One of my greatest joys as a writer is discovering and using new color words. I was the sort of child who drooled over 96- or 128- count boxes of crayons and colored pencils, poured over my mother’s Land’s End catalogues for the hues of turtlenecks and sundresses, and spent far too much time picking out skeins of embroidery floss for my projects. I wanted them all – every variant of the spectrum.
It was simply not enough to say that my favorite color was blue. Blue like the sky? Blue like my eyes? Blue like a blueberry? Blue like Aladdin’s genie? Or red. Like apples? Like blood? Like Mom’s manicured nails?
Words that correspond directly to every day objects are the best. Saffron, mint, raspberry, sea, tangerine, pine, rose, melon, stone, lime, sky, brick, butter, olive, jay-blue, ink, ginger, peridot, amethyst, copper. They make my mouth water. They are sensual, real words – not abstract concepts. Some are rough to the hands. Some have a scent. Some have a tang. Some sound like water.
I like a deep description of color – a specific hue that evokes emotion in the observing or narrative character. Eyes are a great example of this. Clichéd but not always. No lodestars here.
In Diana Gabaldon’s second Outlander novel (A Dragonfly in Amber), Jamie takes his time naming the color of Claire’s eyes: an aged Scotch. How can you not have gooseflesh hearing that? How can you not know exactly what color he means?
In The Princess Bride, Buttercup describes her long-lost Westley as having eyes “like the sea after a storm.”
In contrast, there is Twilight. The color of Edward’s eyes is important to the story as it corresponds to how hungry he is for blood. Sometimes they’re black. Sometimes butterscotch. Sometimes ochre. What?
The problem isn’t ochre itself. It’s that there isn’t a context, just a vague sense that this weird-color word might mean yellow, gold or butterscotch. What the word doesn’t say is that ochre could mean a lot of different things – reds, browns and golds in their own little family. Without this distinction ochre could mean anything from weak tea to autumn leaves.
(Bless Stephenie Meyer. She loves her characters, but she could have done with another refining draft and less thesaurusing. Another word that bugged me is her use of “seraphic” as a direct synonym for “angelic.”)
Don’t get me wrong. I’m glad Meyer used ochre. If anything it is a reminder to be careful, to give a word (any descriptive word) a spark of context in order to bring out its beauty and its significance. It got me into the habit of brushing up on my color words to make sure I was using them right… especially those not directly related to food or nature or other objects we encounter in every life.
With the exception of ochre, most of the following colors are in-betweens, threshold colors that can’t quite make up their minds just what they are. I might just like these best.
Ochre (or ocher) is “hydrated iron oxide” a natural pigment that reminds me of ground ginger or curry.
Bright Red-orange, cousin to scarlet. (Crimson leans more towards the red side of the family.) I’ve been obsessed with my red-orange colored pencil lately, using it to highlight and emphasize in my journal.
Mauve (maw-v or mow-v) is that strange borderland between pink and violet. It sometimes mixes with grey and leans toward taupe. It is also the universal distress signal, according to Doctor Who. Mauve is named for a French flower of the same hue, a color of sunsets.
Cyan is a greenish blue, a cousin to turquoise. It is sometimes the color of the ocean, sometimes the sky. It is never the same in any two places, but it doesn’t have to be. This, I believe, is the color of Westley’s eyes.
The most mysterious color on the light spectrum. Ink or night. Is it purple or blue? Both? Neither? The color is so rich it could be black, but just not quite.
Today as I was writing this post, I discovered that Mental_floss has an excellent post on color shades from Ingrid Sundberg. I was thrilled, naturally, to have new words to add to my word-palate… and began thinking about new ones.
The world is, after all, so much more than a dozen crayons. Our stories deserve to be, too.