Friday, June 15, 2012

Living la vida Crayola

"All colors are the friends of their neighbors and the lovers of their opposites."
~ Marc Chagall

The other day I read a fascinating article about colors, cultures and language. The title is "The crayola-fication of the world: How we gave colors names, and it messed with our brains" [link below]. Its focus is the relationship between language and color perception.

The thing that startled me was how few words some cultures have for colors. According to the article, some have names for only four or five colors. The Dani people of New Guinea have just two words for colors and one Amazon tribe, the Piraḥ, is said to have none. I, who grew up with ever-larger boxes of Crayolas, have a gluttonous color vocabulary. Dozens and dozens of words. According to studies quoted in the article, once you start naming colors, the left side of the brain Рthe language side Рtakes charge. Naming colors becomes a new skill to be developed.

Discovering the color wheel ranks among my most memorable childhood experiences. I had always liked to draw and color, but this – it thrilled me. It showed me the relationships between colors – I hadn't known they had them. It showed me how to blend, and how not to blend, my little jars of tempera colors. I suddenly understood that harmony and dissonance were not just musical terms: They applied to color, too.

I had a similar thrill years later when, as a first-year art student, I was told to buy a Color-aid kit for my color theory class. I checked and was pleased to discover they're still on the market.

The Color-aid kit of my art school days was a box of 100 or so color swatches. They were a lot like paint chips but in a profusion of colors, some of which vibrated wildly when placed side-by-side. Who knew colors could do that? I suddenly had a new sense of the possibilities of color.

"Colors, like features, follow the changes of the emotions."
~ Pablo Picasso

Color theory class also gave me new ways to think about colors: by their hue, saturation and chroma. I don't know what they're teaching now, but in those days, these were defined as the three properties of color. Hue is of course the color itself. Saturation is the richness and depth of the color – how much color is in the color. Chroma I interpreted as the brightness of the color – the amount of light it seemed to emit. Knowing these terms made me feel like I understood color for the very first time. Ms. Pantone 1969.

It was a gorgeous day in New York City today – all clear air and bright, bright colors. As I walked down the street I instinctively noticed the sky that went down the blue scale from ultramarine to powder, and the trees that went from the yellowest green to apple, fern and forest, and I thought about a fact I'd just learned: that in many cultures, the words for blue and green are the same.

I would feel lost without my color names. Thank you, Crayola.

"Everything is blooming most recklessly; if it were voices instead of colors, there would be an unbelievable shrieking into the heart of the night."
~ Rainer Maria Rilke

Read the article:


  1. I love this post! And I love all the names for colors. They're what help writers to communicate -- characters, scenes, feelings. Think Men in Black, How Green Was My Valley, and Holly Golightly's "mean reds."

  2. Oh those mean reds! Thanks, Lee.

    You've now made me wonder whether writing was less colorful in the days before Crayola. Of course, one of the first titles that came to mind is "The Scarlet Letter"! I've been meaning to re-read that moody masterpiece "Moby Dick" for ages; I'll be sure to pay attention to color words when I do.

  3. Beautiful photograph Michelle.

    Lovely post, thoroughly enjoyed it. Sent me straight back to my childhood too which was filled with painting and colouring activities.

    My moment of glory came aged 7 yrs old when my teacher asked me to paint a mural on the wall of our classroom depicting the Circus - I was given the honour because (her words) I "understood colour relationships".

    "All colors are the friends of their neighbors and the lovers of their opposites."
    ~ Marc Chagall

    In the Welsh language we have words for colours, many words in fact, but for blue we say Glas pronounced gl-ass, as in the English word glass. For green we say Gwyrdd -
    Note that in the Welsh language we have female and male words and we mutate the adjective depending on the context.

    Welsh is one of the oldest living languages and it isn't the easiest to learn.

  4. Thanks, Ma'am. It's funny how the best parts of school rarely have much to do with the formal curriculum.

    To my eyes the Welsh language actually looks ancient. All those consonants in a row - something about it seems steeped in history and mystery. I'm glad you have many words for color.

    So that makes three Welsh words I've learned this week. Harrison Solow taught me the toast "Iechyd Da!" Perhaps I'm meant to learn it, one word at a time!

  5. When my brother and I were little and the winter winds howled outside, we'd try to make the house a bit more festive by secretly putting Crayolas on the steam radiators overnight. We'd pick only bright colors. In the morning...? Viola! Every radiator looked like a trip to a circus tent.

    Our father had one word to describe all the various hues. I won't repeat it here.

  6. Ed, I don't know if you remember my friend Harriet from back in our music biz days, but when she was very small she liked to grind Crayolas into the floor by riding over them with her tricycle. In school, they taught us to take Crayola shavings, put them between sheets of wax paper with some autumn leaves, and iron them. Something about Crayolas...

  7. This is a wonderful piece Michele. I feel your joy for color as I read it. I remember learning the color wheel. It stays with me because I like the idea of the relationships between the colors, which seem magical. Color seems magical: Do you see what I see when you see a color? Why are natures colors so much more attractive than many artificial colors? Colors badly done or too bright feel like a physical assault. I think of the colors on a street of strip-mall stores and I wince. One of my most vivid childhood memories is of sitting alone with our family Crayola box, pulling out a color, pondering its shade and name, placing it back in the box, then choosing another color. It was a soothing, transporting experience, from which I would wake at some point to find myself back at the wood table in our kitchen with the green counter tile (jade?) and walls (celadon?). Magenta, Brick, Periwinkle, Burnt Sienna, Seafoam Green, Sepia: it was the words as much as the colors that moved my heart. In my childhood home each room was a different color. When I had my own room, I chose white walls. Color affects me so deeply that I choose to live in as neutral an environment as possible—my walls are always white—with the touches of color from the art and the books. Books in bookcases make me happy because the accidental blend of book spine color is a promising, quiet riot. Coming into a room of books uplifts me. (Maybe the book spines are a bit like the Crayola box?) The carmine red lips and nostrils on a Eugene Alfred Tlingit mask are the brightest color in my home. Sometimes I wonder if it is my American Indian half that chooses a narrower palette (Aboriginal Salish art had a lot of black, white, and red), but then I think of Matisse's Femme au chapeau or Robert Motherwell's Gauloises Caporal collages and know it's more complicated than that.
    It astonished me to read the link you provided *after* I wrote the above. There are a myriad of thoughts to examine further. Until then, all I can say is: Mind. Blown.

  8. Thank you, Katherine. I remember doing the exact same thing with my Crayola box and then looking around my environment for examples of those colors. It's all encoded.

    When I was a young teenager, I had a black & white room and did almost all of my paintings in black & white. Can you tell I was depressed? But by the time I got to art school I started using color. There were bottles of artists' inks in vivid colors, and I went a bit wild with them. But I still don't favor bright colors in my living environment. For a time, long ago, my walls were a shade of the color of this blog's background, but they've been white for more years than I care to think about. Everything is neutral, in fact. The most colorful thing I have in my environment is a print of Klimt's "Bildnis der Eugenia Primavesi"

    Agree about the article. Mind-blowing.

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