Author Rowan Hisayo Buchanan asks an intriguing question about perception in her recent Catapult article, “Is the Green You See, the Green I See?” The answer to that one is “probably not,” given the 2015 social media uproar over the question “what color is this dress?” The controversy generated some 10 million tweets, as people variously perceived a washed-out photo of a horizontally striped dress as white with gold lace or, as it really was, blue with black lace. (For the record, I’m a white-and-gold gal).
Buchanan, author of the novel Harmless Like You, describes the challenge of finding the precise term to describe a color, because it makes a great deal of difference whether a “red dress” is described as scarlet (suggesting something about the wearer) or the maroon of dried blood (suggesting something else entirely). My writing coach loves the example of an old, decaying house with shutters of “fungal green.” “Fungal” not only describes the shade of green much more exactly (I see lichen) but conveys something important about the house itself.
In my short story set during the Revolutionary War, an eight-year-old boy sees a frightened woman “go white.” But how to describe that in terms a boy of that age, education, and era would use? “White as chalk” is a cliché, “white as paper” was possibly anachronistic, parchment being ivory. I settled on “white as milk.”
Buchanan’s quest for color enlightenment led her to Sanzo Wada’s A Dictionary of Color Combinations from the 1930s, which describes hues in charmingly evocative Japanese and English. Ivory Buff in English is White Tea in Japanese. Grenadine Pink is Washed Red. And my favorite of her examples, Light Brown Drab is Plum Mouse.
Ballard consulted several other color classification books too, including Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours (1821) which, she says, “hoped to bring together science and art.” Out in a new facsimile edition, the publisher calls it “a charming artifact from the golden age of natural history and global exploration.” Darwin took it with him to the Galapagos.
In Werner’s, each color was given an animal, mineral, and vegetative reference. For example, Prussian Blue (one of my favorite colors) was specified as “The Beauty Spot on Wing of Mallard Drake,” “Stamen of Bluish Purple Anemone” (vague in itself), and “Blue Copper Ore,” in case you have any of that lying around. However, it does widen the field of people who can appreciate this blackish-blue color, which included the folks outfitting the Prussian Army and Vincent Van Gogh. He used it predominantly, along with other blues, when painting his “Starry Night.” Philip Kerr’s excellent thriller Prussian Blue was not referring to color, but to the compound’s use as an antidote to heavy metal poisoning. What a truckload of associations!