The Cooper-Hewitt design museum in New York houses a giant library which possesses a wealth of historical editions, more particularly about colour. I was there last week and was given access to some historical books, unique in the world. Some of the two oldest editions in the collection are Coloritto, or the Harmony or Colouring in painting from 1720 and the Farbenkabinet from 1794.

Coloritto by F.C. le Bon is a remarkable book in English / French that seems to have been a colour basic book for artists. It contains detailed guidelines on how to apply colour to paint certain objects such as skin, sky, nature and so on. The author draws on lost techniques from the great masters of Greek antiquity and puts it in a surprisingly modern-looking handbook for the time. The book ends with a somewhat strange hand painted colour palette.

The Farbenkabinet from 1794 consists of an endless series of meticulous recipes for making paint and its applications. A real “cookbook” for the painter. Surprisingly, the publisher added a collection of 2592 colour strips, painted by hand and with unique names. Unbelievable how well the colours still shine after all these centuries, surely an advertisement for the recipes.

On your way to New York and colour crazy? Don’t hesitate. Making an appointment is necessary, so plan your visit. I was received very kindly and helpfully by the librarian Jennifer Cohlman Bracchi. Her Telephone is + 1 212.849.8333 or mail

You can consult the book titles from their collection in advance so that you know what to ask for. Surf to

Inez Michiels

All pictures were taken in Smithsonian Libraries, Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Library in New York.