Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Color of Shadows

Monet's Saint-Lazare Station

“So what color is Aubrey’s top?”
My junior high creative writing students answer in chorus. “Blue!”
“All right. But what kind of blue? What shade?”
“Fine. What shade of dark? Blueberry? Midnight? Cobalt? Indigo? Slate? Royal? Lavender blue, dilly-dilly?” At this point, their eyes fix on Aubrey’s shirt. Some squint. Like an Impressionist, they peer through lashes to blur the edges and get a general sense of the color. “Or are they the shade of your brother’s eyes when he discovers that you have ransacked his room again, violating his clear directive to stay out?”
Why would I press them so?
It's not what you look at that matters. It's what you see.
~Henry David Thoreau
On another morning, we went out to look into the grass. Droplets of dew still clung precariously from the tip of each blade. They lay down on trash bags, tummy earthward, and peered among the leaves of grass. "Write all that you see," I adjured them. "And see what you cannot see when you're standing." After about twenty minutes, some began to whine. "I've written about all there is to write about?"
"Really? Have you really? Then look closer. There's a diminutive garden down there. Look. See it? How does it feel? The earth is damp; how does it smell?"

If you look at a thing 999 times, you are perfectly safe; if you look at it for the 1000th time, you are in danger of seeing it for the first time. ~ G.K.Chesterton

The next day they examined a dead fish, a rainbow trout, to be exact--head still attached. After the girls got over being squeamish and the boys were done trying to think of things to say to incite groans from the stoutest among their fellows, they examined the fish from every conceivable angle.
Forty minutes later, as they were leaving for their next class, some asked, "What are we doing tomorrow, Ms. Clifton?"
"I think we'll examine a fish . . ."
". . . on the inside." More groans.
What motive could I possibly have to torture them so with the carcass of a pitiable fish?

Look, look, look, look, look! ~ Richard Halliday

One who returns to a place sees it with new eyes. Although the place may not have changed, the viewer inevitably has. For the first time things invisible before become suddenly visible.
~ Louis L'Amour

I want to awaken them to their world. I want them to truly see--what is, what almost isn't, and what could be.

No shadow is black. It always has a color. Nature knows only color . . .
~ Pierre-Auguste Renoir

Writers can learn much from visual artists. My younger daughter, who has two art degrees (illustration and photography), taught me a few things about painting that so easily apply to writing, also.
It's fun to go shopping with her because she puts colors and patterns together in ways that never would occur to me. Her artist's eye pairs them up for stunning effect. She sees the colors that went to make the colors, and she knows what will complement.
To the artist, gray isn't simply gray. It is white with the merest touch of black. It is a warm gray, with some yellow or red mingled in. Or a cool gray with the faintest blue undertone. The artist works diligently to arrive at the perfect color mix. Should the literary artist be less precise?
The common eye sees only the outside of things, and judges by that, but the seeing eye pierces through and reads the heart and the soul, finding there capacities which the outside didn't indicate or promise, and which the other kind couldn't detect.
~Mark Twain

My daughter also taught me that shadows are not simply gray, that they have color. I still practice at seeing that color, but I'm learning. I want to write with the clarity and precision of an artist's careful eye.
Our gracious Lord gave us five senses with which to experience our world. May we use them to the full to communicate Him through our words.

Seeing is of course very much a matter of verbalization. ~ Annie Dillard

Note: Back in my college days, we read Annie Dillard's essay "Seeing." I recommend it highly.

Write on!
Because of Christ,
Sharon Kirk Clifton

Resource: Color list


  1. I love how three photographers can take a picture of the same flower and get three different results. One may center the flower while another places it off to the side, and a third may change the color balance to enhance the reds or blues. Writing is like that, too, We need to learn to let our internal eyes see the subject in different ways before we decide which works best for our purpose.

  2. First, a comment on Kathryn's above observation. I've heard what is a great idea is spending a day at one point of the Grand Canyon and take pictures at different times of day, noticing the changes.

    This was an insightful blog, Sharon. Thank you for taking the time to put this together. (By the way, you forgot navy when you had your list of dark blues. Just being a little nit picky.)


  3. Oh, I love that G.K. Chesterton quote! I agree that writers can learn so much from visual artists.

    great post!