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.
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.
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.