The world’s first thesaurus of colour shades: What kind of yellow is an egg yolk?

 The illustrator Ingrid Sundberg has come up with a clever 'colour thesaurus'. David Barnett can see a rainbow

When it comes to colour, most of us are on safe ground with the primaries – but when asked to differentiate between the different shades of blue, for example, we might start to struggle.

That doesn't mean we're colour blind, more “hue illiterate”, perhaps – a situation not helped by the increasingly creative means paint companies employ to describe their wares – anyone for Farrow and Ball's Borrowed Light? Or maybe their Dead Salmon? 

Never fear. If you don't know your azure from your elbow, help may be at hand in the form of a “colour thesaurus” developed by writer and children's book illustrator Ingrid Sundberg.

Sundberg, based in Southern California, designed her definitive colour chart after working on a fantasy novel that had a “vivid art subculture”. She says: “I was finding that words such as 'blue' or 'red' were becoming repetitive and weren't creating the specific imagery I was hoping for.

“I decided to collect colour names so I had a resource at my fingertips at all times. I compiled colour words from as many sources as I could find: paint chips, art stories, mineral names, catalogues, novels. I quickly found myself expanding my thesaurus past clinical descriptions such as 'mauve' to colour words that were more evocative and tactile.”

So you want to be a bit poetic when describing the yolk of that egg you've rustled up for breakfast? Perhaps it's medallion, or dandelion, bumblebee, butterscotch or Tuscan sun.

ingrid-sundberg.jpg
Here's looking at hue: Ingrid Sundberg

“I started to fall in love with words that could do double duty,” admits Sundberg, “colours you could load with metaphorical meaning and would give a reader more information than simply hue. 

“For example, 'porcelain white' evokes stature, texture, possibly even a time period. 'Watermelon pink' makes you think of summer, sweet things, makes your mouth water. 'Chartreuse' feels sharp and bold, adds a hint of magic. My goal became to create a spectrum of words that I could endow with meaning and help add new layers to my stories.” 

thesaurus-red.jpg

Colour in fiction is something every creative writing student has wrestled with in the hope of finding new and evocative ways to describe stuff. Curiously, though, it wasn't something that the first writers of epics worried overly much about… mainly because they didn't seem to have many colours to go at.

Unlike prime minister William Gladstone. When he was merely MP for the University of Oxford constituency, he began to write a book about Homer – and in his researches noticed an intriguing lack of colour descriptions, especially for blue. Pondering on the “wine-dark” epithet so frequently attached to the sea in The Odyssey, Gladstone was puzzled that the description made no allusion to blue or green – as might be expected – and decided to count the mentions of colours in the Greek epic. (Obviously, business around the constituency wasn't too taxing.) What he discovered was that, while black and white were mentioned a fair few times, red only got 15 or so name-checks and blue none at all. Gladstone's work intrigued the German philosopher Lazarus Geiger who decided to apply it to other forms of ancient literature – the Indian Vedas, the Aryan Avesta, the Icelandic sagas – and found that blue in particular was absent, leading him to determine that humanity's notion and observation of colour had evolved considerably over the millennia.

Evolved so much that now we have innumerable variations of colour – and with the result that Sundberg's thesaurus has found traction with a whole host of people. She says: “I've had thank you emails from writers, artists, wedding planners, primary school teachers and designers who have found it helpful in their creative works and businesses. I've even had an astronomer contact me about how it's helped him identify different shifts in light. The response has been pretty phenomenal.”

That said, Sundberg likes to point out that she isn't definitively naming colours: “It isn't a colour dictionary; it's a thesaurus, meant to help you find a synonym for descriptive purposes.”

thesaurus-brown.jpg

She likes to quote Dr Mazviita Chirimuuta of the University of Pittsburgh, who says: “Colour hovers easily between the subjective world of sensation and the objective world of fact.” And adds: “Personally, I'm interested in the world of sensation. Every human eye will interpret a hue differently, and every computer monitor is calibrated differently as well. Thus the thesaurus is meant to be a writing tool and not an end-all-be-all dictionary. I've used some words twice (such as rose or wine) because they can be different hues. Other colours are open to interpretation. When I say 'salmon', do I mean the cooked pink of Atlantic salmon, or the orange of fresh sushi salmon, or the darker smoked red of Pacific salmon? Context in your writing is everything.”

Which really leaves only one unanswered question: what exactly is the colour of Sundberg's hair? Fuchsia? Magenta? Hot pink? I'll go for Bubblegum.

Comments