(originally published in Concho River Review, Spring-Summer 2019)
Blue, powder blue, is the color of the Ford Falcon I bought when I was eighteen. I was newly independent, with an entry-level but promising clerical position in a prestigious La Jolla brokerage firm and an apartment near the beach. A new car to replace the unsightly wreck I drove in high school was a necessary adjunct to my adult identity. The color captured a mood and manner I sought to convey—soft but serious, subtle but striving—and made an optimistic statement: “Watch out, world—here I come.”
Blue, sky blue, died-and-gone-to-my-blue-heaven blue, the blue of Doug Wyatt’s eyes. One recollection follows another—roused by the color blue, my mind drifts further back. Doug was my first love. We met, flirted, watched fireworks and kissed chastely at the Del Mar Fair one Fourth of July. I was fourteen, a naïve fourteen in spite of pains to appear savvy and sophisticated. He was nineteen, far too old for me, but sweet and gentle, boyish—even my parents didn’t object. We went to drive-in movies and drive-in restaurants, to the beach and once to an air show where I fainted from the heat and Doug caught me as I fell. At the end of summer he went back to a former girlfriend—his own age—leaving me broken-hearted and blue (dusky, bruised, gray-blue). I wept to the Danleers’ “One Summer Night” as I replayed every moment of those two priceless months under the spell of those eyes, rippling azure pools, blue to drown in, and the silky sable brows that bordered them. How do you describe a pair of eyebrows to set them apart, convey their magnetism? They were more than their shape, density and color.
Aubergine, butterscotch, cayenne—not ice cream flavors or pizza toppings but fashionable colors, the likes of which can be found in a J. Crew or J. Jill catalog. Appetizing edibles offer enticing names to clothing colors: every imaginable fruit—apple, banana and cherry, persimmon, pineapple and peach—plus a generous sampling of vegetables, spices, and nuts (artichoke, basil, cashew), along with the tried-and-true flora and fauna. At the recent New York Fashion Week, top trending colors included valiant poppy (described as a brave and outgoing red), martini olive (smooth, sophisticated, urbane), Sargasso sea (boundless and fathomless blue), meerkat (toasty burnished brown), and chili oil (earthy brown-based red). My new puffy jacket is an herby gray-green that I would call sage, but Patagonia christened it basil.
Everything that can be bought and sold—clothes, cars, couches; books, baubles, and buildings—is fair game to those charged with creating desire and demand. My house is yellow-gold with dark red and green trim. Behr Paint calls it Amberwave, the accents January Garnet and Vine Leaf. From among more than 3,000 hues and shades, we collected color swatches and scrutinized their subtle distinctions before we settled on these—the names weren’t a factor, nor was marketability. In an analysis of U.S. home sales, colors were identified with higher- or lower-than-average sales prices. A powder blue or periwinkle bathroom increased the value by $5,400; off-white sent it diving $4,035 below average (ours is tangerine). Paint your kitchen soft blue-gray for a higher sales price; yellow or marigold will reduce it. A “greige” (gray-beige) exterior brought $3,000 more than medium brown-taupe, yet color chips of the two are almost indistinguishable. If we wanted to sell our house, its quirky interior and exterior colors would be the kiss of death.
Red raises metabolism, respiration, and blood pressure. It stimulates quick decisions, anxiety, and hunger. Which is why fast food enterprises use it to encourage customer turnover. Their message: Get in here, eat a lot, eat fast, get out. In contrast, earthy colors encourage people to relax, stay longer (and spend more). A friend recently told me she felt uncomfortable at Luna Grill, a local casual Mediterranean chain, even though she liked the food. Something was offputting. When I suggested the nervous red that suffuses the decor, she said, “That’s it!”
My husband is a painter—oil on canvas in particular, though he uses other mediums and also has painted houses for a living. As an artist he views color through a painterly lens. He deconstructs the basic elements to blend core colors—add more or less of this or that—to achieve the desired hues. To him my basil Patagonia jacket is a precise pigment, terre verte, cut with white. I might describe something red as fire engine or cranberry or burgundy. He notices more yellow in certain reds, blue or brown in others. He identifies them as Cadmium red (light, medium and dark), Alizarin crimson, Indian red, Napthol scarlet, Perylene maroon.
Red ochre was found in iron-rich soil and used in prehistoric cave paintings; it’s still in use. Early on, red was seen to offer a variety of shades and to favor more diverse and subtle chromatic play than other colors. German experimental composer Karlheinz Stockhausen created his “Hymnen” in 1966, an electronic, vocal and orchestral polyphony lasting two or three hours depending on how it’s performed. The work includes forty-some national anthems and a recitation in four languages on the color red, variations from the Winsor and Newton watercolor catalog. I check Winsor and Newton and find fourteen shades classified as reds, several more outliers.
Brides wear red in China. Red symbolizes good luck and happiness, and red outerwear prevails in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Groups of Chinese-American women have gathered in nearby Washington Square every morning for the past forty years to practice tai chi. They wear coats or jackets to withstand San Francisco’s cool and breezy mornings—predominately red. The reds range from dusty rose to magenta and deep wine tones, bright cherry and berry; they’re mauve and purple-red but rarely dip over into the orange-reds. A regular morning walk when I visit San Francisco is through Chinatown and North Beach to Washington Square. Sometimes I stand off to the side of the group and try to follow their routine for a few minutes, a test of my balance. Last week, wearing a burgundy jacket, I fit right in.
“We all have our own White South,” said British Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton. Polar adventurers have recorded the overwhelming impression of real, not metaphorical, whiteness in panoramic snowscapes, pristine glaciers, chalky cliffs. Yet even the stark white south reveals nuances of color. Apsley Cherry-Garrard chronicled Robert Falcon Scott’s ill-fated 1910-1913 expedition in The Worst Journey in the World. It’s a mistake to picture the Antarctic as a bleak white land, he said: “The snow seldom looks white, and if carefully looked at will be found to be shaded with many colours, but chiefly with cobalt blue or rose-madder, and all the gradations of lilac and mauve which the mixture of these colours will produce.” In addition are “the deep colours of the open sea, with reflections from the ice foot and ice-cliffs in it, all brilliant blues and emerald greens.”
Contemporary naturalist Diane Ackerman described her first sight of the Antarctic continent: “White upon white with white borders was all I expected to see; instead, colossal icebergs of palest blue and mint-green floated across the vista.” Ackerman went to Antarctica to observe penguins, stereotypical studies in black and white. The tuxedo-like arrangement of their contrasting colors acts to protect them from predatory leopard seals and orcas in the stark waters. Their white bellies and chins blend in with the light that filters through the water, so they’re less likely to be seen from below, while their black backs make them less visible from above. The countershading also acts as temperature control—penguins can absorb or reflect heat from the sun as desired by rotating from one side to the other.
“Black and white” signifies a dramatic contrast, often exaggerated or over-simplified: right or wrong, good or bad, all or nothing. No continuum, no gray area. In nature—snow and clouds, coal and crows, zebras and penguins—as in life, things are seldom as black and white as they seem. Similar to the ice, penguins display nuanced coloration, like the streaks of orange or yellow around the heads and necks of Emperor penguins.
Jeni Jones, a friend of old, was (and probably still is, though we lost touch some forty years ago) tall and trim, angular and austere, complemented by a shrewd outlook and razor wit. Over the several years I knew her, the only colors she wore were black and white, separately or together. It was her signature look, and it worked with her blunt-cut auburn hair. Jeni pops up periodically in my memory, a sharply detailed portrait in black and white.
Multiple choice quiz:
- Black and white are not colors because they do not have specific wavelengths.
- Black and white are both colors. (What color are penguins? Black and white.)
- White reflects other colors to the eye and thus is a color. Black is not a color because it absorbs colors but doesn’t reflect them back to the eye.
- Black is a color but white isn’t. (“Black is the color of my true love’s hair.”)
- All or none of the above.
White is both color and un-color in essayist Zadie Smith’s description of a group of portraits in which vivid colors are “tempered by the many snowdrop gaps of unpainted canvas, like floral accents in an English garden.”
Off-white—un-color? anomaly? travesty?—softens the starkness of white and compromises its purity (the ivory wedding dress). When a friend was remodeling her bathroom she showed me an array of off-white color swatches from which she would choose tile, flooring, and linens. “Which ones do you like?” she asked me. I had to admit, tactfully, that they all looked pretty much the same to me. Navajo White (“a timeless shade of creamy white with a generous dose of yellow,” per Benjamin Moore paints) is the epitome of off-white. A London friend was unfamiliar with it but said the British equivalent is magnolia. He sent me an article about a town in England, its buildings painted “a maddeningly stale, trite magnolia casting its vanilla doom all over the town.”
Rainbows are rare sights in San Diego. We leap from sunbeam to sunbeam, limp from drought to drought. Cloud seeding has delivered scant success, rain dances even less. I held out my arms in welcome as a leaden steel-gray sky broke over me on my morning run one day last week. The cloudburst ended as abruptly as it arrived, leaving behind the exhilarating scents of wet eucalyptus and pavement. And then, in front of me, kaleidoscopic bands of color spanned the western sky and escorted me on my last mile, a celestial crest of jewels to reward my efforts.
Color is one of those triggers—like food and clothes for me—that link long-forgotten minutiae. Another car, this one a lemon yellow Toyota Tercel that I bought in 1981 when my daughter was thirteen and steeped in pop music. I vetoed her request for a decal from her favorite radio station, told her anything we put on the car had to be an image—no words, no slogans or logos—acceptable to both of us. I scowled at a simpering smiley face, but we found common ground with a rainbow decal for the back window. Rainbows were “in” at the time, young girls a prime marketing target for lunchboxes, t-shirts, and jewelry. A symbol of Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition that morphed into the Gay Pride emblem, I liked its wordless sociopolitical statement.
Purple is non-spectral. The true color we see in the rainbow between red and blue is violet. Elizabeth Taylor’s eyes are violet. It was the tube of violet my husband reached for when I asked him to paint a planter box purple. In popular parlance the difference is blurred, and I’ll stick with Alice Walker who opted for the color purple. Purple represents royalty and riches, mystery and magic. Its value derived from its cost; the early dye used to make it came from a small sea snail found in the Mediterranean Sea. More than 9,000 of these mollusks were needed to make just one gram of purple dye.
So here’s a paradox. My mother wouldn’t wear purple because, she said, my father thought it looked cheap. In spite of its regal origins there was a time when purple was branded as a lower-middle-class color, but as a working class family we were in no position to look down our noses, and I doubt that my father would have noticed or cared. Yet—perhaps out of indifference, certainly not to please my parents—I didn’t wear purple either, until, on the cusp of middle age, I slipped into a purple floor-length chenille bathrobe. Power rippled through my core as I brought its folds together and tied the sash around my waist. Like the woman in the old Imperial Margarine commercial as the trumpet blares and a crown appears on her head: “I feel like a queen.” Thirty years later I still have the robe, faded and tattered, like a treasured comfort blanket, and purple garments infuse my wardrobe. I ran in purple tights this morning.
“What season are you?” was a commonly-heard question when color analysis came into vogue in the eighties. Women I worked with had their colors “done” and considered the results irrefutable, like the findings of an MRI. Kathy wore beige and peach, muted shades, because she was a “spring.” Her hair and skin were beige and peach, so these colors washed her out, but she accepted the prescribed regimen as essential to health and well-being. Silver-haired, pink-skinned Maggie was diagnosed as a “winter” and thereafter restricted her wardrobe to a limited palette of jewel tones—red, blue, purple, green. “You’re a winter too,” she informed me, though our coloring was in no way similar. Someone else was positive I was a summer. Both urged me to avoid yellow and orange. I didn’t.
You can find color analysis quizzes online now, usually as come-ons to sell products. I complete one that doesn’t require any compromising information to access the results. As the olive-skinned brunette I used to be, I’m an uncontested winter, as Maggie had insisted, with similar recommendations. I repeat the quiz, claiming my now coppery auburn locks (“Pomegranate” according to the package), and am decreed an autumn, at my best in the colors of exotic spices and fall foliage, moss, rust, cinnamon, terra cotta. I wear all of these, plus purple and turquoise, gray and brown, black and white, the verboten yellow and orange.
Brown has come into its own in fashion as the new black. Brown is rich and warm, like my cashmere V-neck sweater, like my granddaughter’s favorite teddy bear, like Doug Wyatt’s eyebrows. Brown is stability and economy, comfort food like meatloaf with gravy, like refried beans. Browns are gingerbread and pecans, chocolate and caramel, coffee with cream. Jonathan Franzen wrote in National Geographic that what we lump together as “little brown birds” can be seen by an intent observer as embracing the “nearly infinite shades of brown that tax the vocabulary of avian taxonomists,” including rufous (reddish-brown), fulvous (tawny yellow-brown), ferruginous (rust-colored), bran-colored, foxy and bronze.
Apple, avocado, asparagus, artichoke, celery, olive, lime, mint. Sage and basil. Moss, fern, grass, shamrock, forest, pine, juniper, jungle. Seafoam, emerald, jade, malachite, celadon, chartreuse, aqua, teal, bottle, army, hunter. Green earth, aka terre verte. The green-eyed monster, green around the gills, green thumb, green light, folding green, Green Revolution. Green represents the beauty of nature, ill health, inexperience, approval, ecology, money, envy and evil. Hues and idioms and conflicting meanings suggest that interpretation of color is in the mind of the beholder.
Dorothy opens the door of her just-landed house to the brilliant Technicolor world of Oz. Color engulfs the landscape; myriad greens pervade the Emerald City. The Wizard of Oz was first broadcast on TV in 1956. The first national color broadcast was, fittingly, the 1954 Tournament of Roses Parade, but few telecasts in color followed until the early sixties. Most people didn’t have color sets before then, but my father was a TV repairman, and his boss acquired an early model. We would go to the shop after hours and on weekends, pull up chairs and cushions in the back room, and watch some of the early shows. A December 1954 TV adaptation of Babes in Toyland sticks in my mind as the first one we saw. My mother was more excited than we kids; she would gasp in wide-eyed wonder, exclaim “Look at that color! Look! Isn’t it gorgeous?”
Lions and tigers and bears; color and music and mood. Around 1665, Sir Isaac Newton passed white light through a prism and watched it fan out into a rainbow. He identified seven colors—red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet—to coincide with the notes of the musical scale. “Chromesthesia,” or sound-to-color synesthesia, is the ability to see sound as color. Studies show that both synesthetes—those who have it—and non-synesthetes tend to compare low musical notes to dark and negative colors, high notes to bright, positive colors.
Music and color have few, if any, sensory properties in common. Music is auditory, its qualities tempo, pitch, timbre, and rhythm. Color is visual and exhibits lightness, vibrancy, and hue. But both influence or are influenced by emotion. The color of a given piece of music, if it can be envisaged, depends on both the features of the music (slow/fast, major/minor, loud/quiet, high- or low-pitched, clear or distorted) and the emotions elicited in the listener. Fast, loud, high-pitched, music sounds agitated and may prompt bright, vivid reds and yellows, while slow, quiet, low-pitched music feels calm and evokes darker, cooler shades of blue, purple, and gray. Acoustic guitarist Robbie Basho attached colors and emotions to guitar tunings in his Esoteric Doctrine of Color and Mood.
Color can describe moods, and moods can assume colors, but their meanings aren’t fixed and can be opposed to one another. Red implies ardor in valentines and roses, anger when one “sees red.” Holly Golightly describes the “mean reds” in Breakfast at Tiffany’s: “You’re afraid, but you don’t know what you’re afraid of.” They’re an ill omen and far worse than the blues, she says, when you’re merely sad. Blue works both ways too. Ella croons about blue skies smiling and bluebirds singing to express happiness, optimism. Yet when Elvis laments a blue Christmas or Barbra tells us to color her heart blue and her man gone, we discern their sorrow.
Color saturates literature. It paints pictures of characters, infuses physical settings, evokes moods and mental states, intensifies imagery and symbolism. To “add color” is to enrich physical and mental visualization and comprehension. Virginia Woolf used color as both description and metaphor. The color blue alone appears 23 times in Mrs. Dalloway, 36 in To the Lighthouse, 102 in The Years. Blue eyes are fierce, frightening, clear, bright, honest, deep-set, half-veiled, long-sighted, peaceful, oddly inexpressive, small, prominent, alarming, blazing, passionate, impeccably candid and pure. A character has a blue cleft in his chin; windows have bleared eyes of blue glass.
As writers we’re advised to avoid repetition: if blue must reappear in a passage or a page, we should switch it up, call it cerulean or azure or indigo. Woolf used repetition to create rhythm and flow, to steep her narrative in its depths. In one paragraph of To the Lighthouse, we see “rooks dropping cool cries from the high blue … to that break in the thick hedge, between which the blue waters of the bay looked bluer than ever.”
The protagonist of Rivka Galchen’s Atmospheric Disturbances goes to the airport to claim his missing suitcase. His is “pale blue, baby blue,” but the one he’s shown one is “periwinklish, which I suppose some people will call blue and some purple.” He wonders “if the periwinkle color is an undecided issue in all cultures, or if there are some cultures with so many things to distinguish along the blue-to-violet spectrum that a much more sophisticated and precise language has evolved.”
Margaret Atwood employs a hierarchy of color in Handmaid’s Tale. The handmaids wear red—red dresses, shoes and gloves—to symbolize blood (menstruation=fertility), or perhaps wantonness (Red Light Districts, The Scarlet Letter). The wives wear blue for purity, though we also read it as cold, like blue ice, frigid. The Marthas (domestics) wear green, and the Aunts, like the drill sergeants they are, wear khaki. Officers and government officials—all male—wear black. Everyone knows their place and rank.
Green dominates the sightline from the window next to my desk—a plant-covered deck and behind it a palm and eucalyptus-filled canyon. A closer look discloses an unexpected array of color amid the greenery. Pots of succulents reveal pale blue-grays, inky purples and blushing pinks, sunburst oranges and reds, accented by terra cotta planters and a rainbow assortment of ceramic vessels. The eucalyptus leaves reflect reds and browns, their trunks vertical bars of earth tones—grays and browns, painterly ochres and umbers. The sky is blue on this April morning in San Diego. Nature’s display is complemented by the camouflage-like exterior of my husband’s studio, loose and languid shapes in a profusion of rust and russet, butterscotch and vanilla, moss and lime, industrial gray, and a brilliant light blue, mid-summer sky blue, the blue of Doug Wyatt’s eyes.