Describing colour

For some reason last night my mind wouldn’t go to sleep when I decided it was time to. It kept circling round (through a myriad bizarre subjects) to an issue a (non-writer) friend of mine has often raised: how would you describe the colour red to a blind man?

You can’t say, red like fire, or carnations, or wine to someone who has been blind since birth because these are examples that they simply haven’t experienced.

I know this has been mentioned by other people when discussing how to describe things – they always say use all five senses. As sighted people, we tend to rely overmuch on our eyes.

It occurred to me that this is especially important when describing something that the reader cannot relate to. For example, who came up with duck egg blue? I’ve seen some duck eggs but I don’t remember them being blue. (I just know this is going to lead to an erudite comment by someone on the exact colour of duck eggs – I do actually want to know). How would you describe that colour to someone who had never seen it?

We talk about cobalt blue, sea green, primrose yellow and black as the sky at midnight (the last of which is a contradiction in terms unless you are referring to a planet with no moon in a universe with no stars) but these descriptions rely on the reader’s prior experience. How do you get around a lack of that experience?

The answer is simple, in a way. We have to make recourse to our other senses. Red is a colour we associate with fire, it’s true. Flames are usually as golden as they are red, but when we get hot, we go red. If we burn ourselves, our skin goes even more red. Red skin is often synonymous with heat from exertion, or pain from a burn or a slap. Red hearts represent love and passion, which can also heat or burn, depending on the circumstances.

Blue is often referred to as a ‘cool’ colour. Water is represented as blue, but the sea can easily be other colours. Grey, green and even turquoise. A blue sea is actually quite rare in my personal, British coast experience. How would you describe the colour of the sea?

And of course, the green of the sea is different to the green of plants. If you saw a sea that green, I doubt you would want to swim in it. Grass green is the colour of Nature feeding.

The five senses are sight, touch, hearing, smell and taste. Has anyone seen Under the Tuscan Sun? Where she offers to write the guy’s postcard for him and says that everything even smells and tastes purple? I loved that line. The guy wasn’t so impressed, but he was a heathen.

When it comes to descriptions, we should push the boundaries to find new ways of describing things. By drawing on the other senses, you can often give the reader a more accurate sense of the image you are trying to convey. You can also use metaphor, as I did above for green, but that’s for a different post.

About Mhairi Simpson

Writer, dreamer. Magic, dragons, pink mice, cake. Come say hi!
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20 Responses to Describing colour

  1. Will says:

    Brilliant! It’s a great direction to flex our writing in, and be aware of our bias’ and limitations.

  2. knittingknots says:

    Duck egg blue? I knew that robins’ eggs are a lovely light blue, but duck eggs? LOL.

    This is a cool article. Made me write a poem:

    Ah, ocean –
    heaving grey-green mystery,
    wine-dark in your hidden depths
    where all is black abyss filled with hidden lights,
    I have seen you opaque olive,
    filled with the silt of ages,
    diamond scattered when the light is right,
    crystal clear blue sometimes,
    making the heart ache
    in your perfection
    and immensity,
    foaming wall of water sweeping all away,
    indescribable cradle of life.

    • Ah, robins’ eggs. Maybe that was it :S

      Awesome poem! That’s just beautiful! πŸ˜€

    • museshack says:

      Thank you for an article that pushes me to think more deeply about my descriptions. You wrote this piece in a way that enabled the reader to think and experiment as I was reading. I’m going to rate this as the top writing blog post that I have seen this week. And, it is clear that you made a big impact on Knittingknots who responded with that piece of colourful word-art.

      • Wasn’t that wonderful? And thank you so much for the feedback and the rating! I think I will have to post about inspiration coming from unexpected sources. This post, inspired by a non-writer, seems to have struck a chord with many writers.

  3. Sonia M. says:

    knittingknots: Love the poem!

    Anne-Mhairi: Great point! I think I tend to shy away from too much description of color because I’m not sure where to go. I forget about using all the senses. Thanks for the reminder.

  4. Great post Anne-Mhairi

    Just so you know – wild mallard eggs are blue. There may be other breeds with blue eggs, but there are probably as many shades of colour as there are breeds!

    You are so right about the way we rely heavily on sight and colour, but all the more reason for ensuring the full sensory experience in our writing


  5. Jane says:

    This is a thoughtful and thought-inducing piece of writing. Thank you.
    I have always sensed many things in terms of colour. When my arthritic knees pain me, it might be a red or orange pain, but sometimes it’s mustard yellow. Some headaches are electric blue, others dark as a bloodstain. Even people’s names pop into my head with a colour attached (Malcolm is always yellow, Alan is mid-blue). When I get my favourite treat- a back scratch- colours burst through my head, lilacs, greens, vivid orange, even spots, stripes and laugh-out-loud tartan! Other physical pleasures come in colours too…

    • It’s marvelous to hear that colour is so active in your perception of the world around you. Does it help you in your writing, or do you find yourself assuming that everyone experiences their world that way?

      • Jane says:

        It’s a good question- and I think that it works both ways. In writng I think it might help to give different perspective on a sensation or sound. It doesn’t help at the doctor’s when I want to say, “well it’s a bluey-green pain with orange round the edges” and hope that he knows what that means!

      • Hahahahahahahahaha!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Yes, I can see it might not be so productive in medical situations πŸ˜€ πŸ˜€ πŸ˜€

  6. Susan Fields says:

    Great post! Fire does make me think of red, even though it’s not really all that red. Interesting.

    • knittingknots says:

      here’s a photo of a bit of wildfire taken in the dark:

      The all over impression we get of firelight is reddish, but hot fire moves into the yellow range, and very hot fire is often blueish. Coals glow rather red-orangey… but the highlights from fire are often in the reddish range, which also adds to the red perception. Compare that with a lamp at night, which we will perceive as yellow or white, counting on the type….

  7. What a wonderful topic of discussion. I am intimately familiar with this having written a novel whose main character can smell people’s moods. Once I created this challenge for myself I had to find ways to describe moods using all senses. After all smell is so closely linked to taste. Like this, for example: “Hatred smelled like bloody meat and black velvet with a surprising layer of buttery caramel beneath, an unpleasant, yet vaguely seductive odor; causing the mouth to water and the to stomach churn.”

    I love using all my senses to describe something. Powerful art does that to me as well. Gets under the skin and effects more than just my eyes. I often use it to inspire descriptions in my writing.

    Your post also speaks to the need in all writing to show instead of tell. The bunched up muscles in the neck of an enraged man speaks much louder in a tale than merely informing the reader, “John was angry.”

    Thanks for the great post.

    • Thank you! What an amazing concept for book. I love your description of hatred. What’s the title? Is it on sale?

      It’s funny you should mention ‘John was angry’, today’s post is all about describing emotions πŸ˜€

  8. Lauri says:

    “everything looks and tastes purple” is a lovely line and thought! Very cool. I will have to see that movie! And thank you for this post, it’s gotten the gears in my brain turning.

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