Color is something that I think a lot about – whether it’s the topic of race, trying to keep my eyes open to find art in the everyday, or just selecting my accessories every morning, it’s frequently on my mind. In any context, I prefer a bold combination of brightly contrasting tones – not one thing (or person) matching with anything else – rather than a flat blend of similar hues. I recently made my first visit to the Getty in LA, and spending a whole day alone surrounded by a myriad of stimulating art, color, and people, I got to thinking about how important the awareness of art – and by extension, color – is to a healthy and enriched understanding of the world. Color makes things vital and striking, prompts us to feel in ways that we don’t notice or understand. It brings the world to life; there is a reason, I might venture, that blood is red.
I play a game with the little girls I babysit where we take turns listing every color we can think of. It started with the 5-year-old wanting to name the colors of the rainbow – red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet (though, I think one of those has been voted off the spectrum since I learned ROYGBIV in 1st grade) – and when she started to realize how much farther the list can stretch, it turned into a game, a challenge. We began with the obvious additions like brown and black, then got a little crazier with colors like magenta and turquoise. After a little while, her limited knowledge of color names had run out, and my mental catalog of Crayola’s inventory had been exhausted. (Fortunately, the 3-year-old was content recycling the few pinks and purples she could think of.)
Because I’d been channeling my elementary school coloring fests and tossing out crayon names like “robin’s egg blue” and “granny smith apple,” I was accused by one very skeptical kindergartener of cheating, of making things up. I told her those were real colors, at least according to the company who holds the monopoly on the industry, and then realized that if Crayola can do it, then we should too. I wanted to see her consider every object, image, place she’d ever seen and remember the color of it, turning whatever it was into its own special shade, removing it from the absolutist, over-simplified umbrella colors that make up our rainbow or any basic box of markers.
She took to this with great enthusiasm, embracing the challenge and appreciating the endless scope of possibility. I shared her excitement and we would congratulate each other with each clever suggestion. “Moon silver!” she would shout victoriously. Despite her fervor, however, she would pause and question the validity of almost every color she offered, asking, puzzled, “Does that count?” Yes, they all count. As far as we know, with our weak human vision, everything is it’s own unique color, and may as well be labeled as such.
When our imaginations began to drag, I suggested we look around the backyard for different colors to use. She’d been collecting big fuzzy caterpillars all week in a small, blue plastic bucket with the little mermaid on it. She peered into this home-made sanctuary full of dead flowers and abducted insects and her face lit up – she announced with bright zeal her crowning achievement, her proudest discovery: Caterpillar Brown. I was delighted and intrigued by this, because although caterpillars come in dozens of different colors, the ones in her little pail were brown, and so this becomes the defining color of caterpillars.
But here is where this game gets risky. It is important that we differentiate between a Caterpillar Brown that refers to just one type of caterpillar that is colored with just one type of brown, and a Caterpillar Brown that assumes all such insects are this one color. I was reminded of the other day when she’d been watching me color a picture for her. I used the Peach crayon, and she observed out-loud that I was using the “skin colored crayon.” I told her that, well, yes, this crayon is similar to the color of my skin, but it’s very different from the color of many other people’s skin, including her own – a perfect soft blend of browns from India and the Philippines. She acknowledged the truth in this, but maintained that it was still the skin-colored crayon because that’s what everyone else in her class calls it.
So, we can have a brown named after caterpillars, but not one named after her beautiful skin, because that is already taken by the Peach crayon – already deemed by her fellow 5-year-old California kindergarteners as the only shade worthy of being both a fruit, and the color of, well, humanity. Before the 1960s, this crayon actually did carry the official Crayola label of “Flesh.” Fortunately, the company volunteered a more politically and ethically correct option. The trouble now, in the 21st century, is getting those impressionable minds who actually use the crayons to recognize and understand the colors that are all around us, to appreciate and enjoy each one uniquely.