Colorful Prose

Erik Germani

Let's run an experiment. I'm going to quote you a few sentences from Gene Wolfe, and then ask you a comprehension question like we're back in fourth grade.

"I'm sorry," I told her. "I was thinking. Yes, I'd like some fruit. That's very kind of you."

"I won't get it for you, you'll have to fetch it yourself. It's there, behind that stand of armor."

The armor to which she pointed was actually of cloth stretched over a wire frame and painted silver. Behind it I found an old basket containing grapes, an apple, and a pomegranate.

Here's the question: in your mind's eye, what color was the apple?

Did you have an answer ready? Or did you only think of one when asked?

Lately I've been reading Bruce Macevoy's excellent series on color vision in hopes of improving at painting, a hobby of mine. But what interested me most about the series had nothing to do with painting. In the section "Color and Language," MacEvoy writes:

[…] color words are almost never essential for day to day work and chatter. Abstract color concepts seem to become necessary, and emerge in a language, only after a new cultural practice, task or skill — such as fashion, ornament, manufacturing, art, agriculture or medical diagnosis — makes color distinctions within the same types of things (textiles, gems, masonry, paints, plants, wines or skin lesions) important.

Fiction is a descriptive art transmitted through language, the same medium for the daily chatter that apparently has little need for color words. Which made me wonder: how essential is color to fiction?

Think about how an oil painter and a writer might describe an apple. The painter only communicates with color, so he can't touch the canvas until he decides if the apple is red or green. The writer, as we saw above, can recuse himself:

Behind it I found an old basket containing grapes, an apple, and a pomegranate.

In that sentence, the color of the apple is the reader's responsibility. And Wolfe probably had good reason to delegate the task (and for you, in turn, to most likely punt): it wasn't worth mentioning. Rare is the narrative that hinges on apple cultivars. Red, green, whatever. And we could, if we wished, extend that "whatever" to every bit of color description. Let the reader decide; it'll save us words.

But in a modest corpus of fiction I looked at today (54 texts totalling ~13m tokens – a token is a word or a punctuation mark), these inessential color words show up in great quantities, at double their rates in "civilian" discourse.


(Gray is three time as frequent – are my authors depressed?)

Which, if I can stop playing devil's advocate, really isn't surprising. Of course the writer can delegate every decision of color, but readers don't want to imagine everything for themselves – if they did, they'd be writers. They rely on the writer for things like description, and color is a major part of description. So any story that wants to come alive in the reader's mind ought to use color, and plenty of it. Right?



(Basic color terms are white, black, red, yellow, green, blue, brown, gray, orange, purple, and pink, while "all color terms" includes more specific shades like scarlet, azure, beige, etc.)

Bad news if you were hoping for a simple lesson like "more color = better writing": Dostoyevsky, Shakespeare, and Homer hardly used color words. In fact, Shakespeare's total basic color usage (0.056%) falls well short of everyday usage (0.105%) (These everyday rates are obtained from corpuses like the Bank of English or the Corpus Of Contemporary American English.)

(Interesting side note on Homer: his color usage was so unusual that some readers in the 19th century thought the ancient Greeks were colorblind. They weren't; they just had fewer color words.)

A long time ago I gave up hope of finding any one element of prose – at least one visible to the crude attention of a computer reader – that correlates strongly with quality. At the same time, should we spend any time worrying about something with no apparent correlation to quality? (I will say that from my point of view, and with the exception of GRRM, those writers towards the left are the best stylists in the bunch. But then I love Imagism, so.) If Shakespeare didn't need much color in his prose, why would we?

To answer that we need to back up a little and consider the process of verbal description and color's role in it. To be brief, it can be quite limited. That's because writers activate schemas in the reader's mind, and these schemas have color built into them. Consider this sentence:

It was raining.

You now have "gray clouds" active in your mind, though I've said nothing about clouds or their color. This is a great feature of verbal description, and the only way prose can offset its lousy exchange rate with pictures. All schema have a default mode, so that the reader's processing is never short-circuited by an #N/A; they simply fill absences with the default and carry on until told differently.

Let's look at another sentence:

The labrador charged after the squirrel, which scrambled up the tree.

Without any context, there are quite a few questions up in the air:

These questions are immaterial. Two reasons: one, the mind supplies the colors based on its own heuristics (I had a friend with a black lab, and in my back yard the gray squirrels live in the silver maple); two, the details are not functional to the narrative. Whichever the dog and whichever the squirrel, one can still chase the other. In this respect color – really all visual description – is ornamental.

To illustrate, let me borrow an example from this page on Handprint.


From right to left, we have the untouched original image, the black and white, and finally an image in which the value is held constant, so that only the hues vary.

McEvoy, the author, adds:

The remarkable similarity between the original color and the black and white versions, compared to the noticeable impoverishment in the unvalued version, demonstrates the importance of value in a painting's overall composition and visual impact.

In prose, nouns and verbs are value, those black and white tones that construct our mental images. That's only a probabilistic statement however, because we perceive what is salient, and nouns and verbs are usually more important than any modifiers. Our fleeing squirrel doesn't give a damn what color of dog is chasing him, after all. He's a lot more interested in the verb: is it a charge or a trot?

But if you're trying to describe a bowl of fruit, color takes priority over verbs. In other moments, the impression of color overrides everything else. It is always shocking just how red blood is, and September skies can knock you flat with blue. So salience varies with context.

A writer's job is to be sensitive to unexpected saliences; that is, a detail which might not register to a careless eye but, when noticed, can draw an entire scene into place around it. I've found that the behavior of light, specifically color, is very often that unexpected salience. Here's a bit from John Updike's Rabbit, Run; the protagonist is going on a double date, and meets the girls outside a Chinese restaurant:

The girls waiting under crimson neon have a floral delicacy; like a touch of wilt the red light rims their fluffy hair.

Consider that this image is the first thing that comes to mind when I think of Rabbit, Run, three years after reading it. There are entire characters, with dozens of dialogue lines, whose existence I do not recall. But I remember crimson neon light.

Here's Thomas Pynchon describing bombers:

Above them now throb a flight of B-17s, bound somewhere uncommon today, well out of the usual corridors of flight. Behind these Fortresses the undersides of the cold clouds are blue, and their smooth billows are veined in blue – elsewhere touched with grayed-out pink or purple…. Wings and stabilizers are shadowed underneath in dark gray. The shadows softly feather lighter up around curves of fuselage or nacelle. Spinners emerge from hooded dark inside the cowlings, spinning props invisible, the light of the sky catching all vulnerable surfaces a uniform bleak gray. The planes drone along, stately, up in the zero sky, shedding frost as it builds, sowing the sky behind in white icefurrows, their own color matching certain degrees of cloud, all the tiny windows and openings in soft blackness, the perspex nose shining back forever warped and streaming cloud and sun. Inside it is black obsidian.

Marvellous diction here, but for me, the key detail is the warped reflection of sun and cloud in the plane's nose.

But let's step away from the specific and look again at the authors in aggregate. Here's the image again.


What determined this distribution? What do the left-hand writers share in common? What about the right?

Here's my theory: color use correlates positively with sensuousness and "literariness"; it correlates negatively with abstract thought and human speech.


Nothing unusual here. An author whose attention rests mostly outside his or her head will use colors more than an introspective writer.

To the left I see writers preoccupied with bodies, sensation. To the right, ideas. My theory is that color and physicality are comorbid in prose, symptoms of a kind of perception I'll detail below. To illustrate this, here's a scatter plot demonstrating the correlation between body words and color words.


I don't mean to say that Mansfield and Schulz don't have ideas, or that Shakespeare had nothing to say about bodies. They simply address and process these subjects in different ways.

Now to this point I've included myself in these charts to satisfy my own curiosity/serve as a control group for ability. But clearly I'm doing something unusual – though how bad can it be, if my data point is next to Toni Morrison's? – so I clipped off the outliers so you can have a better look at the pretty tidy correlation. (Ah, my first foray into data massaging.)


Human Speech/Camera Vision

As we learned from Handprint, we don't need color words to talk to each other. Here's a great tidbit to drive that point home – the emphasis is mine.

The fact that colorblindness was not recognized until the late 18th century indicates the relatively trivial role that color recognition plays in routine human life and in any technical tasks common to human history up to that point.

So the closer the text's discourse is to human speech, the less color you'll find. Homer was part of an oral tradition. Shakespeare could speak only through characters. Tolstoy, Franzen, Marquez, Melville – these are all writers who narrate with a strong sense of personality, individuality. They are storytellers.

As you move left you find writers whose texts impart less of a sense of being in conversation. The controlling intelligence is more distant from us. These writers, I think significantly, have more painterly or photographic sensibilities. Katherine Mansfield apparently had some interactions with the Fauvists, a group of painters which included Matisse. Schultz did engravings, Updike cartoons. As a ten-year-old, Dillard religiously performed the exercises in the rigorous drawing manual The Natural Way to Draw. George R.R. Martin wrote for television and is now the proprietor of a small movie theater in New Mexico. Nabokov wrote in an essay, "I think I was born a painter". On top of that, he had synesthesia, which meant everything had a color to him, even the letters of the alphabet. His synesthesia manifests itself in a beach scene from Laughter in the Dark. "Gay parasols and striped tents seemed to repeat in terms of color what the shouts of the bathers were to the ear."

The dichotomy between human speech and a painter's eye might not be immediately apparent. But imagine someone asked you to describe a day at the beach, and you replied with the rest of the paragraph I just quoted from:

It really was blue: purple-blue in the distance, peacock-blue coming nearer, diamond-blue where the wave caught the light. The foam toppled over, ran, slowed down, then receded, leaving a smooth mirror on the wet sand, which the next wave flooded again. A hairy man in orange-red pants stood at the edge of the water wiping his glasses. A small boy shrieked with glee as the foam gushed into the walled city he had built. Gay parasols and striped tents seemed to repeat in terms of color what the shouts of the bathers were to the ear. A large bright ball was flung from somewhere and bounced on the sand with a ringing thud. Margot grabbed it, jumped up and swung it back.

You can feel right away unnatural that would be in conversation, how purple. (Of course we call purple prose purple!) Sense impressions are, somehow, not really a topic of conversation. Which is bizarre, that we have all these remarkable sensory instruments and share the data only in art or when extremely high.


As we just saw, color use in the aggregate tells us about a writer's perceptions and expression. Some writers have an eye for color, and write in a literary mode that permits its expression.

When we look at color use in the specific, we see reflections of the worlds these authors wrote about.



To get a better sense of the author's ranks per color, check out this tiny-texted image.

No surprise, Melville – who was represented in the corpus only by Moby Dick – mentions white a lot, as does Achebe, an African writer addressing colonialism.

Is there some urban bias towards gray? Perhaps. Achebe, writing of rural Africa, has little use for the color. Schulz and Woolf, at the top, set their stories in large European cities during the war years. (Maybe World War I drained the continent's color?)

The yellow in Hesse's Siddartha is the yellow of monk's robes. The green light of Gatsby is in there, five times. Why the purple in Heller? Not Purple Hearts (two of those), but purple gums and toes, courtesy of Doc Daneeka. And you can see that the floral hues are well represented by Woolf, Mansfield, and Nabokov. Woolf makes sense: Mrs Dalloway begins:

Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.

And Mansfield wrote a story called "The Garden Party." Nabokov… well, he's not talking about flowers.

One of the most striking differences in the two palette images is the dominance of yellow when non-basic terms are allowed. Such is the power of gold. The corpus I've chosen features quite a few writers who worked in gold-based economies, or fantasy authors imagining such economies. Homer's use of orange is a notable outlier with a similar explanation. He was writing about the Bronze Age, and as you'd imagine, tended to mention bronze a lot.

To control for this, I've been presenting you with two versions of each chart. To explore more directly the effect basic and non-basic usage has on each author, I created this chart.


But we still have that gold problem. Homer shouldn't be that much of an outlier. Let's try it again, without the precious metals (gold, silver, bronze.)


You see a much tighter spread. Homer is still an outlier, this time for his pet phrase "the rosy-fingered dawn," and because olives were a staple crop in the Mediterranean. The more I dug into the non-basic data, the less useful I found it; it's possible that non-basic color use is just a symptom of a larger vocabulary – Wolfe, Joyce, Melville, and Franzen all strike me as pretty erudite – but oftentimes these non-basic usages are forced on the writer, or are false positives. For instance, Franzen was one of just three writers in the corpus to use cerulean. And he used it a lot: 32 times in two books.

(I remember a workshop in which a kid used cerulean twice in two pages. We interrogated him like the KGB. "Why would you use it twice? Cerulean?" Turned out he just liked how it sounded and wasn't aware how rare it was.)

But looking at the concordance, all but a few of Franzen's uses referred either to a business (the Cerulean Mountain Trust) or a bird (the cerulean warbler). And Melville mentioned ivory a lot because what else are you going to scrimshaw on? Or stump around on as you hunt a demon whale? Heller is up there because Colonel Kathcart grows plum tomatoes – he wasn't talking about purple at all! And so on and so forth. All of this is to say you should pay more attention to the basic color charts.


A bigram is two words that neighbor each other in a text. Google has an ngram viewer you can play around with, which is quite entertaining. (The ngram viewer, by the way, may give credence to the idea that non-basic color words are froofy. Azure was cool right until Modernism struck.) Here's my own:



Unlike Google Books, my corpus is quite limited, and its limitations become apparent when looking at the bigrams. A Song of Ice and Fire is so huge that its fixations overwhelm the other authors'. A fan of the series will note that "gold cloaks" and "red priests" are not particularly representative of all fiction. (The black eyepatch comes from Saramago's Blindness.)

But there are some interesting things to note, particularly if you set up some PivotTables for yourself. In the first spreadsheet you can see the linguistic rules for modifying color. We call desaturated greens and blues pale, while a desaturated brown is light. Dark yellow is not a thing, bright yellow is. Happily, "deep purple" got six mentions in the corpus.

The second file gives you an idea of what objects whose colors we are interested in. Hair, eyes, and light are the leaders, as you'd probably expect. Going back to the concept of salience, we assign our interest to unpredictable information in areas of high focus. It's no surprise that most of our color mentions are devoted to eyes and hair, since there is quite a bit of variation in the color of each, and we focus intently on the face. Even accounting for my WASPY, northern-European-centric corpus, blue eyes are overrepresented, which simply proves that unusual colors can be quite striking. (Or that the writers are expressing a lust for those Aryan blues.) Here's Denis Johnson, in Tree of Smoke:

The sarge was one of those casually shining, exemplary guys, tall, strong, relaxed, very blond, with blond eyebrows, even, and disconcertingly blue eyes, blue from fifteen feet away.

Following the rules of variable palette/high focus, we see a lot of clothing defined by color. Silk, velvet, wool, satin, shirt, leather, dress – all frequently mentioned.

Bigrams can also tell you that red wine is twice as popular as white, and that green apples narrowly beats red and brown – the surprise challenger – 3-2-2. In case you were still wondering which color to pick.

If you'd like to see how your color usage stacks up, use a word frequency utility – like this one – on your text. Drop the results into Excel and filter according to the list of color words at the bottom. Then all you have to do is normalize the rates. In the charts, those frequencies are expressed as a percentage of tokens, not words. So if your specimen is 60,000 words long, add 40% to estimate the token count. The 40% boost is to roughly account for the different behavior of my tokenizer compared to your word counter: tokenizers count punctuation, too.

If you're Python-literate and would like to get your hands on the script, email me. At sea journal at gmail dot com.

On to the appendices!

APPENDIX I: The Palette

APPENDIX II: Some of the things that precede "-colored".

honey (21), cream (12), peach (11), flesh (10), rose (9), rust (9), lime (9), carrot (8), meal (8), salmon (7), sand (7), brass (7), three (6), parti (6), dun (6), light (6), plum (5), straw (5), cocoa (5), mouse (5), dust (4), chocolate (4), caramel (4), orange (4), wine (4), ivory (4), liver (3), ash (3), tea (3), wheat (3), pastel (3), pearl (3), copper (3), coffee (3), grape (3), candy (3), warm (3), lead (3), elephant (3), bright (3), lilac (3), neutral (3), putty (2), cedar (2), slate (2), ginger (2), persimmon (2), high (2), rich (2), khaki (2), fawn (2), army (2), ruby (2), bruise (2), pumpkin (2), buff (2), rainbow (2), camel (2), earth (2), amber (2), smoke (2), nut (2), flame (2), dark (2), flowerpot (2), pale (2), drab (2), different (2), rain (2), innocent (1), tow (1), sun (1), mud (1), fox (1), chestnut (1), pewter (1), jewel (1), milk (1), oddly (1), water (1), off (1), coffin (1), hay (1), mushroom (1), hedgehog (1), ice (1), leather (1), mealy (1), dirt (1), tobacco (1), dull (1), flax (1), apple (1), foul (1), lemon (1), moss (1), pinto (1), flamingo (1), pistachio (1), molasses (1), bisque (1), olive (1), plumpudding (1), sandy (1), polish (1), apricot (1), leprous (1), tar (1), claret (1), teak (1), queer (1), toast (1), quilt (1), topaz (1), bronze (1), unhealthy (1), titanium (1), mist (1), frost (1), mocha (1), champagne (1), wood (1), lion (1), moon (1), runny (1), cockerel (1), easter (1), fish (1), eggshell (1), gooseberry (1), electric (1), mint (1), concrete (1), multi (1), charcoal (1), oatmeal (1), snow (1), oxblood (1), soft (1), prawn (1), somber (1), single (1), starch (1), strawberry (1), raspberry (1)

APPENDIX III: Works Surveyed

Annie Dillard: An American Childhood

Annie Proulx: Close Range, The Shipping News

Bruno Schulz: Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass, The Street of Crocodiles

Chinua Achebe: Things Fall Apart

Erik Germani: The Chosen One, God Hunters

Ernest Hemingway: The Sun Also Rises

F. Scott Fitzgerald: The Great Gatsby

Fyodor Dostoyevsky: Crime and Punishment

Gabriel Garcia Marquez: One Hundred Years of Solitude

Gene Wolfe: Shadow and Claw, Sword and Citadel

George R. R. Martin: A Game Of Thrones, A Clash of Kings, A Storm of Swords, A Feast for Crows, A Dance with Dragons

Herman Hesse: Siddhartha

Herman Melville: Moby Dick

Homer: The Iliad, The Odyssey

Italo Calvino: If on a Winters Night

J. M. Coetzee: Summertime, Waiting for the Barbarians

James Joyce: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Dubliners, Ulysses

John Updike: My Father's Tears and Other Stories, Rabbit Redux, Rabbit at rest, Rabbit is Rich, Rabbit, Run

Jonathan Franzen: The Corrections, Freedom

Jose Saramago: The Collected Novels

Joseph Heller: Catch-22

Katherine Mansfield: The Garden Party and other Stories

Leo Tolstoy: War and Peace

M. John Harrison: Empty Space, Light, Nova Swing, The Dancer and the Dance, Viriconium

Thomas Pynchon: Gravity's Rainbow, V

Toni Morrison: Beloved

Virginia Woolf: Mrs Dalloway

Vladimir Nabokov: Laughter in the Dark, Lolita, Pale Fire, Pnin

William Shakespeare: His Plays

APPENDIX IV: Color Words in the Wild

M. John Harrison

In the water thickets, the path wound tortuously between umber iron bogs, albescent quicksands of aluminium and magnesium oxides, and sumps of cuprous blue or permanganate mauve fed by slow, gelid streams and fringed by silver reeds and tall black grasses. The twisted, smooth-barked boles of the trees were yellow-ochre and burnt orange; through their tightly woven foliage filtered a gloomy, tinted light. At their roots grew great clumps of multifaceted translucent crystal like alien fungi.

He seemed to be looking through a tall arched window, around the stone mullions of which twined the stems of an ornamental rose. The thorns and flowers of the rose framed a room where curtains of silver light drifted like rain between enigmatic columns. The floor of the room was made of cinnabar crystal and in the centre of it had been set a simple throne. Standing by the throne, two albino lions couchant at her feet, was a slender woman in a velvet gown. Her eyes were a deep, sympathetic violet colour, her hair the russet of autumn leaves. On her long fingers she wore ten identical rings, and before her stood a knight whose glowing scarlet armour was partly covered by a black and silver cloak. His head was bowed. His hands were white. At his side he wore a steel sword.

John Updike

Colored fragments pour down toward him through the hole in the ceiling. Green machines, an ugly green, eating ugly green bushes. Red mud pressed in patterns to an ooze by Amtrac treads. The emerald of rice paddies, each plant set there with its reflection in the water pure as a monogram. The color of human ears a guy from another company had drying under his belt like withered apricots, yellow. The black of the ao dai pajamas the delicate little whores wore, so figurine-fine he couldn't believe he could touch them though this clammy guy in a white suit kept pushing, saying, "Black GI, number one, most big pricks, Viet girls like suck." The red, not of blood, but of the Ace of Diamonds a guy in his company wore in his helmet for luck. All that luck junk: peace-signs of melted lead, love beads, beads spelling LOVE, JESUS, MOTHER, BURY ME DEEP, Ho Chi Minh sandals cut from rubber tires for tiny feet, Tao crosses, Christian crosses, the cross-shaped bombs the Phantoms dropped on the trail up ahead, the X's your laces wore into your boots over the days, the shiny green bodybags tied like long mail sacks, sun on red dust, on blue smoke, sun caught in shafts between the canopies of the jungle where dinks with Russian rifles waited quieter than orchids, it all tumbles down on him, he is overwhelmed. He knows he can never make it intelligible to these three ofays that worlds do exist beyond these paper walls.

People call his house white but in fact it is yellowy-cream, he has heard his mother say. Cream, with green wooden trim, including the windows. In crayoning at elementary school a picture of the house where he lives, he discovered that green and yellow go together in a way some colors don't. Black and orange also go together, as at Halloween, and purple and gold at Easter, and red and green at Christmas. Red, white, and blue together in the American flag are like three notes on a brass trumpet. Discovering such harmonies excites him, more than it does other children.

Katherine Mansfield

The sun had set. In the western sky there were great masses of crushed-up rose-coloured clouds. Broad beams of light shone through the clouds and beyond them as if they would cover the whole sky. Overhead the blue faded; it turned a pale gold, and the bush outlined against it gleamed dark and brilliant like metal. Sometimes when those beams of light show in the sky they are very awful. They remind you that up there sits Jehovah, the jealous God, the Almighty, Whose eye is upon you, ever watchful, never weary. You remember that at His coming the whole earth will shake into one ruined graveyard; the cold, bright angels will drive you this way and that, and there will be no time to explain what could be explained so simply… But tonight it seemed to Linda there was something infinitely joyful and loving in those silver beams. And now no sound came from the sea. It breathed softly as if it would draw that tender, joyful beauty into its own bosom.

Thomas Pynchon

Above them now throb a flight of B-17s, bound somewhere uncommon today, well out of the usual corridors of flight. Behind these Fortresses the undersides of the cold clouds are blue, and their smooth billows are veined in blue – elsewhere touched with grayed-out pink or purple…. Wings and stabilizers are shadowed underneath in dark gray. The shadows softly feather lighter up around curves of fuselage or nacelle. Spinners emerge from hooded dark inside the cowlings, spinning props invisible, the light of the sky catching all vulnerable surfaces a uniform bleak gray. The planes drone along, stately, up in the zero sky, shedding frost as it builds, sowing the sky behind in white icefurrows, their own color matching certain degrees of cloud, all the tiny windows and openings in soft blackness, the perspex nose shining back forever warped and streaming cloud and sun. Inside it is black obsidian.

George R. R. Martin

The sky had turned a cobalt blue from the horizon to the zenith, and behind the line of low hills to the east a glow could be seen, pale gold and oyster pink. Dany held Missandei's hand as they watched the sun come up. All the grey bricks became red and yellow and blue and green and orange. The scarlet sands of the fighting pits transformed them into bleeding sores before her eyes. Elsewhere the golden dome of the Temple of the Graces blazed bright, and bronze stars winked along the walls where the light of the rising sun touched the spikes on the helms of the Unsullied. On the terrace, a few flies stirred sluggishly. A bird began to chirp in the persimmon tree, and then two more. Dany cocked her head to hear their song, but it was not long before the sounds of the waking city drowned them out.

Ernest Hemingway

The bus climbed steadily up the road. The country was barren and rocks stuck up through the clay. There was no grass beside the road. Looking back we could see the country spread out below. Far back the fields were squares of green and brown on the hillsides. Making the horizon were the brown mountains. They were strangely shaped. As we climbed higher the horizon kept changing. As the bus ground slowly up the road we could see other mountains coming up in the south. Then the road came over the crest, flattened out, and went into a forest. It was a forest of cork oaks, and the sun came through the trees in patches, and there were cattle grazing back in the trees. We went through the forest and the road came out and turned along a rise of land, and out ahead of us was a rolling green plain, with dark mountains beyond it. These were not like the brown, heat-baked mountains we had left behind. These were wooded and there were clouds coming down from them. The green plain stretched off. It was cut by fences and the white of the road showed through the trunks of a double line of trees that crossed the plain toward the north. As we came to the edge of the rise we saw the red roofs and white houses of Burguete ahead strung out on the plain, and away off on the shoulder of the first dark mountain was the gray metal-sheathed roof of the monastery of Roncesvalles.

Vladimir Nabokov

It really was blue: purple-blue in the distance, peacock-blue coming nearer, diamond-blue where the wave caught the light. The foam toppled over, ran, slowed down, then receded, leaving a smooth mirror on the wet sand, which the next wave flooded again. A hairy man in orange-red pants stood at the edge of the water wiping his glasses. A small boy shrieked with glee as the foam gushed into the walled city he had built. Gay parasols and striped tents seemed to repeat in terms of color what the shouts of the bathers were to the ear. A large bright ball was flung from somewhere and bounced on the sand with a ringing thud. Margot grabbed it, jumped up and swung it back.

Bruno Schulz

Came the yellow days of winter, filled with boredom. The rust-colored earth was covered with a threadbare, meager tablecloth of snow full of holes. There was not enough of it for some of the roofs and so they stood there, black and brown, shingle and thatch, arks containing the sooty expanses of attics – coal-black cathedrals, bristling with ribs of rafters, beams, and spars – the dark lungs of winter winds. Each dawn revealed new chimney stacks and chimney pots which had emerged during the hours of darkness, blown up by the night winds: the black pipes of a devil's organ. The chimney sweeps could not get rid of the crows which in the evening covered the branches of the trees around the church with living black leaves, then took off, fluttering, and came back, each clinging to its own place on its own branch, only to fly away at dawn in large flocks, like gusts of soot, flakes of dirt, undulating and fantastic, blackening with their insistent crowing the musty-yellow streaks of light. The days hardened with cold and boredom like last year's loaves of bread. One began to cut them with blunt knives without appetite, with a lazy indifference.

Virginia Woolf

There were flowers: delphiniums, sweet peas, bunches of lilac; and carnations, masses of carnations. There were roses; there were irises. Ah yes – so she breathed in the earthy garden sweet smell as she stood talking to Miss Pym who owed her help, and thought her kind, for kind she had been years ago; very kind, but she looked older, this year, turning her head from side to side among the irises and roses and nodding tufts of lilac with her eyes half closed, snuffing in, after the street uproar, the delicious scent, the exquisite coolness. And then, opening her eyes, how fresh like frilled linen clean from a laundry laid in wicker trays the roses looked; and dark and prim the red carnations, holding their heads up; and all the sweet peas spreading in their bowls, tinged violet, snow white, pale – as if it were the evening and girls in muslin frocks came out to pick sweet peas and roses after the superb summer's day, with its almost blue-black sky, its delphiniums, its carnations, its arum lilies was over; and it was the moment between six and seven when every flower – roses, carnations, irises, lilac – glows; white, violet, red, deep orange; every flower seems to burn by itself, softly, purely in the misty beds; and how she loved the grey-white moths spinning in and out, over the cherry pie, over the evening primroses!

Herman Melville

Though in many natural objects, whiteness refiningly enhances beauty, as if imparting some special virtue of its own, as in marbles, japonicas, and pearls; and though various nations have in some way recognised a certain royal preeminence in this hue; even the barbaric, grand old kings of Pegu placing the title " Lord of the White Elephants " above all their other magniloquent ascriptions of dominion; and the modern kings of Siam unfurling the same snow-white quadruped in the royal standard; and the Hanoverian flag bearing the one figure of a snow-white charger; and the great Austrian Empire, Caesarian, heir to overlording Rome, having for the imperial colour the same imperial hue; and though this pre-eminence in it applies to the human race itself, giving the white man ideal mastership over every dusky tribe; and though, besides, all this, whiteness has been even made significant of gladness, for among the Romans a white stone marked a joyful day; and though in other mortal sympathies and symbolizings, this same hue is made the emblem of many touching, noble things – the innocence of brides, the benignity of age; though among the Red Men of America the giving of the white belt of wampum was the deepest pledge of honour; though in many climes, whiteness typifies the majesty of Justice in the ermine of the Judge, and contributes to the daily state of kings and queens drawn by milk-white steeds; though even in the higher mysteries of the most august religions it has been made the symbol of the divine spotlessness and power; by the Persian fire worshippers, the white forked flame being held the holiest on the altar; and in the Greek mythologies, Great Jove himself being made incarnate in a snow-white bull; and though to the noble Iroquois, the midwinter sacrifice of the sacred White Dog was by far the holiest festival of their theology, that spotless, faithful creature being held the purest envoy they could send to the Great Spirit with the annual tidings of their own fidelity; and though directly from the Latin word for white, all Christian priests derive the name of one part of their sacred vesture, the alb or tunic, worn beneath the cassock; and though among the holy pomps of the Romish faith, white is specially employed in the celebration of the Passion of our Lord; though in the Vision of St. John, white robes are given to the redeemed, and the four-and-twenty elders stand clothed in white before the great-white throne, and the Holy One that sitteth there white like wool; yet for all these accumulated associations, with whatever is sweet, and honourable, and sublime, there yet lurks an elusive something in the innermost idea of this hue, which strikes more of panic to the soul than that redness which affrights in blood.

Leo Tolstoy

The weather was already growing wintry and morning frosts congealed an earth saturated by autumn rains. The verdure had thickened and its bright green stood out sharply against the brownish strips of winter rye trodden down by the cattle, and against the pale-yellow stubble of the spring buckwheat. The wooded ravines and the copses, which at the end of August had still been green islands amid black fields and stubble, had become golden and bright-red islands amid the green winter rye. The hares had already half changed their summer coats, the fox cubs were beginning to scatter, and the young wolves were bigger than dogs. It was the best time of the year for the chase. The hounds of that ardent young sportsman Rostov had not merely reached hard winter condition, but were so jaded that at a meeting of the huntsmen it was decided to give them a three days'rest and then, on the sixteenth of September, to go on a distant expedition, starting from the oak grove where there was an undisturbed litter of wolf cubs.

J. M. Coetzee

So I ride back, relieved of my burden and happy to be alone again in a world I know and understand. I climb the walls to watch the little column wind away along the north-west road towards the far green smudge where the river debouches into the lake and the line of vege-tation vanishes into the haze of the desert. The sun still hangs bronze and heavy over the water. South of the lake stretch marshlands and salt flats, and beyond them a blue-grey line of barren hills. In the fields the farmers are loading the two huge old hay-wagons. A flight of mallard wheels overhead and glides down towards the water. Late summer, a time of peace and plenty. I believe in peace, perhaps even peace at any price.

Jonathan Franzen

When she put on a white blouse, an antique gray suit, red lipstick, and a black pillbox hat with a little black veil, then she recognized herself. When she put on a sleeveless white T-shirt and boy's jeans and tied her hair back so tightly that her head ached, she recognized herself. When she put on silver jewelry, turquoise eye shadow, corpse-lip nail polish, a searing pink jumper, and orange sneakers, she recognized herself as a living person and was breathless with the happiness of living.

Annie Dillard

If you have some sky-blue chalcanthite on a shelf, or gypsum, or borax, or trona, it will crumble of its own accord to powder. Your crystals of realgar (an orange-red ore of arsenic) will "disintegrate to a dust of orpiment, "which in turn will decompose. Your hanksite and soda niter will absorb water from the air and dissolve into little pools. Your proustite and silver ores will tarnish and then decompose. Your orange beryl will fade to pink, your brown topaz will lose all its color, your polished opals will craze. Finally, your brass-yellow marcasite will release sulfuric acid. The acid will eat your labels, your shelves, and eventually your whole collection.

Annie Proulx

A few torn pieces of early morning cloud the shape and color of salmon fillets. The tender greenish sky hardening as they drove between high snowbanks. A rim of light flooded up, drenched the car. Quoyle's yellow hands with bronze hairs, holding the wheel, Wavey's maroon serge suit like cloth of gold. Then it was ordinary daylight, the black and white landscape of ice, snow, rock and sky.

The auditorium was jammed. A sweep of best clothes, old men in camphor-stinking black jackets that gnawed their underarms, women in silk and fine wools in the colors of camel, cinnabar, cayenne, bronze, persimmon, periwinkle, Aztec red. Imported Italian pumps. Hair crimped and curled, lacquered into stiff clouds. Lipstick. Red circles of rouge. The men with shaved jowls. Neckties like wrapping paper, children in sugar pink and cream. The puff of scented bodies, a murmur like bees over a red field.

Joseph Heller

Milo nodded with spurious vim to indicate he still understood and then sat silent, ruminating gravely with troubled misgiving. A scarlet-crested bird shot by below, brushing sure dark wings against a quivering bush. Yossarian and Milo were covered in their bower by tissue-thin tiers of sloping green and largely surrounded by other gray chestnut trees and a silver spruce. The sun was high overhead in a vast sapphire-blue sky beaded with low, isolated, puffy clouds of dry and immaculate white. There was no breeze, and the leaves about them hung motionless. The shade was feathery. Everything was at peace but Milo, who straightened suddenly with a muffled cry and began pointing excitedly.

James Joyce

A fat brown goose lay at one end of the table and at the other end, on a bed of creased paper strewn with sprigs of parsley, lay a great ham, stripped of its outer skin and peppered over with crust crumbs, a neat paper frill round its shin and beside this was a round of spiced beef. Between these rival ends ran parallel lines of side-dishes: two little minsters of jelly, red and yellow; a shallow dish full of blocks of blancmange and red jam, a large green leaf - shaped dish with a stalk-shaped handle, on which lay bunches of purple raisins and peeled almonds, a companion dish on which lay a solid rectangle of Smyrna figs, a dish of custard topped with grated nutmeg, a small bowl full of chocolates and sweets wrapped in gold and silver papers and a glass vase in which stood some tall celery stalks. In the centre of the table there stood, as sentries to a fruit-stand which upheld a pyramid of oranges and American apples, two squat old-fashioned decanters of cut glass, one containing port and the other dark sherry. On the closed square piano a pudding in a huge yellow dish lay in waiting and behind it were three squads of bottles of stout and ale and minerals, drawn up according to the colours of their uniforms, the first two black, with brown and red labels, the third and smallest squad white, with transverse green sashes.