by Kate Woodford
Of course, we have a great number of words for different colours, but in addition, we have a range of words for describing the quality of particular colours – how light or dark they are, for example, and whether they are bright or not.
Let’s start with words that approximately mean pale, (= light and not bright): She was wearing a pale blue sweater. Pastel means pale, but also emphasizes that a colour is soft and gentle: The house was decorated in pastel shades. (Notice that word shade, by the way. We often use ‘shade’ when describing the exact degree or type of a colour: a darker/brighter/lighter shade of blue).
Moving away from pale colours, if we say that a colour is deep blue/red, etc. we mean that is dark and strong: Her lips were painted a deep red. (Note that a deep colour, though dark, still has a brightness to it.) A colour that is described as sombre is dark and serious: For funerals, the sombre colours of grey and black are traditionally worn. Muddy colours, as the word suggests, are dark brown or green.
The majority of colour words refer to how bright or dull (= not bright) a colour is. Two very positive words that mean ‘bright and strong’ are vibrant and vivid: He paints with vibrant colours – gold and pink and turquoise./The sofa is a vivid shade of purple. A warm colour, meanwhile, suggests heat, often because it has the colours of orange or red in it: Warmer colours tend to suit me. Other words describing brightness are fairly negative. Colours that are garish, loud or lurid are too bright, in a way that is not attractive, not stylish or not suitable for an occasion: To be honest, I found all those yellows and purples a bit garish./He was wearing a very loud green and yellow shirt./That was a rather lurid shade of lipstick she was wearing.
There are positive ways of saying that a colour is not bright. If we say that something is a subtle or muted shade of pink/green, etc. we mean that it is not bright, but in a way that is attractive and calm: For living rooms, choose muted shades of blue and green. The words dusty and dusky are sometimes used before a colour, (especially pink and blue), to mean that a colour is slightly muted because it has a little grey in it. Again, these words are often used in a favourable way. However, if we say that a colour is insipid or wishy-washy, we mean that it is too pale in a way that is boring: I find the colours in her paintings a bit insipid/wishy-washy. Another negative word for a lack of colour is drab. Colours that are drab are not bright enough and make you feel unhappy. I find grey a bit drab for the home.