Color Tools for the Writer

In the book, “Lolita,” Humbert Humbert describes his little nymphet with “lips as red as licked red candy.”


How gorgeous is that description? Can’t you just see the deep red and glossy sheen of a wet lollipop? The fact that he’s describing a 12 year old girl’s lips makes it all the more provocative and disturbing. Perhaps that’s why it works on so many levels. When I heard that line for the first time (I was listening to the audiobook) I stopped and rewound it four times just so that I could appreciate how utterly amazing Nabokov’s writing was. And then I set fire to my current manuscript in a fit of despair as I realized I would never come close to the level of descriptive mastery that writers like Nabokov showed.

No, not really. I wouldn’t do that. But I felt like it.

Once I got past my inferiority complex, I sat down and thought about other ways I might overcome a lack of imagination when it comes to descriptive writing. It occurred to me that I was in a rut when it came to my mental library of reference objects. Reds were always compared to apples and fire engines, and yellows were always lemon or sun-like. How cliché.

If I had a huge database of random things that I could sort by color, I might use it to spur some novel and provocative comparisons. But where to find such a database? I tried Google Images- one of my favorite tools for inspiring descriptions of specific scenes like “dirty car interior.” Unfortunately I found that Google Images didn’t work well for generic colors like “red.” All it produced was tons of the most common examples of red (e.g., uniform red fields, rose petals, images of the word “RED.”) Not quite what I was looking for.

Then I turned to stock photography. Stock photography is the business of leasing images to media outlets like websites or magazines who need to illustrate stories or concepts. What does this have to do with me as a writer? Many stock photography websites put their searchable collections online. The beauty of these websites is that you can type in a generic color to search for and get pages and pages of highly diverse, color-specific examples.

The result is that I no longer have to rely on apples and fire engines to describe the color red. I can scan tens of thousands of images that feature red objects until I find the perfect descriptor. If I want something closer to rust rather than apple red, I can tweak the search and narrow it by hue or color range.

When I searched for “red” on these sites, I got pictures of threadbare theater seats, chilli peppers, rusting high school lockers, a dog’s tongue, wet maraschino cherries, a drop of nail polish, shiny knee-high PVC boots, the velvet ribbon of a medal, etc etc.

As comparative objects, I would never have come up with any of those on my own. Yet each one made me think about a different mood or characteristic of the color red that I might want to bring into my writing.

Now, I don’t think I would use this visual tool for enhancing descriptions while writing a first draft. That would probably slow down the process and bog me down in details. But I could see myself using this tool in revision where all the clichés and boring stuff get weeded out, primped and polished. Revision is where “the woman’s red lipstick” becomes “the woman’s lipstick was the color of chipped red paint flaking off of an old tool.” Or something like that.

If you’d like to give it a shot, here are some excellent stock photography websites I found: iStockphoto, Gettyimages, and Shutterstock.

Good luck and happy color inspirations!


PS- Please do not use stock photos for anything other than inspiration unless you’ve purchased the rights to them. Stock photographers work very hard to create images that will generate revenue and don’t take kindly to people who steal their images for blogs and such. Please respect their copyrights the way we hope others will respect ours.

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