How Are Paint Colors Named?

Article Posted By: Laura Sullivan

of The Home Depot

A room painted with Retro Recall Behr paint

If you had to guess, what shade of color would a paint called Level Up be? Where on the color spectrum does a Wishing Troll live? If you were a Harajuku Girl, what color would you be? Those are all names paint colors that have been sold in The Home Depot paint aisle. When there might be more than a dozen subtle shades just of white, you can see why paint manufacturers have to come up with a lot of names for the colors. So how do they come up with these names?

Turns out that the inspiration for (often bemusing, hard-to-forget) paint color names comes from just about everywhere: an electric blue cocktail, the swoosh of a vintage bike wheeling through the park, a turn-of-the-century African explorer and, yes, old school Nintendo lingo.

“The art is trying to find a name that people can easily identify with, something they can visualize that is also unique enough to remember,” says Erika Woelfel, Director of Color Marketing at Behr, who is part of a team that names paint colors.

Here are five surprising things we learned about naming paint colors:

1. Some of the Most Creative Names are Inspired by Places

Sometimes a group of colors will come first, orphan shades without names. For example, Behr releases trend colors every year that are grouped around themes, sometimes tied to particular places. The team tries to transport themselves there to find color words, really flexing their creative muscles.

The media room-inspired Retro Recall theme (pictured above) included Game Over, Level Up and Reboot, colors fit for a Mario Brothers master. The Santa Fe Today theme (pictured below) gave way to shades called Stagecoach, Darlin Clementine and Prairie Poppy. “A clever one was a khaki named Livingston,” said Woelfel, laughing at the little inside joke in the Safari theme. (You get it, I presume?)

A room using Behr's "Santa Fe Today" theme.

2. Color Namers Probably Get Lots of Weird Looks

The idea for a new color might start nearly anywhere, but the process of actually putting it on the shelves is a rigorous one. And, as you can guess, most ideas don’t make it. The Behr team can often be found snapping shots of random things while traveling or just going about life. Perhaps they’ve gotten a few raised eyebrows while snapping a close-up of something seemingly mundane—like roly polies on a sidewalk—but it is worth it to keep a good “visual notebook” of colors that inspire.

3. A Name Can Only Be Used for One Color—Forever

The whole process may be squelched if there’s already a paint color with the same name, a distinct possibility since once a color name is christened, it can only be associated with one unique shade. Yes, a color can retire from active duty, but the formula must be reserved in case, say, a home in a 1970s burnt orange needs a touch up 30-plus years later. The Behr color team searches the database of well over 2,000 names to be sure the name is in fact unique.

4. Blue-Greens, Whites Are the Hardest to Name

With an infinite number of color possibilities and a finite number of words, there are challenges, right? Woelfel says that it depends. “For whatever reason, blue-greens are really hard to name,” she said, perhaps because it is a color that doesn’t come up very often in nature. “We always come up with ocean names, but sometimes you get tired of ocean names!”  Yep, Behr’s Polar Drift is an icy grey-blue, while Clear Pond is more evanescent and bright.

Naming whites is also a challenge because there are simply so many. So, Washed Khaki is a rich tan-ish brown, while Falling Snow is a fresh, bright shade of white.

5. Reds, Yellows, Greens are Easy

Reds and yellows, on the other hand, are a cinch. Cherry Tart and Pyramid Gold are easy to conjure. Greens too, since they are so prevalent in food and in nature. A rich, leafy brown-green? Oregano Spice. A minty pale green? Chinese Jade.

Think you have a knack for color naming? Take this quiz to see if you can match the color to the name. Click on the link after the quiz for answers.

Paint Color Name Quiz



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