How Many Shades of Grey Are There, Really?

Roy G. Biv: An Exceedingly Surprising Book About Color offers trivia, insights, and opinions about hues.

Businesses can rise and fall on their color choices. Imagine Gap betting its fall line on bistre brown when the world was really waiting for amaranth purple. Design critic Jude Stewart knows the importance of hue well. Her new book, Roy G. Biv: An Exceedingly Surprising Book About Color (Bloomsbury), takes a deep, sometimes feisty look at all the things that color can do and mean.

“I’ve always been strongly swayed by color,” she tells me. “I can recall as a kid poring over a 1980s self-help book, Color Me Beautiful, which shows you how to wear the ‘right’ colors for your skin tone. The before and after shots were incredible: drape her in the right shade of pink, and suddenly she’s dewy and glowing. Drape her in the wrong shade, though, and she turns sallow and shrunken, as if her soul had been sucked out.” Her book’s chapters loosely follow the order of the rainbow-referencing mnemonic in its title—red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet. She also added in white, pink, and brown, colors “that don’t appear in the rainbow but allowed me to tell some great stories,” she says.

That mnemonic, it turns out, isn’t strictly accurate: “Technically speaking, there aren’t seven distinct colors in the rainbow. But Isaac Newton felt pressured to name seven colors to match the seven tones in Descartes’s musical scale–so he shoe-horned indigo in.” In fact, different languages splinter the rainbow into different color terms; “not everyone sees and names the colors as we English-speakers do,” Stewart points out. For instance, in England people don’t use “Roy G. Biv” but instead say, “Richard of York Gave Battle in Vain.” “Unless,” she says, “you’re a Yorkie and still touchy about Richard losing the Battle of Wakefield in 1460. A popular variant for those folks praises a local sweet, Rowntree’s Fruit Gums and Pastilles: ‘Rowntree’s of York Gave Best In Value.’”

Throughout Roy G. Biv, Stewart sprinkled in quotes that expressed strongly felt beliefs about color, "ideas you could roll around in your head for a while like a caramel melting on your tongue,” she says. So I ask her to explain one of these confections: Why is pink the navy of India? “Fashion icon Diana Vreeland said this–I’m such a fan of her pronouncements, which manage to be both insightful and slightly mad,” Stewarts says. “I take Vreeland’s quote to mean that pink in India operates as a default color, a basic shade around which many different color-palettes grow. Strictly speaking I couldn’t tell you if she’s right or wrong about that observation, if India is really that awash in pink, but don’t you devoutly wish it to be true?”

To her assertion that brown is the color of death, she responds: “Not to put too fine a point on it, but: brown is the color of feces, which puts that color at the end of the life cycle. But the browns of feces, mulch, fertilizer also feed new shoots of life.” One entry in the brown chapter is about bole, a very old English word for brown that describes either a soft reddish-brown clay, a tree trunk, or the color of either of these. She writes: “Picture it: a late winter afternoon, bare of all leaves, one bole sprouts quietly out of another. Brown comes from brown and returns to it.”

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Steven Heller is a contributing writer for The Atlantic, the co-chair of the MFA Design program at the School of Visual Arts, and the co-founder of its MFA Design Criticism program.

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