Nest Brown

Local paint companies will tell you that business has been booming for a couple years now. Crazy times bring out the nesting instinct in people, and when that happens, they notice how badly the walls could use a fresh coat. When they reach for a gallon of flat interior latex, they typically don’t reach for “blue.” They reach for “Mountain Mist” or “Riviera.”

I too recently found myself wandering the netherland between a paint color and its name, the little chapbook of samples fanned out against my walls. I am both seduced and vexed by “Zuni Gold” and “Montana Agate.” As I stare at my white walls (“Washed Sand”?), eyeballing little swatches of increasingly deeper shades with the most achingly beautiful names, my imagination begins to fatigue from overuse. Is it “Warm Sienna” I like, or the image the words conjure of me hanging out in some sun-drenched Tuscan villa? I’m not sure how I feel about “Fresh Clay.” “Passion Blue?” Not in my experience. And why am I drawn so powerfully to “Cherry Wine”?

To soothe my overwrought gray matter (“Dove”?) I approached Tami Ridgway, a pragmatic “Cool Hand Blue” kind of person. Ridgway is a stylist at Valspar Corporation. She and a crew of other marketing folk write the poetry of paint names. “We receive colors in a palette, from 30 to 250 colors to a palette,” she explained. “We’re influenced by social, fashion, and lifestyle trends. We hope to evoke a positive response from the name, and at the same time prompt a mental image that will help the consumer remember the color. This isn’t usually a planned strategy. Of course some of the palettes have themes—historic, natural, or global—so that gives us a direction.” Sounds easy, until you fetch up against 137 variations of white that all need a catchy handle.

What do the bards of Valspar do when they hit that inevitable patch of writer’s block? Ridgway said, “Whatever it takes. Books, magazines, maps. Sometimes one of us has just returned from vacation (‘Rice Field Green’). Sometimes names come from our different backgrounds.” She said their diverse interests—there’s a musician, an engineer, and a diver on the crew—all contribute to the process.

Bonnie Rohow, a color consultant with Abbott Paint and Carpet in St. Paul, informed me that there are 10 million colors (registered, with a specific recipe) and thus 10 million distinct color names. I imagine this massive opus locked away in a vault. “Color names are never repeated. They are sometimes changed, though,” she said, hinting that changing times sometimes require it. “‘Indian Red’ and ‘Tobacco Brown’ both became variations of chestnut.”

While there have been a few like these that have fallen from grace, color names in general are a huge boon to the consumer paint industry. Rohow remembered that Benjamin Moore paints used to be identified by numbers. Sales increased dramatically when they started using evocative, descriptive names. (I tested Rohow’s expertise by asking her to guess what color “Crazy For You” might be. She thought for a moment, and speculated “a sugary pink,” which was dead right.)

The tried-and-true approach is to look to food for inspiration. Ridgway said this is often the easiest way, because of the powerful sensory associations people have, courtesy of their taste buds. “That, or we were hungry that day,” she said. “I’m actually tired of food-related names.” A quick survey of the major paint stores in the area showed there is still a heaping helping of food-inspired names. In fact, Benjamin Moore’s 2003 calendar serves up paint in various table settings—fried eggs with yolks made of “Sunny Side Up” yellow, a south-of-the-border spread with a bowl of “Guacamole” green, and a tall “Milk Shake,” an off-white dribble tracing down the side of the fluted glass.

I tried a few color names out on Tami Ridgway—names inspired by my own recent experiences: “Crashing Computer Screen Blue,” “Boxed Wine,” and “Serious Frostbite.” These met with a tepid (“Dishwater”?) response from Ridgway. “We try to be positive,” she said with a smile. —Sarah Barker