Quirky paint colour names — how do they come up with it?

Several years ago, writer Elizabeth Mayhew painted her bathroom a rich, smoky blue. Everyone who saw it asked for the colour name. "Benjamin Moore's Gentleman's Grey", she would answer. Inevitably, the questioner will give Elizabeth a perplexed look — and assumes she has conflated two colours, because there is nothing grey about the shade. Even on paint-maker Benjamin Moore's website, the colour is described as a "blackened blue" that "leans towards classic navy". Why did the company choose a somewhat misleading name? Below, Elizabeth tells us more about what goes into the name of a paint colour.

Photo: Gentleman's Grey by Benjamin Moore (Washington Post)

The name Gentleman's Grey, though not entirely descriptive of the colour, does conjure up the image of a man impeccably dressed in a tailored three-piece suit - an image that aptly matches the richness of the hue. 

Ms Hannah Yeo, Benjamin Moore's colour and design expert, says names play an important role when people are making colour selections. 

"While colour descriptions such as 'light blue' are helpful to narrow down colours and are quite straightforward, we also look for names that evoke positive associations and experiences and are inspiring," Ms Yeo says.

Ms Sue Wadden, director of colour marketing for Sherwin-Williams, says in some cases, a colour name can be a tiebreaker. 

"In the past, all a name needed to do was describe a colour - for example, bright pink. Today, however, we want consumers to connect with colours. So, instead, that colour might be called Vivacious."

Ms Charlotte Cosby, head of creative at Farrow & Ball, says inspiration for its colour names comes from all over.

She travels extensively for work, so she gets lots of name (and colour) ideas from the places she visits, but just as important is the inspiration she finds in the landscape and dialect of England's Dorset County, where the company is based. Farrow & Ball's naming process is organic, Ms Cosby says.

"Even when we are not working on new colours, if we encounter a great name, it gets filed away for when we are."

Sometimes, she says, the colour comes before the name, and sometimes, the name comes before the colour. An example of the latter is Farrow & Ball's Mizzle.

Ms Cosby adds: "Mizzle is the word we use in Dorset to describe the weather when it is misty and drizzling." Stored on a someday list, the name was eventually matched and attached to a hazy shade of grey green.

Photo: Farrow & Ball

Although many of Farrow & Ball's colour names pay homage to the past, Ms Cosby says: "We always opt for names we hope will delight and intrigue the people who pick up our colour cards." 

In fact, she says the names become a huge part of the identity of the colour and often help with a colour's popularity.

"Elephant's Breath is always a favourite among our fans. It's a gorgeous grey with a magenta undertone, very beautiful in its own right, but its unusual name definitely helps its popularity."

California-based paint company Behr frequently turns to its landscape to name colours, says Ms Erika Woelfel, Behr's vice-president of colour and creative services.

"Colours such as Surfboard Yellow and Beachside Drive reference a sunny, oceanside culture, while Vintner is a nod to the lush Napa Valley wine region," she says.

However, Ms Woelfel and her team try to keep their paint names as universal as possible, so they appeal to a wide audience. Behr paints are available nationwide at home-improvement retailer Home Depot.

"We put a lot of research into our paint-colour names, knowing they often sway consumers towards one shade or another," Ms Woelfel says. "We choose names based on the imagery and mood each colour evokes, with the goal of making the colour-selection process easier and more personal for our customers."

Behr colours fall into four categories: visual names tied to colour (Red Pepper and Bluebird), geographic names (Aruba Green and Rocky Mountain Sky), emotional names (Charismatic and LOL Yellow) and action-oriented experiential names (Explorer Blue and Biking Trail).

Like many of the larger brands, Behr does a good bit of research and has a team that chooses the names.

Photo: Matcha Latte paint by Clare

Ms Nicole Gibbons, who founded direct-to-consumer online paint company Clare in 2017, says her company's naming process is rigorous and thoughtful, seeking to invoke the feeling of the colour in a fun and relevant way.

Clare takes naming cues from pop culture. Names such as Matcha Latte and Avocado Toast are timely references to trendy menu items, but are also immediately evocative of their green hues.

Clare recently launched a campaign that invited its fan base to choose its newest colour, with more than 2,000 people weighing in.

The winning colour: an icy, pale blue that conjures up images of icicles and crisp winter days, aptly named Frozen.

A version of this Washington Post article was first published in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 29, 2019, with the headline 'What goes into the name of a paint colour'.