How to best describe the vivid images we’ve seen of the wildfires, and the nuclear-winter skies they created? We turned to graphic artists, writers, poets. And Crayola, of course.
For a second, let’s say you’re writing a deadline story about the wildfires raging in the Northwest.
How to describe those astonishing images of hillsides in flames, the red actually quite beautiful if you didn’t know of the devastation taking place?
How to describe Seattle skies this past week, skies that should be blue but instead looked like a nuclear winter?
Tick, tick, tick, the readers are waiting. Write something, now!
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So you get not-so-great descriptions like these:
“Hazy skies expected …”
“ … Some of the sunsets are really something …”
“ … it’s like a thick fog …”
The thesaurus isn’t much help. “Haze: mist, fog, miasma, cloud, vapor, smog, smoke.”
Color, and the ability to describe color in words, is so important that this country’s National Bureau of Standards published a 196-page book called “Color: Universal Language and Dictionary of Names.”
The introduction to the book is quite eloquent for a bureaucracy: “Hardly a day goes by without the need for each of us to verbally describe at least one color … If we allow ourselves to dream about an ideal color language, it must be able to … be understood by the public at least in a general way …”
Which takes us to graphic artists, and writers and poets in Seattle. And also to Crayola and its 120 colors.
We asked graphics folks right here at the newspaper how they would describe the images.
From Gabriel “Gabi” Campanario, the Seattle Sketcher: “These days, the color of the sun reminded me of melted hot metal or metal castings in a foundry.”
From news artist Emily Eng: “The way I’ve been describing the smoke and haze is like an Instagram Sepia filter to the world. All the colors are muted and everything has a desaturated brown hue to it. The smoke makes everything seem less crisp and sharp and blurs your senses. The sun also seems to be veiled by a wall of smoke muffling its normal brilliance.”
We contacted a number of writers and poets we found on the Washington State Book Awards site, and the author readings list from the Seattle Public Library.
• Peter Mountford, author: “On Tuesday it felt like the first ashy cinders of the apocalypse were drifting down across our city, and the now familiar smell of piney wood-smoke, which I used to associate with the chimneys of late autumn. One odd thing this week has been the way the sun produces the pink light that I associate with a nice sunset, but it does that at midday, and it’s eerie to see that quality of light coming down from a steep angle.”
• Nicola Griffith, novelist and essayist: “When I saw it on Monday in the late afternoon, the sun looked like a dying sun from science fiction: big, obviously round the way the moon is sometimes, and deep orange. It felt stately and elegiac. Tuesday morning felt really different: a yellow, malevolent toad of a day. The sun was completely hidden at first, and the sky was thick and toxic, like a mix of powdered cadmium and cirrhosis. Later, when the light leaked through, it was a slow, weird umber. Wednesday morning, ash floated in the air and it made my skin crawl and feel greasy, as though I’d been caught in a drift of smoke from a crematorium.”
• Carl Phillips, poet: “Vesuvian. That was the first description that came to mind. And then Turneresque — many of the images seem to have exactly the color and light in J.M.W. Turner’s paintings (the English Romanticist landscape artist). Also: Gothic. Also: Grotesque sublime. I thought of just sublime, but most people think that’s a purely good term, instead of how I think of the term, having the effect of making a person almost lose sensation …”
• Karen Finneyfrock, poet and novelist: “It’s the sky the way it’s described in Young Adult fiction. Dystopian novels. The sky has weight. You could slice it, fold it, pack it into a box and mail it somewhere. The air is a heavy overcoat you struggle to shrug off. You want to turn your face into the wind for a drink of fresh air, but the wind offers your hair full of ashes. Did we all take up smoking again? When I want fresh air, which to me usually means escaping the exhaust of Delridge Way, I dream up a trip to the mountains to stand at the foot of some evergreen. The woods are not away. The woods are toward, into.”
• Peg Cheng, writer: Plumes of devastation, Fiery hillsides paint our world red, Brilliant sunsets belie raging devastation, Smokey skies, burning sun, red moon, Skies of blue burn gray and red, Not the Seattle gray you know and love.”
• Tod Marshall, 2016-18 Washington state poet laureate: “I just flew over the mountains today for a gig in Shelton. The gray gullet of the sky seems to have swallowed a molten coin. In Spokane, where I live, the air is even worse than Seattle.
“The air is like mouthfuls of sawdust, the sky like burnt charcoal, grey and powdery.
“The reddish blaze is beautiful until you remember the eventual lifeless dust of ash.
“Of course, a forest is greenest after a heavy burn.”
• Sharma Shields, novelist and short-story writer: “Well, my family and I were laughing the other day (laughing and coughing) about how the sun looks like the Eye of Sauron from ‘Lord of the Rings.’ Given our political and ecological crisis nationwide right now, that description seems pretty apt.
“In Spokane, the face of the sky feels lower, yellower, and crustier, with bits of its skin flaking off and landing on my car’s windshield as I drive the kids to school.
“Our view, too, of the world around us, the mountains, the distant trees, has been curtailed and drained of color. It’s almost too easy to forget that there are pretty hills and forests nearby, obscured as they are by a beige dropcloth of smoke. When this lifts, I expect to be stupefied by the vibrant array of color …”
And finally, there is Crayola and its 120 colors. They come in 23 variations of red, 20 greens, 19 blues, 14 oranges, all the way to just one white, gold and silver.
That wildfire sun?
How about: Atomic Tangerine. Outrageous Orange. Brick Red. Radical Red. Burnt Orange. Neon Carrot. Coral Red. Flamingo Pink. Mango.
The company has been at it for 114 years, ever since its first box of eight crayons in 1903.
“Crayola,” by the way, is a combination of two French words, “craie,” for chalk, and “ola” for “oleaginous” or “oily.”
And, yes, if you remember eating them as a kid, it’s just wax. It’ll pass.
As for Seattle skies in recent days, how about: Desert Sand. Tumbleweed. Sandy Tan. Gold Fusion. Blast Off Bronze.
All beautiful descriptions.
But you know what you’re waiting for. The Crayola skies that we had a couple of weeks ago.