Painting with Words
By Lazette Gifford
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.