Drink the rainbow

“Let me, O let me bathe my soul in colours; let me swallow the sunset and drink the rainbow.” – Khalil Gibran.

Colour your mood

Colour can both affect and create mood. Those in the field of Colour Psychology may go further in citing colour as an influencer of human behaviour. This is an area of Psychology often viewed with scepticism. After all, colours can have different associations in different cultures; these do not appear universal. Indeed, some languages, for instance, do not distinguish between blue and green in their vocabulary (in another favourite quote here, Keats called blue the ‘gentle cousin of the forest-green…’), whilst, unlike English, some tongues use separate words for ‘light blue’ and ‘dark blue’. Nevertheless, we have become accustomed to the notion that red evokes energy; we associate blue with cool logic; yellow with optimism, green with harmony… And so on.

This strategy seems beloved of those who work in Marketing—using red to energise and motivate, purple to denote luxury brands, blue for strength and reliability (often used in social media branding)…

Certainly, colour is knitted into colloquial language – in English at least, when angry we ‘see red’ (evidently because as the ‘hot’ colour of blood, red is a stimulant that evokes strong feelings like rage); when we’re sad we ‘feel blue’ (apparently first employed in literature by Washington Irving in 1807 as a synonym for sadness, derived from having the ‘blue devils’, which is to say sensing a menacing presence.) Someone ‘green’ is naïve and gullible, presumably because of that hue’s association with new and immature growth.

Writing in colour

In fictional writing, choices of, references to, and descriptions of colour can be a vexed matter. There may be times when a simple ‘red’ or ‘blue’ may suffice, just as there may always be a wise moment to use the simplest and most direct language available. But often we want to go further. We want to be vivid in our images, to establish atmosphere, pull the reader in and trigger a reaction by using specific imagery, or provoke a response through, for instance, simile and metaphor.

Colours do not have exact synonyms—‘scarlet’ and ‘crimson’, for example, are not the same, and are not precise alternatives for ‘red’. So the writer may search and search for the right shade and linguistic device, and in doing so, seek to convey a certain truth. Should that be burgundy or chilli, ruby or scarlet? The bright red of a hawthorn berry or featuring the gleaming depth of a garnet?

Then too colours can be symbolic, they have associated images or emotions, such as the wintry spikiness of the hawthorn, the richness, complexity, or indulgence of a garnet or ruby, or the heat and spice of chilli.

On the radio the other day, I heard someone mention Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours, written by Scottish botanical painter Patrick Smye and based on the work of German mineralogist Abraham Gottlob Werner. Published originally in 1814 (and so pre-dating the Pantone colour matching system by almost 150 years), as its name indicates, the book classifies the colors of the natural world in detail. Describing the slightest of chromatic variations, it provided a source book for artists and scientists alike, and, famously, was used as a reference by Darwin on his HMS Beagle voyage. It uses examples found in nature to clarify the differences between, for example, the Scotch blue found on ‘the throat of a blue titmouse’ and the Prussian blue seen on a Mallard Drake; the Smoke grey found around the red of a robin’s breast, and the French grey of the “breast of Pied Wag tail” (sic).

Yet with just 110 different tints, even this gorgeous but slender book has its limitations (and has since been extended). There is more, so much more, from which to choose. And as with any other description, we can risk over-doing it; when it comes to colour descriptions, a little can go a long way.

Colourful language

In honour of this theme, below are some uses of ‘colour’ in literature that relate also to the natural world. These work for me because they evoke a mood or clear image, convey a truth, or exhibit originality. Bearing in mind, too (as I have recently written here), I am personally not averse to a bit of purple prose…

Soon it got dusk, a grapy dusk, a purple dusk over tangerine groves and long melon fields; the sun the colour of pressed grapes, slashed with burgundy red, the fields the colour of love and Spanish mysteries.” – Jack Kerouac, On the Road  

“Green was the silence, wet was the light, the month of June trembled like a butterfly.” Pablo Neruda, Sonnet XL

“The redness had seeped from the day and night was arranging herself around us. Cooling things down, staining and dyeing the evening purple and blue black.”
― Sue Monk Kidd, The Secret Life of Bees

“The bougainvillea hung about it, purple and magenta, in livid balloons.”
― Anita Desai, Games at Twilight

“And we drove towards the widening dawn, that now streaked half the sky with a wintry bouquet of pink of roses, orange of tiger-lilies, as if my husband had ordered me a sky from a florist.” Angela Cater, The Bloody Chamber

“The moon hung low in the sky like a yellow skull. From time to time a huge misshapen cloud stretched a long arm across and hid it. Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray


Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours (1814) by Patrick Smye:
See a facsimile at http://www.clarityonthesea.org/files/pdf_archive/syme-1821-nomenclature%20colours.pdf  and the colours at https://www.c82.net/werner/#preface
If you like botanical drawings (as I do), you can look up some examples of Patrick Syme’s work on the National Galleries of Scotland website https://www.nationalgalleries.org/

Rainbow after sunset, Squarespace
Backlit bright city, Adi Kavazovic

23 thoughts on “Drink the rainbow

  1. I have never heard of “writing in color” before, but it makes complete sense. Love your Neruda quote! What a perfect way to describe June!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It is! Those early days, quivering uncertainly between spring and summer.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. The bit of Neruda describing the light as wet made me immediately think of Washington Signature rain-mist!
    It’s interesting for me to consider when sometimes I labor over finding the right word with just the tinge of meaning that I want, and sometimes I just want the bare minimum flat definition to do exactly what I need it to do, to dash it down and be done with it.
    Contradictions abound in writing, at least in mine!


    1. I also like Neruda’s Green for silent. I guess sometimes searching for the right word yet other times needing to simply write, direct, may prevent over-writing?
      I’d never heard about the Washington rain mist. Here in north-west England, it’s famous for being wet, often a constant rain mist called smizzle.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. You are so right, the colour blue is used by so many social media platforms and I’d guess that’s NOT by chance………….. strength and reliability indeed!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Not to speak any ill of WordPress 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Colour create our mood like by seeing yellow colour we feel happy because it is happy colour

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I guess colours can be signifiers – and yellow is, broadly, the colour of the sun we are all under. But isn’t this largely culture bound? For instance black signifies mourning in my culture, but not in all.


  5. I could see doing this. Yellow and certain types of green put me in a great mood. For some reason lavender improves my concentration. Weird, I know.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Maybe it’s the effect of past experience on cognition? What ever the case, if it works, especially to raise the mood, then great.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Wow, this is such an interesting post! “Writing in color” sounds intriguing too! 🙂


  7. I enjoyed this post very much, Libre. I use colors in my writing. My protagonist sees the color of people’s aura. before i was able to designate who and what took what color, i went hunting for for color meaning. i found a lot, but most clashed with the other. except for red, where every page agreed it was either rage or love. Anyway, this was a fascinating one, especially the quotes at the end. they’re vivid sentences that provokes the thought.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for reading. The subject of people who can read the auras or energy fields of others is a fascinating one. Some say it’s a skill anyone can acquire, but I imagine it takes enormous focus and practice to do so.


  8. This is a great reminder for me to take advantage of using color in fiction, and how it can help create mood. Thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for reading. I probably need less descriptive detail in mine though!


  9. Vishnu Aswanth Nov 18, 2018 — 2:27 pm

    This was great knowing about the significance of Colors and the diversity in thoughts in different religions about Colors.


  10. Interesting post. I remember reading a piece of research in the 80’s where they invited participants to a dinner in the same room, same menu, matched samples of course, but the room was decorated in blue, white, red, green, etc. for each different group. With significant impact on group behavior, appetite,, etc. I remember that the green room was the worst. Group did not function, and participants ate almost nothing. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Interesting way to support a slimming diet. Think I read somewhere that yellow is good for appetite stimulation.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. right about the diet! 🙂
        I can’t remember what the result of yellow was. And I’m sure the research may vary in time depending on fashion. (I remember the orange and lime of the ’70’s!)
        I wish I’d noted down the author’s name somewhere, but I was reading a lot of research at the time… tsss.

        Liked by 1 person

  11. Ordered the sky from a florist… especially loved that express and quote…loved the blog piece too…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for reading and commenting. Nothing like some flowers to bring in colour and joy. 🌹


      1. Welcome… indeed… nothing quite beats their beauty…


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