Colour is all around us. We choose colour to express something about ourselves and our homes. Do you like the cool calm chic of pastels or the stimulating liveliness of brights, or combinations of both? The colours we choose to wear can affect our mood, the colours others wear can affect how we perceive them. In other words, colours may have psychological properties which are commonly shared, or are specific to us as individuals for whatever reason.
I haven’t personally come across much in my reading on this topic in relation to creative writing. Yes, we’re told to describe colour in addressing the visual senses to make the fictive dream more vivid for the reader, but what else could there be to consider? Well, as an artist, colour is very close to my heart. Like other artists, I mix it, I brush it out on canvas, and I place one colour against another with strategic intent. It’s not just about red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple, black and white. It’s about tints, tones and shades – adding white, grey or black respectively. It’s about the relationship of one colour to another – if two colours or their derivatives are opposite in the colour wheel (and therefore termed complementary), they enhance one another to maximum visual impact eg purple and yellow. It’s about an endless infinity of colour mixes. It’s about warm and cool – adding yellow or blue respectively. Any painting course for beginners worth its salt will address the theory of colour. So I thought I’d explore how we can use colour in relation to creative writing, bearing some colour theory and psychology in mind.
Now we’re not going to get carried away, we’re not going down the route of flowery excess eg. a hint of sweet magnolia with a faint blush of pomegranate, but we are going to get away from the problem of this:
Person A says to person B : What is your favourite colour?
Person B replies: Oh, I just love red!
Person A says: Oh – my favourite is green.
What is wrong here (and it’s really common in everyday conversation) is that we have no idea what kind of red, what kind of green. Persons A and B know what they are visualising, but they are not expressing it to each other at all. It’s a dead conversation, and it can be dead in creative writing too. We need to ask what kind of red ? Is it a pinky red, like crimson, or a more browny red like a tomato red? And as for green – is it a cool pale pastel or a rich deep green? Is it a turquoise blue green or a yellowy grass green?
So how do we get around this in a simple way for the reader?
Well, the best way is probably to relate the colour you’re trying to describe to a feature of the world around us, natural or man-made, thinking about how it will add a particular feel or mood to that colour in the context you would like to get across Eg A corporate red would convey a strong, flat, responsible, conservative context, whereas a poppy red may suggest a brightly bold, somewhat flighty and optimistic feel, and there again chilli red would take the imagination to exotic, hot and passionate places.
So take the colour you are imagining eg a grey sky, and find something in the world ‘out there’ that does the job of suggesting what you want to convey. So for a grey sky, it may be a porridge sky for a sense of sludgy oppressive heaviness, or a veil of silver sky for something more delicate, mysterious and ethereal.
Another way of describing colour is to do so through the point of view of your character, especially if you are in their heads when the description of colour moment pops up. This can be a particular feature of using your narrative language to convey a sense of your character.
Eg In my novel, On Turtle Beach, my artist character, Lucy, enters a Turkish market where she spots a stand full of ground spices. She instantly associates them with ground pigments, and therefore to a traditional artist’s colour palette. I wanted to have her enthusing, but also with a sense of her showing off, as she begins to list them for the benefit of her bored and unimpressed sister. So we have colours described as burnt sienna, yellow ochre, vermillion, burnt umber, cadmium yellow…you get the drift.
So you can think, what does the character do for a living or consider the nature of their personality and decide if you can use this when describing colour from their perspective.
More generally, from the theory of colour, cool tints (pastels) suggest distance (both emotional and physical) and relaxation, while also alluding to conservative values. Hot bright colours suggest excitement, stimulation, a zest for life, with hints of eccentricity. Earthy colours convey warmth, trust, security and cosiness. And extreme lights such as white suggest both airiness and coldness. Once you get your head around this, its amazing what will occur to you. In a sense you know all this already, it’s just making use of it.
Colour symbolism: For character, past and present, for setting, and for mood
Well, here we can really bring in the psychology of colour. And here is a lovely guide.
As an example, let’s take black. I describe an middle-aged lady character of mine as routinely wearing black. Black is her chosen colour for her work suit. She never deviates, so when her husband dies, it makes little difference to her (both practically and emotionally), black is already ‘her colour’. This colour says a lot about my character and her past, which comes to light later on. Think about what it feels like to wear black. I find it closed off, yet protective, but usually avoid wearing it for its heaviness. Below is what its psychological properties are described as in the above guide from ‘Colour Affects’, and my character wearing black is most definitively encompassing the negative qualities, rather than the positive:
Positive: Sophistication, glamour, security, emotional safety, efficiency, substance.
Negative: Oppression, coldness, menace, heaviness.
Black is all colours, totally absorbed. The psychological implications of that are considerable. It creates protective barriers, as it absorbs all the energy coming towards you, and it enshrouds the personality. Black is essentially an absence of light, since no wavelengths are reflected and it can, therefore be menacing; many people are afraid of the dark. Positively, it communicates absolute clarity, with no fine nuances. It communicates sophistication and uncompromising excellence and it works particularly well with white. Black creates a perception of weight and seriousness.’
So I’m pleased I chose black for my character to need to wear because it fits her well, and it may even be used in the title of the novel. I also have her hating red poinsettias (she is quite a repressed person), her home decor is pastel based (for her conservatism) and the car she drives is an understated responsible indigo. You get the idea.
To finish, I’m not suggesting getting hung up on colour, it’s to be enjoyed. But just to have a think, when the moment comes to pick a colour, how to describe it more vividly, more evocatively, and consider using it to represent character qualities, their values, their mood, and the mood of their environment, be it sympathetic or hostile. And have some fun with it.
Here is some more information if you are interested:
Colour Thesaurus, very visual and gets you going in the zone
**Interesting Fact: Stephen king named one of his novels (and the character within) as Rose Madder (a yummy purple pink). Now that must have been a first!