Inventing Color

Inventing Color

Have you ever tried to picture a color that doesn't exist?  

It kind of makes your head hurt.  

And I'm not talking about rearranging the rainbow - this is about about trying to imagine a color you haven't yet seen.

Surprisingly, the only thing preventing you from seeing a new color is the lack of words to describe it.  Our words (and beliefs) play a huge role not only in how we see, but also in what we see.

Color and language co-exist in a friction-based harmony.  We use words to define our world.  Because they are the tools we use to describe it they shape how we perceive it.  Additionally, words and our perception of color are influenced by our ever-evolving history and culture, making clear definitions or standardized representations elusive and often convoluted.  Creating a standardized definition for something subjective is kind of like shooting at a moving target; our language and culture will always be evolving too quickly to thoroughly describe the nuances of our world.  

Words and color are historically and consistently difficult to define. This is evidenced by professions such as Literary Professors, Lawyers, Preachers, Translators, and many more that exist to help us interpret language for all its various purposes.  Volumes have been written and countless systems have been invented in attempts to standardize color.  Do we create names to describe visual hues or do we choose names based on material?  Should we use examples in nature (such as the yellow of a goldfinch) as the standard? Pantone uses numbers and databases.  No matter the method or system, color is particularly difficult to anchor an accepted common standard.  

Throughout history people have tried to apply the absolutism of math to color through the division of our light spectrum and the creation of color wheels in an attempt to understand color through equations.

e.g.: Blue + Yellow = Green 

I'm not arguing that there isn't logic in this system.  And I'm not suggesting that it is wrong.  But this is only one way to look at this large and diverse subject, and therefore a limiting view of the world of color.

By changing our language we can alter how we see color, and in effect change the colors we see.  

Further, by truly examining the colors around us and stripping away the linguistic and cultural baggage they have accumulated, we can learn to see them in a more raw and real way.  In a way, I'm going to teach you how to look at colors without their clothes on. 

For example, think of the word 'shadow' and how you might paint your shadow.  By the word's very etymology we begin to envision shades of grey, when in fact shadows are often blue or purple or many other color possibilities (it really depends on the light).

Pink is another example of words influencing how we see color.  To plenty of people, pink is its very own color.  There is hot pink, magenta, fuchsia, opera pink etc that many would place under the color category of 'pink'.  In reality, pink is just light red.  It's a little difficult to imagine light blue in the same way that we consider pink.  To be sure, there are many different shades and values of blue (cerulean, ultramarine, periwinkle, cyan, powder blue, etc), but most people would put those into the 'blue' color category.  (Truly, try thinking of fuchsia and magenta as shades of red.)

How do you apply all of this to your painting?  


Greenleaf and Blueberry Shades of Gold Set Metallic Watercolor Paints

Here is an example of how shifting color names can change our perception of them:  This is the exact same paint set - only the color charts differ.  The chart on the left reflects the actual color names, while the chart on the right gives descriptive names for the same colors.  We have shared these photos on social media with an abbreviation of this post.  Some people have only looked at the photos without reading the description.  As a result we have received many requests for Rose Gold from people who don't realize it is the same as Faux Copper (which I realize is a less fetching name).


Considering this when you sit down to paint will help you to build a color awareness.  When you observe, don't only question what you see - also question how you see.  

Here is an exercise to shake up the way you see color, starting with the ones in your paintbox:

Renaming the Colors in Your Palette

Any paint color you purchase comes with a name from the manufacturer.  In the art supply industry there is no standardization for how colors are named.  Some companies (like us!) use representative names (i.e. naming the color after the pigment used to make it), while others use descriptive names (think: lemon yellow), some use historical pigment names as descriptive names for modern color approximations of obsolete pigments (like sap green), and still other companies use all of the above approaches to colors in a single line of paints.

So, given the general chaos of the naming of colors in the paint industry as a whole, there is nothing stopping you from giving your charges new names to suit your own outlook.  And doing so may not only shift how you see them, it may change how you use them, and in effect how you see the rest of the colors around you when you take the time to pause, observe, and consider.


Greenleaf and Blueberry Handmade Watercolor Paints Seashells Shells


What You'll Need:

sketchbook or sheet of paper
pencil or ink

What To Do:

1)  Find a sheet of paper or a page in your sketchbook that you will be able to get to easily enough for future paintings or reference.

2)  On the piece of paper, swatch out the colors in your paintbox or the colors you most enjoy using.  It doesn't matter how you swatch them, just get a bit of each color down on paper.  If you like making color charts (like me!), this is a perfect project for a new one!


Greenleaf and Blueberry Handmade Watercolors greenleafblue Artisanal Watercolors Seashells Paint Shells


3)  Here is where you need either your imagination or your research skills.  Decide what naming system makes sense for you: descriptive or representative.

Descriptive:  Look at the colors you have just painted out.  Try to forget their names and what pigments they are.  Go color by color and ask yourself what each one looks like or what it most reminds you of.  It doesn't have to be a color match at all.  It could be a scent or a song lyric, even a feeling.  Take your time here.

Representative:  This is a less whimsical approach, but no less enlightening (unless all of your paints are already named representatively).  It involves rolling up your sleeves to do a little research to find out what pigments were used for each of your colors.  Not all paints out there are single pigment, so there might be a few different pigments in one tube of paint.  Check the back of the paint tube (or the wrapping for your pans if you still have it) for the pigment index number, which will look something like this: PY43.  P stands for 'pigment', Y stands for 'yellow', and 43 indicates Yellow Ochre specifically. PBk is 'pigment black', PG is 'pigment green', PB is 'pigment blue', etc.  When you find the pigment index number(s), just drop them into a google search and you'll be able to turn up the full color name.

Whichever route you initially choose, I recommend then giving the other one a go as well!


Greenleaf and Blueberry Handmade Watercolors Artisanal Watercolor Paint Seashells Paint Shells greenleafblue


4)  Use your pen or pencil to write out your new color names next to each color.  

5)  Then take a moment with your finished sheet and think about how your perception of these familiar colors shifted and moved as you either cast about in your mind pairing them with different thoughts, memories, and objects, or as you learned which pigments are actually responsible for the colors you enjoy using.

Your perception can be shaped by your creativity and knowledge in the same way that your artwork is.

My re-named color palette is below.  Since I only use Greenleaf & Blueberry colors, every one of which is representatively named for the one pigment we use to make it, I changed things up by choosing descriptive names (which I admit was difficult since descriptively named paints are something of a pet peeve of mine!).  I swatched out some of my current favorite and most-often-used colors, and after much contemplation (and consternation) renamed each of them.  I considered a consistent naming method (like all liquids or all flowers), but ultimately went with a more "free association" sort of approach to describe each color in my attempt to imbue each with new meaning and distance it from my habitual thinking.


Greenleaf and Blueberry Handmade Watercolor Paints Natural Pigments Watercolor Seashells Shells


My color list is as follows (in case you can't read my scrawled chicken scratch):

Pipestone ⟶ Desert Rose
Red Ochre  Tower Climb
Red Earth  ⟶ Weathered Brick
Mayan Red  ⟶ Fresh Blood
Orange Ochre  ⟶ Warm Blanket
Yellow Ochre  ⟶ Baked Sand
Mayan Yellow  ⟶ Liquid Sunshine
Green Earth  ⟶ New Growth
Green Earth #2  ⟶ Scarlett's Curtains
Celadonite  ⟶ Hanging Moss
Mayan Green  ⟶ Conservatory
Mayan Blue #2  ⟶ Floating Rain
Azurite  ⟶ Himalayan Poppy
Mayan Violet  ⟶ Crushed Iris
Violet Hematite  ⟶ Bare Feet
Purple Ochre  ⟶ Evening Shadows
Brown Ochre  ⟶ Coffee Clouds
Cassel Earth  ⟶ Under-Nail Dirt
Magnetite  ⟶ Cryptobiotic Soil


The names I have chosen for my palette probably won't mean much to you.  They may seem strange, silly, or weirdly random - and that's just fine!  What gets my mind activated or your creative thoughts bouncing will be different from everyone else.  The point is to transform your perception of a color by shifting its association through re-naming it.

Here is one of my examples:   Violet Hematite  ⟶ Bare Feet

When I sat and quietly concentrated on the color pool of Violet Hematite, blocking out the name and what I know the pigment is made of, my mind drifted to the cool beaches of the Pacific Northwest.  I remembered mornings walking barefoot along the shore under a cloudy, opaque sky with mist curling around the tiny islands in the distance.  I loved everything about those mornings, and the idea of evoking them when painting seemed appealing.  So, I toyed with how to best distill down that layered sensory memory into a name, and eventually came up with Bare Feet.  Because of this new name, I am more likely to think of Violet Hematite as a cool color instead of as a violet color (which it only loosely is).


If you're feeling extra energetic and enjoying your color new names, I encourage you to make a new color chart with your new names for your travel tin.  Having a custom reference tool paired with your colors will help reinforce your new names and further the transformation!  


There is so much more to watercolor than painting.  Paying attention to your tools, your motivation, your observation, and your perception can play an even more significant roll than your finished work.  It's ironic that the image is what remains when it's the process that is often more meaningful to the artist.


I would love to see your re-named color lists!  (Whether you use our colors or not!). Drop a link in the comments or use the hashtag #gbfreshpalette !


As always, thank you for being here and wishing you Happy Painting!

Jess Greenleaf Artist Greenleaf and Blueberry Watercolor Painting Bookcliffs Colorado Western Slope








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