We take color for granted. Though we can distinguish an estimated 1,000,000 colors, most human societies recognize less than 11 of them in everyday usage. Those intimately involved in jobs that require attention to color – artists, designers, photographers, and so on – have names for more than the basics. Carnelian, bisque, smalt, amaranth, celadon, and viridian are just a few. But here, other problems crop up.
Do these English language words have equivalents in other languages? Do two people talking about ‘celadon’ have the same thing in mind? If not, how far apart are they? And when and why does it matter if not? There are ‘systems’ such as the Pantone Matching System (PMS) but don’t try to tell your mother-in-law that you painted your living room in Pantone 19-4052 ©.
Even telling her that you read this may not impress her: “It instills calm, confidence, and connection. This enduring blue hue highlights our desire for a dependable and stable foundation upon which we want to build as we cross the threshold into a new era.” She’ll most likely respond: “Yes, dear, but what color is it?”
Here a smart aleck might say, “Hex 1D4E89”, and then further dig his own grave by explaining, “In terms of CYMK: 79, 43, 0, 46. (Don’t try to look up the frequency of this color on any representation of the electromagnetic spectrum; I tried that and got no result back!) Ultimately, words describe things people focus upon intently. Ask an oncologist about a tumor, and he’ll make distinctions that to the man-in-the-street mean nothing.
So, where does this leave us? First: Observe colors when doing photography. Even if you have no name for a color, try to memorize it, compare it to adjacent shades, and note how it changes – pixel by pixel – across an image. And also, observe your emotional response to a color. And be sensitive to the fact that a color you consider a symbol of blood (that family we call ‘red’) symbolizes luck, joy, and happiness in Chinese culture.
Is one “meaning” right and the other wrong? Probably not. Just different.