Do you remember as a child, opening a brand-new box of crayons? That waxy-crayony smell? The still-pointy ends? And the joy of all those colors? As an elementary art teacher, I still love opening new boxes of crayons. And I love that my students and I have so many colors to work with. Bright tempera paints help children learn how to mix blue and yellow to make green leaves; how to add white to get tan for an owl’s feather, or black to make darker blues or reds for lily pad frogs. Their wonder and joy at these color creations is contagious!
I think God must have had that same joy as He created the colors of all His creatures and the places where they live. Did He know how we’d marvel that orange and black stripes would camouflage a tiger in its jungle environment? Did He know we’d laugh when we saw a blue-footed booby? Did He know sunsets splashing oranges and violets across the sky would delight us? Of course, He did! He made us in His image, and like Him, we love the beauty and fun of color. Let’s look at how we can bring color to our writing.
God creates the colors of the world in several amazing ways
Let’s take blue as an example, and see how God produces it. Did you know blue is the favorite color of more people than any other color? Yet artists and chemists have spent hundreds, even thousands of years, trying to find stable blue pigments. In Medieval and Renaissance paintings, the Virgin Mary was often painted wearing a blue robe, but many blue pigments of the time turned greenish black over the years.
The blue that lasted came from a stone called lapis lazuli, from the Hindu Kush mountains of today’s Afghanistan. Marco Polo, traveling through the region in the 1200s, wrote of these vivid blue rocks. The pigment made from lapis lazuli, called ultramarine because it had to come across the sea, was more expensive than the gold for the haloes. Contracts of the time stipulated how much ultramarine a painting’s donor would pay for. Even in modern times, a few chemists have made fortunes when they’ve discovered (often by accident) how to make a good blue pigment.
So if blue is so hard to create, how does God create blue skies and blue gems, morning glories and blue feathers?
- Because different wavelengths of light arrive from the sun at different times, air molecules like nitrogen and oxygen can scatter the shorter blue and violet rays across the sky to create our blue skies.
- Stones like lapis lazuli and sapphires have grids of crystals of different elements that, arranged in certain ways, produce inorganic pigments.
- Plants such as indigo have organic pigments. Both organic and inorganic pigments absorb some colors and reflect others. Those colors they reflect are the ones we see.
- Most animals have no blue pigments. God has given them a different way to show off their colors, especially the blues. Modern microscopes show that creatures like humming birds, beetles, and butterflies have tiny structures within their cells that bend and scatter different wavelengths of light to create their bright, often iridescent, colors.
The Impressionists studied color and saw how it changed in different weathers, lights, and seasons
The Impressionists didn’t like dark colors. They loved to paint outdoors with the pure colors that had become available in tubes. They studied how colors changed according to the light and developed a brush technique of short strokes to capture the changes. They painted unmixed colors next to each other for the viewer’s eyes to mix. Their paintings shimmer and glow with color.
3 ways we can bring color to the settings of our stories
1. Awaken your own senses to color
- Read Hailstones and Halibut Bones by Mary O’Neill, first printed in 1961. If you’ve never read it or it’s been a while, be prepared for a sensory delight. With creative word pictures, Ms. O’Neill brings each color to life, “What is gray? “It’s a hush and the bubbling of oatmeal mush.” Hailstones and Halibut Bones has even been published in Braille.
- Read a classic picture book, Frederick by Leo Lionni. All about a mouse who saves up words and colors for the winter.
- Buy a big box of crayons and enjoy coloring.
- Visit an art museum and notice the colors of the settings. How often does red catch your attention? What colors do you see in the distance of a landscape?
2. Color helps set the mood of a story
- Cool colors like blues, greens, and violets are relaxing colors. Did you know we don’t have to focus as much to see blue objects so our eye muscles can relax when we look at blues? Maybe that’s why so many people love to relax at the ocean.
- When warm colors, like reds, oranges, and yellows show up, we sit up and take notice. Maybe it’s time for a party! Artists have long used a touch of red to draw viewers’ attention to the focal point of a painting.
3. Imagine the scenes of your story as a series of paintings
- Picture the colors that will set the mood and call attention to important parts. For example, imagine a winter scene with a white farmhouse tucked into the woods. Like the Impressionists, paint the shadows on the snow deep blues and violets. And don’t be satisfied with green shutters on the white farmhouse. Paint them a deep green like the evergreens surrounding the house. So far it’s a calm scene with blues, greens, and violets.
- But now it’s time for action. Picture a child entering your painting. She’ll grab your attention if you paint her wearing a red hat and mittens. Now your story moves into a kitchen. Paint the yellows and oranges of a fire, the warm, brown wood floor, red-checked curtains at the windows.
- You get the picture. While we don’t want to go overboard with color words when we’re writing, or take over from illustrators, our settings are important, and the more we can picture those scenes, the more they will come to life for our readers.
All these interactions—the way God has created the colors, how light and the seasons and weather affect colors, not to mention the marvel of our eyes and brain, which must see and interpret those colors—can give us as writers and illustrators so many ways to use color in creative ways to grab and hold the attention of our child readers.
Stay tuned each 4th Monday for more posts to help you discover new paths to creativity. Keep looking and discovering.
Kathy O’Neill is an art teacher who loves to show everyone they can draw. Visit her website http://www.kathy-oneill.com/ to discover more about her writing and workshops, and her blog https://kathythepicturelady.wordpress.com/ for a Christian view of great art and related projects and devotions for children. Kathy’s goal is to engage children’s and adult’s hearts, hands and minds to discover God and their own creativity through art, history, and nature