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Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Kitten gray is my favorite color

Paint color namer is another one of my shadow careers (along with baseball statistician and forensic osteologist). As with those other two, I have no qualifications that would make me good at such a position except curiosity. Paint color namer and perhaps baseball statistician require large amounts of faith in the new new thing: Moneyball, meet Pantone and their 2008 color of the year, blue iris. From the NYT story, some dissent:
“It’s very good for publicity, and it certainly shows a lot of bravado,” said Margaret Walch, the director of the Color Association, a forecasting group founded in 1915, when the vast majority of its members were milliners, glove makers and hosiery suppliers. Because consumer tastes and values are under a variety of influences — economic, environmental, global — anointing one color isn’t all that meaningful, she said. Is there a color she might have picked instead? Ms. Walch laughed lightly, as if to say, “O.K., I’ll play along.” She answered, “My color for 2008 is bamboo.” A yellowed green, chosen from the association’s interior palette, she said, it “represents the stable green that is most on people’s minds.” She said it’s similar to a hue called Vineyard, adding: “I feel it just has a power. You know, these are very insecure times.”

(I want to know what Color Association meetings looked like in 1915--unions! working conditions! no, mauve's at the top of the docket--don't you think Dawn Powell could have done something great with this idea?)

I have a strong memory of my parents painting the rooms and trim on our house when I was about five years old in Austin. I'd stand in front of the paint sample cards at the hardware store and imagine what color my room could be. My parents would tell me I could pick out five sample cards to take home, and I could entertain myself for a good half hour or more trying to choose just five. To their exasperation, I wanted to pick my color of yellow based on its name. After that, it was art supplies, fabrics in clothing catalogs, ice cream flavors, semi-precious gemstones, (currently) varieties of tea--I was really delighted with the process of naming things in a set. This scheme is the only joy I get out of buying makeup, although I admit that's becoming a lot more fun when I think about it this way. I'm still skeptical of the exoticism in the lipstick names, though--see below for the Indian Red problem at Crayola.

Flash forward to the Duane Reade drugstore twenty years later when I had to buy markers. I stood in the school supply aisle for a long time, weighing the option of quantity in the cheaper packs with the adorability of the names for colors written on the Crayola brands. I opened the package of Crayola markers to see what I could be working with. One of the employees saw me and warned, "You can't test those out in the store."

"I'm just seeing what they named the colors," I protested.

There they were: the unlikely crown jewels of the Crayola marker package, copper penny and kitten gray. I love the color copper, whether it's metallic or not. And someone had realized that children need the color gray for all sorts of things--buildings, clouds, gargoyles, rocks, and, yes, kittens. 'Kitten' was a little precious, but it was modifying the color gray, the least precious color of all.

Crayola likes to keep me on my toes by retiring colors and adding new ones every few years. Crayola's history of their crayon colors is a truly amazing site.

For example, I learned that 1957-71 saw an increase in shades of browns and reds, including the addition of Indian Red. "Flesh" became "peach" in 1962. The Crayola site explains, "Indian Red is renamed Chestnut in 1999 in response to educators who felt some children wrongly perceived the crayon color was intended to represent the skin color of Native Americans. The name originated from a reddish-brown pigment found near India commonly used in fine artist oil paint."

Crayola's retirement of maize, lemon yellow, blue gray, raw umber, green blue, orange red, orange yellow, and violet blue in 1990 was my first taste of nostalgia as a ten-year-old. Charles Schulz did a great Peanuts strip about it (according to the site, his favorite Crayola color is copper). Remember the Sesame Street trip to the crayon factory to make the orange red crayons? Well! Crayola retired orange red and replaced it with several other shades that approximate the color, but I remain nostalgic about the whole thing. There's even a color for that feeling: bittersweet, a pinker version of orange red (introduced in 1949).

With the exception of bittersweet, Crayola had been naming the colors descriptively until 1993, when they mounted a consumer campaign to name new colors with more whimsical appellations. There's some good ones: asparagus ("a green beyond greens"), macaroni and cheese, timberwolf, robin's egg blue, shamrock, tumbleweed, Granny Smith apple, wisteria. I think Purple Mountain's Majesty (Sen. Rick Santorum's favorite) and Tickle Me Pink may be a bit overstated. Also, mauvelous? This is an interesting book about the accidental invention of the color mauve in 1856--it's one of those microhistories that has to inflate its importance self-consciously, but there's some good stuff about the many uses of dyes there.

More inspired additions in 1999: antique brass, manatee, shadow, eggplant. They named one outer space--years later, cosmologists would determine the color of outer space as something more like Crayola's sea green. From the 2002 NYT story:
''From one perspective, it's surprising that it turns out green, because there are no greenish stars,'' said Dr. Karl Glazebrook of Johns Hopkins. ''But it's the large numbers of old red stars and young blue stars in the universe that gives us the green.''

Although it takes a mixture of blue and yellow to make green in pigments, light sources combine in a different way. A blend of blue and red produces what Dr. Glazebrook described as ''the standard shade of pale turquoise, but a few percent greener.'' Dr. Glazebrook and his colleague, Dr. Ivan Baldry at Johns Hopkins, conceded that they were having ''a bit of fun.'' But they had a serious purpose, as well. They said the research could help assess theories of star formation and evolution.

In 2003 Crayola retired colors "it considered redundant or unattractive" (magic mint, blizzard blue, mulberry, teal blue) and replaced them with mango tango, jazzberry jam, inchworm, wild blue yonder. How is inchworm different from Granny Smith, though? (Or, rather, I think those two should be switched because the Granny Smith doesn't appear to have very much yellow in it.)

After a vote on the site, burnt sienna was saved the indignity of being retired. I love the testimonials from crayon users. There's the synesthetic colorer: "For some reason this color crayon sounded different than all the other colors, in both name and when coloring with it. It almost sounded like it was scratching the coloring book paper." The insecure colorer: "My sister always says her eyes are cereleun blue like my Moms, and I have plain brown eyes. My Mom made me feel better when she said my eyes are not brown. They're the color Burnt Sienna. I like the color Burnt Sienna." (Which reminds me of going to Sephora, when the woman trying to sell me eyeshadow asked what color my eyes are and I said "brown." "They're not brown, they're hazel," she said. "You should have more confidence.")

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Blogger SPG on Tue Dec 25, 03:42:00 PM:
Oh, I love, love, love this post. I too would gladly devote my life to naming makeup or crayons or paint colors, etc. I remember asking my mom when I was a kid how I could get that job. She had no idea.

I remember being annoyed with that Sesame Street episode...I was so excited when they went to the crayon factory, and then they chose to feature ORANGE RED?! I HATED they color, and kind of still do.

Do you recall a Young Adult book from when we were kids in which the mother's job was to name china patterns? At the end, the main character (who had some sort of self-esteem issue) came up with a stellar name (i think it was "Evergreen"?) that won her mom a lot of money.
Blogger Jeff'y on Wed Dec 26, 01:11:00 AM:
Burnt sienna FTW! (Apologies to Jude Law.)
Anonymous Anonymous on Wed Dec 26, 01:13:00 PM:
I loved this! Thanks! I too am obsessed with colors, but I've never actually gone into color coding and color history. One of my favorite colors when I used to watercolor was Payne's Gray. You use it instead of black which expert watercolor painters never use. It's ideal to give the effect of shadows and when used properly is helps watercolors look like photographs:'s_grey