COLOUR ConTEXT. A Database on Colour Practice and Colour Knowledge

Sylvie Neven, chargée de recherches du FRS-FNRS.

Collections of artisanal recipes are considered to be key primary sources in the historical study of artistic practices and materials. Prominent examples of such documents include the De diversis artibus attributed to Theophilus and the Libro dell’arte by Cennino Cennini. Hundreds of other such examples exist, although these are much less well-known. Artisanal recipes date back to Antiquity. They continued to be written down throughout the Middle Ages into the modern era. In his 2001 publication The Art of All Colours, Mark Clarke compiled an inventory of 400 source documents, dating from the production of the first artists’ recipe collections up to 1500. Since then, dozens of other surviving writings containing artisanal recipes have been discovered. Many more recipes were written down in manuscript and print in the period after 1500.

Starting pageThe Colour ConText database facilitates the consultation and exploitation of a large corpus of recipes. To date, over 600 manuscripts have been assessed and are currently being recorded into the database. The core data consists of medieval and early modern manuscripts and printed books from across Europe.

The Colour ConText database also aims at evaluating the circulation of knowledge of materials and substances used by artisans and shared with other communities (such as apothecaries or physicians) with an epistemic interest in pigments and colouring material. For that purpose, written sources on colour theory have been included in the database.

Structure of the database

The sources

Sans titre

Artisanal recipe collections provide information on various artistic disciplines, such as drawing, painting, frescos, illumination, gilding and metalwork, amongst others. Many of these recipes can be used to identify specific, datable practices and materials, as compilers often specify the name or place of origin of the artisans from whom they obtained their information. Information related to the historical provenance of the source material (obtained through codicological or philological analysis) has also been recorded within the database and may be used for that purpose too.

Recipes related to artisanal practices in the visual and decorative arts were often gathered in the same collection with recipes on other fields of knowledge (such as alchemy, botany, pharmacology or medicine). These are also described within the database. Used in context, these written sources can serve to determine the relationship and connections between artists’ knowledge and other types of knowledge, between the worlds of making and materials and the worlds of scholarship and texts. The database also includes information on the ownership and readership of collections of recipes. This allows users to address questions on the circulation of these recipes outside the workshop.

To date, more than 500 sources (including manuscripts and printed texts) have been entered into the database, specifically located on the ‘Sources’ page. Details such as title, language, location, the provenance and the circulation of these manuscripts and books (place and date of origin/publication), scribes or authors, previous owners, and a description of their technical and/or general content can all be viewed on this first interface. The database also allows access to digital images of these sources via European Cultural Heritage Online (ECHO), or via digital collections made available by external institutes.

The sources can be searched by title, place of conservation or edition, or by keywords related to the subject topics they deal with. These subjects concern technical fields and materials but also the a priori unrelated subject texts found alongside these recipes within the same volume.

The recipes

In the medieval and early modern period, colour recipes specified instructions for the production of pigments, colourants, glues, media, inks and so on. In parallel to the physical descriptions of pigments and colourants, recipes provided information concerning optical characteristics, conservation, (in)compatibility with other sorts of materials and information regarding a material’s ageing properties.

Some of these Recipe_imagetexts also describe the preparation of supports, the application of various layers of paint, suitable mixtures, the use of gold in gilding or how to produce an imitation. In addition, a number of recipes are dedicated to the production, refining or colouring of materials such as textiles, glass, metals, horn, stones and so on.

The database also makes the content of the recipe collections accessible at the level of the individual recipes. To date, more than 6,500 recipes—some consisting of only a few lines, others covering several folios—have been transcribed. The ‘Recipes’ page allows users to consult the transcription of a particular recipe, and sometimes also provides a translation. It also gives access to the specific image of the original recipe text. This layout also enables users to see the data provided by the CICS database established by Doris Oltrogge.

Users can search for a specific request by library, source, title or ID number—a consecutive and unique number assigned to each individual source. It is also possible to search for specific words that appear either in the transcription or the translation of the recipe. Moreover, the recipes are defined using keywords arranged in different thesauri (related to the artistic technique, the technical process and the main ingredients involved within the recipe process). Such subject classification enables queries to be made regarding specific recipes, methods or materials.

The database helps to assess how recipes were modified over time or by other external phenomena, through looking at factors such as frequency within the corpus, basic structure, and evolution. It is also possible to link the development of specific artistic procedures and technical traditions, and to correlate these with more widely diffused techniques.

The glossaries

iThe database also includes a complete list of the ingredients and substances mentioned in the recipes. Materials are indexed both by their current scientific name (‘Current name’) and by the terms exactly as they appear in the source texts (‘Historical name’).

Objects and materials are linked by relational tables that allow the retrieval of all the different historical names used for one particular material—detailing the historical written context—as well as enabling the user to see the various materials that may be related to a specific name.

This layout makes it possible not only to observe the global frequency and recurrence for each ingredient or technical instruction, but also to deduce the availability of artistic material in a chronologically and geographically defined area. These lists also shed light on the diversity of colour names and the complexity of the varied colour terminology used in artisanal recipes.

The bibliography

 References to primary and secondary sources, together with the related bibliographical data, are integrated throughout the database.


The current project is based on a collaboration between the F.N.R.S/ULg, ‘Transitions’ and the Research Group Art and Knowledge in Pre-Modern Europe at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science (Berlin).

Permanent link to the database

Contact persons

Sylvie Neven (Project coordinator and editor), F.N.R.S-FRS, Université de Liège-ULg, Transitions
Sven Dupré (Dir. Research Group Art and Knowledge in Pre-Modern Europe), Max Planck Institute for the History of Science (Berlin)

On this project see also 

– Colour and their context. Art historian Sylvie Neven describes a new database that shows how knowledge on colours occurred and spread in Early Modern Europe

– Colour Context recrée les couleurs anciennes, une interview de Sylvie Neven sur ULg.TV à l’occasion de la mise en ligne de la base de données ColourContext (novembre 2014).

– Julie Luong, « Les procédés de fabrication des pigments répertoriés : Colour ConText, un outil informatique au service de l’art », une interview de Sylvie Neven, Quinzième Jour du mois, 238 (novembre 2014)

Previous presentations of the database

In November 2014

Colour ConText. A Database on Colour Practice and Colour Knowledge


Château de Colonster, 12h-14h : Sylvie Neven, Colour ConText, un outil informatique pour comprendre et restaurer la couleur, une conférence « Liège Créative », en collaboration avec la Maison des Sciences de l’Homme.


Université de Liège, Salle académique, 18h30 : présentation du projet international « Colour ConText » (Berlin, Max Planck Institute (MPIWG) / Liège, Transitions), avec la participation de Sven Dupré et Dirk Wintergrün, suivie d’une conférence de Sylvie Neven, Histoire et sciences de la couleur. 

In February 2013

COLOUR TERMINOLOGY, An international workshop on the historical use and semantics of colour terms at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Berlin on the 31st of January and 1st of February 2013 organized by Carole Biggam, Mark Clarke, Karin Leonhard & Sylvie Neven

In September 2013

International Workshop of the MPRG « Art and Knowledge »: Early Modern Colour Practices, 1450-1650, September 20/21 2013

In October 2013

International Workshop : Alum – A Material at the Crossroads of the Arts, Crafts, and Learned Inquiry, Seminar room of the ‘Villa’, Harnackstr. 5, 14195 Berlin – October 11th, 2013
Organizers: Marjolijn Bol, Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, University of Amsterdam – Sven Dupré, Max Planck Research Group Director, MPIWG/Freie Universität Berlin – Sylvie Neven, Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, University of Liège