Writing Colour


Menindi by Virginia Hanlon,

This week I watched my friend Virginia, an intuitive painter, throw aquamarine and cobalt blue onto a green, purple and vermilion background, and then spray on water so the gleaming paint dripped down the canvas like rain. I could drown in the depth and layers of colour in her paintings.

I started to think how much writing is like painting, except words are our medium. How what we’re trying to do is show the reader a picture: images of the world of our story and the people in it. And how much colour plays a part in brightening it.

Later that night I came across a letter Vincent van Gogh wrote to his brother from Arles which painted colour with words:


… we saw a red vineyard, all red like red wine. In the distance it turned to yellow, and then a green sky with the sun, the earth after the rain violet, sparkling yellow here and there where it caught the reflection of the setting sun.

A green sky? Violet earth? It takes careful observation to see what is really there in front of us rather than what we believe should be there. This past week with the fires raging out of control to the north of us, the sea was burnt sienna.

So I’ve been looking at writers’ use of colour.

Any common object that has a stable colour can be used as a colour word. Look at the way Josephine Rowe uses colour  in her short story Glisk which won the ABR Elizabeth Jolley Short story prize in 2016 to describe her character’s hair.wheat

Fynn arrives on a Saturday morning with one duffel bag, his blondeness gone to seed, hair brushing the collar of the bomber jacket he wears in spite of the January heat.

Colour that come from objects or living things are often metaphorical. This extract from Donna Meehan’s story of an aboriginal girl taken away from her family uses blue to colour this heart-breaking scene. And the image of Mum waving a white hanky is loaded with symbolism.

There was my mum in her only good blue dress standing next to my aunts and our old grandmother. Just standing there. Standing there with tears rolling down their cheeks too fast even to wipe them away. Then Mum waved a white hanky and I pressed my face against the windowpane as hard as I could, watching her. Watching until her blue dress faded into a tiny blue daub of colour.

Look at the colour metaphors in Jean Toomer’s Cane.

Sempter’s streets are vacant and still. White paint on the wealthier houses is a chill blue glitter of distant stars. Negro cabins are a purple blur. Broad Street is deserted.

Colour can accurately depict a situation, as in Lucy Treloar’s story, Natural Selection. Kate’s obsession with her son blinds her to effect this has on her daughter Rosie.large_coorong_sunset

Everywhere Kate looked was saltbush and sea beneath a pan of impossible blue sky. She lifted her face and felt the white light fall on her and let it burn away the thought of Rosie sunk in the black hole of her room.

Character and situation are revealed through the use of colour in Helen Garner’s novel The Spare Room, about a visit from a friend, the colour of her skin hinting of her cancer.

I made it up nicely with a fresh fitted sheet, the pale pink one, since she had a famous feel for colour, and pink is flattering even to skin that is turned yellowish.

Nouns and verbs have a stronger impact than adjectives. For stronger writing use nouns that carry their colour – plum, ebony, salmon – and colour verbs – the fire reddens sky. Keep colour adjectives to a minimum to avoid purpling your prose.(Sorry, bad pun.)

If you come across a great example in your reading of how colour is used I’d love to hear from you.3-turner

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11 Responses to Writing Colour

  1. anne says:

    From ‘Upstream’, Mary Oliver’s recent collection of essays, p. 17:
    ‘Once I saw a fox … its forelegs merrily slapping the air as it tried to tap a yellow butterfly with its thin black forefeet, the butterfly fluttering just out of reach all across the deep green gloss …’

    It’s interesting, here, how Mary uses the adverb ‘merrily’; adverbs are often considered a no-no but in this instance ‘ merrily’ is perfect because it mirrors the merry, light-hearted way of butterflies.

    From ‘pumpkin,’ a memoir by yours truly, p.5, about a young mother, nine months pregnant, painting the front verandah tiles:
    ‘”…should have seen my tummy hanging over the tiles, almost touching the wet paint.”
    “What colour?”
    “Of course. Ruby was pure burgundy.” ‘

    In this very small extract, the colour burgundy stands for the passion and determination displayed by my mother when she was nine months pregnant.

    Karen, I really like the piece you wrote about colour. Ive found that when it’s used in an incidental way, and not in a deliberate or too contrived- technique-y way, it’s very powerful and works on so many more levels, way beyond the literal.

    Happy writing,
    Cheers, Anne 🙂

    • Lovely examples, Anne. Colour can so perfectly represent something and deepen and expand our understanding of it. Exactly like Ruby being burgundy does. Thank you for adding to the collection.

  2. Jennifer Pritchard says:

    Hi Karen does Virginia have works for sale? I love her colors too!

  3. This was such an interesting exercise! I thought I’d go into the last book I read in my 100 book challenge (Alice’s Wonderland) and copy a few colour pictures in here as examples.

    When I picture the story of Alice’s Wonderland, I picture generally black and white images… Which made me wonder why this might be. Then I realised! Lewis Carroll uses very few colours in his writing. In fact, some colours he hasn’t used at all!

    I did a search for colours in the full text and came up with:

    Red – 1 (when the queen complains that the white rose should have been white)
    Orange – 1 (when referring to a jar labelled ‘orange marmalade’)
    Yellow – 0
    Green – 4 (three are referring to the same green leaves and the other is green soup in one of poems they recite)
    Blue – 0
    Purple – 1 (the queen turns purple)

    Only really the last one could be counted as a colour picture and even that is a stretch.

    Interesting that Carroll’s lack of colour didn’t impact on the success of his story. Also interesting is just how colourful the movie versions of Alice’s Wonderland are!

    I loved this post Karen. Thanks for making us stop and think about how we can improve our writing.

    • That’s such an interesting comment, Jessie! Alice in Wonderland, the movie versions anyway, are alive with colour. I read Alice a long time ago but it’s lack of colour words certainly didn’t effect my enjoyment of it. Yet in the above extracts I think colour adds something more to the story. If it works better, use it. If not, leave it out. Alice seems a great example of that. Thanks, Jessie.

  4. anne says:

    I thought of you and your colour exercise , Karen, when I read this yesterday. It’s from a biography I’m re-reading because I love the main character and subject matter and writing. It’s ‘Pioneer Writer’ by Patricia Clarke. Such a simple opening sentence (which I’ve never noticed before), so evocative of the writer/naturalist, Louisa Atkinson: ‘I searched for Louisa Atkinson in the green paddocks at Sutton Forest …’ Such an elegant opening, don’t you think. 🙂

  5. I love all the words we have for different colours, shades, and tones (*and* how they sound and the memories they evoke in me); and I like photography and colouring books, too, so this post is right up my street, Karen!

    I came across this ‘colour thesaurus’ a few weeks back, which was a great help for me as I can’t remember the names of all the colours I had in my little child’s paintbox!

    I am quite picky about the art I like but your friend’s is something I could enjoy having on my wall! All those jewel colours! 🙂

    • Thank you so much for the colour word link, Joanna. I find building up lexicons are extremely helpful for writing and this will fit in nicely. I’ve just been to an exhibition by one of our best artists, John Olsen, and when I walked into one room of desert paintings the whole room shone so luminous in red and gold I looked down at my arms expecting to see it reflected there. It was a spiritual experience.
      All the best, Karen

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