for defining colours.

Both Field’s and Hay’s theories were adopted in the 1850s by the Science and Art Department at South Kensington, and continued to be taught in the British system of government-supported schools of art well into the 1880s, gaining currency through their incorporation into the works of art-educational authorities such as Richard Redgrave and Owen Jones. Although most of his ideas are completely discredited today and dismissed as pseudo-science, Hay’s influence in his own time was extensive.4

Hay Note
Notes written in pencil, while painters were at work at 13 Moray Place, Edinburgh in 1871, by John Fraser.
These were found in my copy of Hay’s Nomenclature

It appears that the dado in one room was to be painted in one of the reds on either Plate 14 or Plate 20. The walls in the large bedroom a colour from Plate 30 and the dado in a colour from either Plate 17 or Plate 4. One imagines that other owners of this book would have thought carefully about the use of paint colour having read it.

Moray Place, Edinburgh
Moray Place, Edinburgh

1 Note how No 6 (Orange) has discoloured – see the Orange on another Plate.
2 Bibliographic notes – I am grateful to Charles B. Wood III Inc.
3 Note also how the Russet colour has become discoloured.
4 Biographical notes on Hay taken from the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography article by R. C. Denis.

I apologise for the poor quality of the illustrations in this post. My copy of this work is a pristine, vellum-bound, one and I cannot scan the colour plates without putting a strain on the binding, so photographs will have to do.

Current Availability of Colours
As with almost all the colours shown on this site they could be mixed into conventional modern paint by Papers and Paints Ltd

D.R. Hay Bibliography
a) The Laws of Harmonious Colouring Adapted to Interior Decorations, Manufactures, and other Useful Purposes. 1828. 2nd edn. 1829; 3rd edn. 1836; 4th edn. 1838; 5th edn. 1844.
b) The Laws of Harmonious Colouring adapted to Interior Decorations, with observations on the practice of house painting. 6th edn. 1847.
c) The Natural Principles and Analogy of the Harmony of Form. 1842.
d) Proportion or, The Laws of Beauty Analysed. 1843.
e) Original geometric diaper designs, accompanied by an attempt to develop and elucidate the true principles of ornamental design, as applied to the decorative arts. 1844.
f) A Nomenclature of Colours, Hues, Tints, and Shades, Applicable to the Arts and Natural Sciences; to Manufactures, and other Purposes of General Utility. 1845.
g) The Principles of Beauty in Colouring Systematized. 1845.
h) The First Principles of Symmetrical Beauty. 1846.
i) The Natural Principle of Beauty, as developed in the Human Figure. 1852.
j) The Harmonic Law of Nature Applied to Architectural Design. 1855.
k) The Science of Beauty as developed in Nature and Applied in Art. 1856.

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