Lazette Gifford
Publisher & Editor



Painting with Words

By Lazette Gifford
Lazette Gifford

Bokhara, gridlin, salferino...

Chances are these are three descriptive words you have not used before -- and yet, they may be just the words you're looking for, along with annatto, gules, and stammel.  Or perhaps your sunset is not quite so exotic, and the colors you're looking for are amethyst, orchid, and mauve, along with cinnabar, rust, and ruby.

I've yet to find any place that will actually show me these exotic colors, even though they are listed in a thesaurus with the first three (bokhara, gridlin, and salferino) as types of purple and the second three (annatto, gules, and stammel) as variations of red.  Obviously, learning new names for colors is not enough.  You have to be able to see that color in your mind to apply it properly to your manuscript.

A sunset of salferino and annatto won't evoke an image the way that amethyst and rust will because most readers will not have the mental links that call up the right colors.  It could, in fact, bump the reader out of the story in a moment of confusion.

There are many other unusual colors that will not jar the reader.  However, more often than not, writers will go for the far easier description -- a sunset of dark purple and blood red.  Yes, we can see those colors, but they're dull compared to what the reader could be experiencing.

Your Turn #1:

This is a picture of a sunset that has a wide range of colors.  Below are links to several color charts, although a color chart in an art book would be much better because these are almost all HTML safe colors, and that limits the choices.  However, these lists will still give you some options you might not normally choose.

Write up two lists of the colors you see in this picture. Do the first without consulting the color charts.  Do a second to see how many more colors you can pick out with the help of a chart to give you names.

This last one also has several interesting links attached.  Wander through them. 

Learning Subtle Differences

I've mentioned this before: there is a theory that until we have words for something, we cannot fully experience it.  If the only word we have for a range of colors is purple, then we are not going to experience the finer grades beyond perhaps light purple and dark purple.  However, the moment you accept the word amethyst and can associate a color with it, you begin to see that color in the world around you.

Writers need to experience colors in a wider range than people who do not need to communicate the color of that sunset to others who have never seen it, not even in a picture.  We all know that words are the author's tools, but sometimes we settle for a blunt instrument rather than a finely-honed implement.

The more color you can bring into your scenes, the less black and white they will be to the reader -- and the more real.  The description of oak-paneled walls presents one image; a description of light oak, textured in sand and milk chocolate colored patterns, gives another.

There is a problem in trying to define things too perfectly.  Readers will never see it quite the same way you do.  It doesn't matter how much detail you give, a scene will still be skewed by their perceptions and what they have experienced.  "Salferino and annatto" might be the perfect description for that sunset, and you may even decide the words fit your manuscript, knowing those words and what they represent.

The subtle differences between shades of color can make a huge difference in how descriptive your story seems, even if the change from antique white to blanched almond is so slight that most readers wouldn't be able to register the difference even if they were looking at the two colors.

That doesn't mean that writers should be careless.  Striking colors are easy to write about, but the subtle ones take more practice.

Your Turn #2:


This picture has many subtle shades of grays, yellows, and even a hint of green. 

Write your own description of it, first without reference to a chart and then again using one.  Do your best to find new words to describe the colors, as well as the shapes.

Learn to Refine

Another great way to learn colors is to actually use them.  Many of you will have a graphics program of some sort on your computer.  Some of you may even use one regularly.  I use several, from Corel Photo Paint 9 to Bryce 5.5.

You can use programs like those from Corel to learn to recognize colors.  Corel Photo Paint 9 comes with several palettes. Try running your mouse over the color swatch and seeing if a name pops up.

Then make lines on the screen using the colors.  Put other colors next to each other and see what kinds of feelings those combinations evoke in you.

Blue and green are considered cool colors, while reds and yellows are hot.  They bring different responses, and we use them to signify emotions without even thinking about it sometimes: red-hot anger, green with envy, feeling blue.  You can use those color-keys to help set up a scene by subtly influencing the reader with the colors you include in your description.

Your Turn #3:

The range of colors in this picture is subtle.  What colors do you see -- with and without help from a chart?  And what sort of feeling does this picture evoke for you?  Cool or warm, and what season?

The Places You'll Never See

Using pictures to get an idea of what your story setting should look like is a good idea.  Scan the internet for appropriate types of pictures or even for pictures of specific locations if your book is set in the real world.  Study the pictures with an eye for the little differences in shades, shadows, and hues, as well as the blatant colors.

Science fiction writers, and sometimes those who write fantasy, are faced with the added problem of painting a word picture of a place that doesn't exist, and somehow making it both alien and understandable.  The use of unusual color names and combinations can help to evoke something out of the ordinary.

But no matter what, it has to be done in words that your readers will understand.  You can try to create words for new colors... but how will your readers see them?  Something too alien will only alienate your readers, who want to experience the place and can only do so through normal human senses.  Never forget your market in these cases.

Your Turn #4:


This may be an alien place, but the colors and shapes are still seen through human eyes.  How would you describe the scene in order to make it seem other-worldly?


Remember that colors are an important part of your scenes, but don't settle for the easy, primary versions.  We have a huge palette to choose from, with both subtle and striking differences.  Teach yourself to be an artist with words, and your stories will be more vibrant for it.