Colouring In

Describe that sky!

My writing buddy Kathy has blogged an interesting post about using colours in your writing. She expressed a concern that she tends to use colour-words too much (I don’t think she does). But it got me thinking about my own love of colour, and the relationship between colours and words. My first novel is called Blue : that says something right there 🙂

Maybe I’m a lazy reader – maybe my imagination doesn’t create scenes from the written word as actively as someone else’s might – but I need the writer to supply colour-words to help bring a scene visually alive. Kathy quotes from J.M. Coetzee: Through a window he glimpses the Shaw’s backyard: an apple tree dropping wormridden fruit, rampant weeds, an area fenced in with galvanized-iron sheets, wooden pallets, old tyres, where chickens scratch around… I can see it, but do you know, more vividly I can smell it. I wonder what difference colour-words might have made to my imagined sensory experience of this scene: an apple tree dropping brown worm-ridden fruit, rampant bitter-green weeds, an area fenced with galvanized-iron sheets rusting at the edges, wooden pallets, old tyres, where dirty white hens scratch around…

I’m currently reading The Siren’s Sting, by Miranda Darling, in which the author works hard to show us what her protagonist is seeing: The strange light of storm weather had turned the lagoon an opaque shade of jade green and fingers of red now shot out from an invisible setting sun…The palazzo just opposite was painted a deep rust red, with green shutters and green and white striped poles marking its water door... She was shown to her room, a small golden chamber with red velvet curtains overlooking a busy canal… While I also appreciate the author’s diligence in filling in the other senses – she tells us about the sound of heavy rain in the street, the feel of damp evening air on her protagonist’s face, and evokes the aromas of meals in various Mediterranean restaurants – it’s the colours that bring the story to life for me.

I’m often frustrated in the search for the perfect word for a colour. How, without becoming tedious, do you describe the exact colour of wet sand-flats at low tide just after the sunset pinks and oranges have faded but before it’s dark? The colour of the eastern horizon at that moment? The exact shade of deepening blue half-way up the sky, where the evening star is beginning to shine? We probably all envision/remember those colours slightly differently. If I want the reader to see a moment as my protagonist sees it, do I go hunting for obscure terms that are meant to describe a precise hue but probably don’t for every reader (bisque, aquamarine, brown madder)? Do I go all Taubmans and try to evoke that colour in the reader’s mind by describing something else in the world (Bell Pepper, Hot Frog, Lime Leaf, Honeydew, for shades of green)? Or do I try to mix words like you mix paints (blue-green water, apricot-brown sand, seaweed that’s greenish gold shading into orange with flecks of lemon yellow)?

How do you handle colour as a writer (and experience it as a reader)? I’d be keen to hear other people’s thoughts.

And just so this post contains some exercises:

1. Find a passage you’ve written, that contains visual description. Have you used any colour words? What happens if you take them all out? Put more in? Work at making the colour words more precisely descriptive? Stick to the simplest colour words possible (red, blue, green)?

2. Write a para or two describing a scene but without using actual colours – instead try to evoke lights and shades, as if the scene were a black-and-white photograph

3. Write a short scene between two characters, without using any colour words. Then see where you can add visual detail, including colour. Does this pull the scene in any different direction?

4. Play with synaesthesia – using words from one sensory modality to describe something in another. Particularly try this with colour words – a green breeze, the white hammering of rain



Filed under Fiction Techniques, Writing Exercises

4 responses to “Colouring In

  1. chris

    There was a show on Radio National today around 1:30pm with a neurologist talking his research into synaesthesia. That msot of us have that “skill” of blended senses and that we grow out of it, or those that are not “creative” types do. He was also talking about where the metaphor skills sits in the brain (in relation to sensing colour) and what happens to people who dont process metaphor…

    As a reader I find authoritative names of colours distracting. I wont necessarily always look up words I dont understand and that would go the same for a colour that couldnt imagine….


    • Hi Chris, Thanks for this comment. Looks like the show would have been “All in the Mind” – I checked out the Radio National website to see if it’s available to listen again, but apparently not (or maybe not yet). Yes, it’s interesting territory – between people who “have” synaesthesia and involuntarily see numbers as colours and so on, and those who deliberately try to see the world in this way for aesthetic/metaphorical purposes. One of the joys of being a writer is trying to exercise my mind by making it work in ways it usually doesn’t. I’m not “a synaesthete”, but when I have a momentary perception of blue air or a shouting cloud, I love it! (and want to share it).

      I do have, from earliest childhood, a strong perception that the individual digits (1,2,3 etc.) have complex personalities. 1 is sort of dumb, childlike and innocent, whereas 8 is sharp as a tack, a very tricky customer who might do you a good turn but not unless there’s something in it for him. 9 is patient, plodding and friendly. All three of these digits are male, as are 5 and 7, whereas 3 and 4 are female. Anyone else have unusual perceptions about the gender and personality of numbers, letters, etc.? Or is it just me?

  2. Apologies in coming to this so late in the piece. I just wanted to say that when you added in the colours to J.M. Coetzee’s piece I felt they were redundant, almost tautology; that because he’d used the right words to describe the fruit – dropping and wormridden – I could already picture them, I didn’t need the colour brown.
    But obviously this is not always the case. In the colour of the curtains in Miranda Darling’s piece, they could be any colour. It helps that she’s described them in such rich terms.
    I’m beginning to think, then, that the use of colour depends very much on the writer’s style. Would you agree?
    I love that you’ve shared this perception of yours about numbers! How curious. I must be a boring person.

    • LOL, Kathy! “Boring” does not describe the lady who just climbed Table Mountain again.

      I agree with you about the colours not being needed in the Coetzee piece. And yes, I think it is a question of individual style. I find myself always wanting to describe colours – I wish we had more words for them, in their infinite variations.

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