At the Intersection of Language, Art and Photography: 67 Words for Color

At the Intersection of Language, Art and Photography: 67 Words for Color

The vast majority of language learners never break through the advanced beginner and lower intermediate levels.  A key characteristic of fluency is vocabulary breadth and depth.  Breadth means knowing the words for eyelash (pestaña) as well as eye (ojo). Depth means many words to describe actions with nuance.  For example, while the beginning language learner knows the word for “tell”, the advanced has in his arsenal juicy words like weave a tale, spin the truth, or divulge a secret.

It´s hard to achieve. Most writers express themselves only in their native tongue.  Yet some writers do learn another language well enough to create.  Nabokov, who was trilingual in Russian, French and English, wrote the first half of his works in Russian and the second half in English.  Lolita, his most acclaimed work, was written in English.  It was not translated into his native Russian until twelve years later, only to be immediately banned in his homeland. Samuel Becket, who said that he preferred France in war to his native Ireland in peace, wrote Waiting for Godot in French.  Jean-Louis (Jack) Kerouac began writing his most well-known novel, On the Road, in French before switching to English to finish it.

I intend to do creative writing in Spanish.  Therefore, like a magpie, I am collecting words and lining my nest with them.

Since I paint, my first task has been to develop a list of colors.  My list contains 67 colors in Spanish.  This is quite short, actually, since most people can distinguish between 150 to 200 colors, and artists learn to identify many more more.

I simply cannot live with a primary-school vocabulary of blue, red, yellow, green, orange and purple.  I need a word to describe the delicate coral of a sleeping baby`s cheek.  I need a word for the sour yellow that makes me pucker and drool.  I need a word for the mystery of the night.  I need words for the colors of tropical parrots.  I need words for the colors of the butterflies in my garden.

I need a thousand words for the colors of the sky.

No, primary-school colors won´t do at all.

With seventy percent of the body`s sense receptors clustering in the eyes, vision is the most powerful of all the senses.  We close our eyes when we smell baking bread or touch a lover because if we kept them open there would be too many visual distractions to savor the sensation.

Language is steeped in visual imagery and words for color are part of it.

Light plays an important role in perceiving color.  The paradox of light and color is that an apple is anything but red.  It seems red because red is the only color it does not absorb.  When an object does not absorb light, it reflects it. The apple looks red because it is reflecting that part of the spectrum.

Languages do not have names for all colors.  The ancient Egyptians and Japanese did not distinguish between blue and green. The color of the sky is referred to as “green” in classical Arabic poetry.   Blue came into use later.  According to the linguists Berlin and Kay, terms for more subtle colors like pink and orange do not emerge in a language until the language has made a distinction between blue and green.

Naming something makes it visible.

Cezanne claimed that we can see the fragrance of objects.  He sgaid that each stroke of the brush must “contain the air, the light, the object, the composition, the character and the style.”

Many colors did not exist in art until metals like chromium were discovered.  Some colors used by Renaissance painters were highly toxic.  Renoir´s reds, oranges and blues contained twice the levels of aluminum, mercury and cobalt found in the paint of later artists like Monet or Degas.

I´ve been thinking a lot about color and photography this week as I climb the steep learning curve that my new Nikon 750 demands.  (It´s kicking my butt.)  Traditionally, photography has not offered the same artistic license with color as other visual media.  While painters learn a lot about color, many photographers avoid it, and the feeling is that serious “art” photography must be in black and white.  I disagree.  Knowledge of color theory is as important for photographers as it is for painters.

Part of the reason that so many photographers avoid color has to do with the technology.  It wasn´t until 1935 that Eastman Kodak introduced Kodachrome, the first color film.  The color was horrible, and the film didn´t archive well.  Black and white, on the other hand, archived extremely well.  Many photographers who were masters of black and white photography, such as Ansel Adams, never mastered color.

So what made the list of 67 colors I am going to memorize in Spanish?

In the blues, I have the Spanish words for cyan, turquoise, sky blue, cerulean, aquamarine, cobalt, navy, sapphire, indigo, Prussian blue and steel.

Which one is your favorite?

In the reds, I have scarlet, cadmium red, cherry red (sometimes called fire engine red), brick, maroon, vermillion and rose.

My favorite is scarlet, the color of passion.

In the yellows, I have the Spanish words for yellow ocher, Tuscany gold, canary, gold, amber, lemon yellow, saffron and honey.

Colors that make your mouth water.

The greens evoke the Carribean (chartreuse), Ireland (kelly green), Brazil (emerald), China (jade) and England (hunter green).

The oranges are exotic (coral and flamenco) and fruity (peach, apricot and mandarin).  Beige is the boring exception, the stuffy uncle at a raucous family reunion.

The purples are a mixed bag.  Some are majestic, like burgundy.  Some are mysterious, almost black, like aubergine . Others are quaint, like amethyst, or old-fashioned, like lavender.  Some are electric, like fuschia and magenta, and should be used with caution.  Others are slightly out-of-date, like mauve.  Some, like peach, are just plain terrible.

Never buy a peach shirt or dress.  It will sit in your closet.

The browns give me comfort.  I need browns in my life, the earthy chestnuts, indulgent chocolates, steaming mugs of coffee and buttered toast, cinnamon apple pie, piles of copper autumn leaves, geraniums in terracotta pots, marmalade cats sleeping in the sun.

Colors are more than words.  They are smells, memories, emotions, melodies and textures.  As Kahlil Gibran tells us, we must bathe our souls in color.  To live fully we must swallow the sunset and drink the rainbow.

And for that, my friends, we need more than a paltry handful of words.

In any language.