Using Color Symbols in Writing

Originally this blog post published July 2016 on the Writers Ink Books website.  As WIS takes a vacation, we repeat three of the WIB blogs in the summer of 2016.  After all, reruns are totally watchable again.

You Can Do Magic:  Paint with Colors

Artists paint with words;  writers paint with images.  The first images are colors.

At the same time that symbolic numbers were developing in primitive cultures, ancient women and men were looking around and associating meaning to the colors they saw in nature and our bodies.

In spring, everything greened up to grow, so green came to represent life and growth.  They bled when they were cut while working or hunting;  red represents what we must sacrifice in order to achieve our goals.

November 29, 2016, blog by Robin Daly
A Color Wheel with images from Nature, found at

Here’s an interesting side trip:  one primitive culture only had 3 color names.  Three!  We have more synonyms than that for all our colors. (red, cardinal, persimmon, crimson, scarlet, ruby, garnet, cherry, carmine, wine, vermilion, florid, ruddy, maroon, brick, and more!)  The Piraha of the Amazon have no words for numbers, and their colors are white (light-time), black (night-time), and red (blood).

Brent Berlin and Paul Kay named 11 basic color categories in their famous 1969 study:

white          black          red           green         yellow       blue

brown         purple        pink        orange       gray.

Back on the main road, we’re after the symbolic meanings associated with colors.  Like the numbers, some will have both positive and negative connotations.

Here’s what I’ve gathered:

The Primaries in Nature
  • Red = blood, sacrifice, the wounds inflicted by trials.
  • Blue = the heavens, truth (true blue).  The sky where the gods oversaw man’s petty achievements was blue;  the heavens are the realm of the gods.  Since gods are a constant eternal form that never change (whereas Earth is all about change, as Heraclitus succinctly put it), truth is associated with a universal constant (whereas facts–the earth is flat–constantly change).  Thus, blue = eternity.
  • Yellow = warning, sometimes the radiance of the sun = warmth.  Contrarily, cowardice (a yellow streak).
  • Green = life, growth, spring, morning, youth.  In a negative connotation, jealousy (green-eyed glare).
  • Black = death, winter, night, the dark of trouble and of ignorance, absence (with a negative connotation).  In modern times, artists create black by adding all the colors, so modern writers have begun to use black as a symbol for “all things added in”, a sort of chaotic plenty.
  • White = winter, light / knowledge, purity / unstained innocence, “pearl”, absence (with a positive connotation).  Again, modern artists leave out all color to have white on their palette, so modern writers have begun to alter the color to create an idea of the vacuum, a sucking hole that deprives of everything.
  • Grey = sorrow, rain / mist.
  • Orange = summer, noon, the ripening to harvest, adult.
  • Brown = autumn, afternoon, maturity, and the color of dried blood > old wounds, old scars, a veteran.
Secondaries, Not so Common in Nature
  • Purple = royalty.  Kings rule by the red Blood Right (either they inherited the crown or won it on the battlefield) + the blue Divine Right (the gods intervened to ensure their victory).
  • Silver = a “mirror” color (mirror backs are “silvered” to reflect).  Mirrors reveal truth;  silver withstands magic.  In the mythic trope, vampires cannot see themselves in mirrors because they are not “true-ly” alive.  Yes, I know modern writers decided not to work with the mythic trope because it didn’t “fit” their world.  Sigh.
  • Gold = “tested” purity.  However, all that glitters is not gold.  It is richness and wealth >> but pure gold can be shaped by the hands, so it has a softness.  Thus, in the King Arthur myths, Arthur is associated from birth with gold because he and his dream will be corrupted.

Symbolic Colors in Art

King Arthur retrieves Excalibur, by N C Wyeth.

Look at the N.C. Wyeth painting of King Arthur.  The fabled hero is receiving Excalibur and its miraculous sheath from the Lady in the Lake.

  • His blue cloak is lined with red and trimmed with gold.
  • Gold appoints his saintly-colored mail and the boat.
  • See the three white swans flying away?
  • And the grey mist?
  • White-bearded Merlin wears a dark cloak:  is that deep blue or black?
  • And the mirror-like quality of the lake itself as the arm of the Faery Queen from an eternal existence offers the magical sword?  Have you ever known lake water to be so mirror-still?  Small pools, yes.  Lakes?  No.

Wyeth has painted the symbols that reveal the deeper elements of the Arthurian legend.

As symbols enrich Wyeth’s painting, so will they enrich your writing.  Play with them as Wyeth has done.

Symbolic Colors in Literature

In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby, a character enters a room with a blood-red floor and a ceiling that is a bridal-cake confection of white plasterwork.  From that early chapter, the reader should know that Daisy and her husband and their wider family have the appearance of beauty and innocence while they have walked on the blood of others to get where they are.  They are corrupted, and all the remaining symbolic colors in the novel prove that over and over.

Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” occurs in a yellow wood:  Caution!  he says.  Don’t lie to yourself, as many teachers have deceived their students into reading this poem and thinking the road they take matters.  Frost says it doesn’t and that we lie when we tell ourselves the road we take is different:  he tells us three times that the “just as fair” roads are “worn . . . about the same” as they “equally lay”.  It’s what we do on those roads that matter, not the choice of the road.

Unless you’re Stephen Crane’s “Wayfarer” who discovers the thick weeds on the roads are actually knife-blades.

Paint with Colors.

Your readers will thank you.

~~ M A Lee