I once read that the most expensive paint colors were also the most difficult to describe. We can all picture buttercup yellow, but can you imagine a sandy mixture of yellow with hints of pink and gray? Or that pretty, silvery green color that so often appears on spring things, like lambs ear or dusty miller? What are those colors called?
Of course, there are experts who know about the names, uses, and mixes of each strange new hue. Like the folks at Pantone, who have just discovered the Worst Color Ever, which the Australian government plans to use on cigarette packs to deter smokers. (If you ask me, a crappy brown box wont be nearly as effective at deterring smokers than pictures of cancer patients—which is what they do in Canada—but you do you, Australia!) Another place you’ll find experts in color is at The Straus Center. This Harvard-affiliated color library is home to all sorts of rare and valuable colors, including mummy brown and dragon’s blood. Their samples are made from plants and minerals, chemical compounds and organic detritus. They run the gamut from startlingly bright to subtle and murky.
The pigments at Harvard are used primarily for scientific analysis (like one time, scientists at the Straus Center used chemical analysis to out a faux-Jackson Pollock painting as a forgery). However, in my head I like to pretend that “Color Librarian” is a job title I could hold—if I studied my colors enough, that is. Aside from sorting and categorizing colors, I would like to be hired to name colors. Hard acorn green, dog’s ear pink, maple syrup brown, dead tooth gray, distant mountain blue. I’d spend my days matching pigments with their ephemeral counterparts, the things we see but can’t extract color from, the impossible things that slip right through our eyes and into memory. Insomnia street-light yellow, strawberry top pink, dandelion fuzz white.