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  • Writer's pictureMichael Skalka

What If Colors Had No Names?

Summary: Ponder this idea. What if the colors we use as artists had no names or were forbidden to have names? Make believe that we are not allowed to create specific names for colors.


In this imaginary world, attaching a name to a color would enrage the alien overlords that rule our planet who arrived here thousands of years ago before language was codified. Imagine that we have evolved having no ability to establish names for the color of things.

In our existing world, the common everyday use of color names is employed as an adjective to elaborate and further define an object. Color is an “add-on” that supports the description of an object, that in many cases, does not influence its function. Announcing to someone that they are going to wear a heavy green coat today does not influence the warmth or protective nature of the garment. The color of food packaging does not change the product’s appearance or taste. However, recall several decades ago when grocery stores sold “generic” and bulk food that came in solid white and/or yellow boxes and bags? It proved to us that color has an impact on the attractiveness/desirability of products sold in supermarkets.

Returning to the alien overlord scenario: When it comes to purchasing or discussing art materials with our colleagues, we would be severely handicapped if color names were not allowed to be used. Without assigning color names to primary, secondary, and tertiary colors we would struggle to engage in a common way to identify hues. We might adopt the use of synonyms from nature and call colors “sunshine” “fire” and “sky” to describe primary hues. We would struggle with more complex mixtures because their subtle tints and tones are much harder to accurately describe, especially the myriad of warm and cool grey tones.


When conveying colors to others without a sample to show them, in many instances, we slip into the use of commercial paint color names, food, hair colors, and clothing color names when describing hues with multiple color combinations. Even as artists, we don’t categorize people with blonde hair by saying they have hair the color of unbleached titanium dioxide or Naples Yellow Light. We don’t ask the waiter for a steak to be cooked until the interior looks like Raw Umber with a touch of Burnt Sienna. Clothing catalogs never describe the range of tee shirts coming in the colors, Rose Madder, Prussian Blue, and Bismuth Yellow. We live in a world with mixed ways of describing colors that make sense to the largest number of people.


Artists understand that the primary, secondary, and tertiary colors are like preset stops on a car radio. There are many stations in between the preset intervals and unlike radio stations that have frequency numbers and FCC legal call signs, many colors in between don’t have common names. Colors can be mixed to form hard-to-describe hues. Countless grey mixtures using complementary hues can be pointless to pin to a specific color. So again, we employ names of various objects in our world to come as close as possible to matching the hue, value, and chroma of the thing we are describing.


Art materials themselves are subject to the whims and fancies of color nomenclature. We have a hefty set of baggage that comes with the names of pigments we commonly use. Every paint name requires one or more qualifiers to describe its color accurately. We know what to expect from experience when purchasing and using paint. We buy colors without stopping to realize the history of their names or their chemical structure.

We select paints based on geophysical and/or chemical characteristics. Viewed through the eyes of the uninitiated, many of the paints we purchase make little sense outside of the world of artists.


For example, so many colors are born of inorganic materials, that, in their unprocessed state have no resemblance to their finished products. Cadmium is a silver-white metal in its natural form. Organic pigments with names like Quinacridone, Hansa, Perylene, etc., are multi-chemical formulations that need to be combined and processed to make colors. The history of the origins of art materials or premixed hues (convenience colors) has provided us with an assortment of color names like Indian Yellow, Sap Green, Asphaltum, Permanent Green Light, Brown Pink, Prussian Blue, and Naples Yellow.


Returning to the dilemma of having no color names gives a moment to pause and think about the history and convoluted roots of the color names we do have that fall outside of the names of primary and secondary color designations. Even basic colors have interesting stories about their origins. Some cultures have no names for various colors, and some describe colors using common objects.

I will let you think about all this as I sit on my porch, dressed in my khaki pants and russet sweatshirt, sipping a glass of Merlot that has a deep raspberry-beet juice appearance, reading a book about the quantum state of matter, time, and energy while the sky turns from amber to a deep, peacock inkiness. Thank goodness you can imagine the scene all through the use of a host of descriptive words we have at our disposal to describe colors.


The Syntax of Color

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