Describing color to a blind friend

I know very few sighted people so attuned to hues.

(Gracia Lam)

“Is this turquoise necklace more blue or more green?” Marcia asks.

“More blue,” I reply.

“Could I wear it with these turquoise earrings?”

“Maybe, but the earrings are probably too greenish for the necklace.”

I’m a visual person, a close observer. I love color and can match, say, a reddish-purple fabric in my home to a paint sample in a hardware store without holding the items side by side. Marcia, on the other hand, is blind. She was born blind. Her subtle color questions used to astound me, but now they seem almost ordinary, even though I know very few sighted people so attuned to color.


Marcia and I often discuss color, but not as often as we discuss jewelry — which sometimes leads us back to color. Gold, silver, platinum, copper. Yellow, rose, and white gold. Marcia knows white gold is not really white; it’s silver in color. We have similar taste in jewelry and get excited when a jewelry catalog arrives in the mail. Reading the mail is the main thing I do on my weekly visits with her as a volunteer through the Massachusetts Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired.

Marcia and I have more than jewelry in common. We’re both interested in politics and agree on many issues. I also have a longstanding interest in Marcia’s profession: She is a clinical social worker taking psychoanalytic training, and my father was a psychoanalytic psychologist. We have Judaism in common, too. She converted to Judaism and I was born Jewish, so naturally she knows far more about it than I do.

One evening Marcia showed me a new sweater a saleswoman had described as peacock blue. “I wanted to check with you; she was hasty.”

“It’s not peacock; it’s light blue.”

“Baby blue? Or more sky blue?”

I no longer marvel at the precision of Marcia’s color questions. In fact, sometimes she supplies me with the right word. She once asked me to describe the color of a shirt so she could begin wearing it. “Medium brown with a rust cast. No, maybe a subdued pinkish-orange brown.” I was clearly struggling, but Marcia piped up, “You mean maybe cinnamon-colored?” It was exactly cinnamon-colored.


Marcia knows her red hair is not literally red. A real peacock, however, is peacock blue. A peach is not exactly the color peach. An orange is orange. White wine is not white; it’s straw-colored. How does one explain all this to a person who has never had sight? Easily — because Marcia learns quickly and has a steel-trap memory.

I wondered how she knew so much about color. She admits she has no real concept of it. Nonetheless, knowledge of color is important to her. After all, literature, news, and movies often contain references to color. She also likes to know the precise shade of her clothes and jewelry so she can create coordinating ensembles. When she was a child, her nanny made sure Marcia’s outfits matched, down to the ribbons in her braids. The nanny didn’t want the little blind girl — who attended school with sighted children — to wear mismatched clothing.

Marcia even designs jewelry with the help of a bead shop. She recently combined two labradorite necklaces and changed the pattern of the stones, alternating large rocks with smaller chips for a more attractive look.

Sometimes I close my eyes and feel my clothing, jewelry, or household objects. I uncover new attributes this way. I’ve learned there is much more to everything — people, objects, abilities, disabilities — than meets the eye.


Erika S. Fine is an editor in Brookline. Send comments to

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