Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Colors of Perfume

The other day I was reading some discussion on Perfume Posse about attributing colors to fragrances. One commenter decided that Mitsouko, for example, would be a bronzy-greenish gold. This inspired me to think some more about fragrance and imaginary links to color.

I’m studying abstract painting at the moment, and working somewhat reluctantly in acrylic, which is essentially pigment suspended in plastic. All kinds of issues come into play when painters talk about acrylic vs. oil. No one can look down their nose at acrylic like an oil painter, and yet there’s no question that acrylic is the medium of our age -- it’s fast, bright, relatively cheap, dries in minutes, and can be used with hundreds of substances, sold separately of course, to tart it up. But it doesn’t have that seductive linseed oil smell. It’s texture is, well, rather unpleasant; sticky, truth be told. It doesn’t dry with that gorgeous depth (which has something to do with the refractive properties of the oil medium.) But it’s fast. You can dash off a painting in the morning, frame it at lunch and sell it by dinner. Now, if that’s not modern I don’t know what is.

However, I digress.

If your perfumes had a color and -- oh, let’s add one more attribute -- if they were rendered in a paint medium, what would that be? I ran down a mental list of some of my favorites.

Shalimar: “Midnight” blue (Prussian blue) in oil
Bal a Versailles: Coral pink, in oil
Miss Balmain: a rosy amber/copper, in acrylic
Odalisque: Celadon, in watercolor
Amouage Lyric for Women: A deep, copper-tinged rose, in oil
Barbara Bui Le Parfum: A creamy white, in acrylic
Tom Ford Tobacco Vanille: dark brown (what else) in oil
Eau Parfumee au Te Vert: a soft, clear blue green, in watercolor
Rosine Poussiere de Rose: a cool blue-rose, in watercolor
Coty L’Aimant Eau de Toilette: a pinky rose, in oil
Chypre de Coty: dark foresty green, in oil
Chanel Coromandel: deep browny maroon, in oil
L’Air du Desert Marocain: bright golden amber, in oil

Color theory is far from simple; there are numerous color “systems” (roughly one for every painter who writes a how-to-understand-color-book). And pigments, like fragrances, tend to be based on synthetics today, with many of the same issues that fragrances have: the difficult sourcing of natural ingredients, and (not this again!) the fact that some of them can be, well, not exactly safe, like the cadmiums and cobalts. However, unlike the fragrance industry, the art supply industry hasn’t enlisted the help of a watchdog organization to do its nannying. Artists often like the natural pigments because of their working properties; opacity, transparency, tinting strength and so on. The synthetics tend to stomp all over everything else on the palette, so, if you’re using a natural like an umber, you have to use just a tiny bit of most of the synthetics in your mixes; otherwise, you won’t even be able to detect the natural pigment’s influence. So, like a perfumer, a painter not only has to understand the materials, but also the proportions at which they influence each other in varying ways.

What “color” are some of your favorite fragrances?

Image of the Munsell Color System-based color wheel from Wikimedia.


ScentScelf said...

Oh, what a provocative post.

Speaking of opacity...the endless permutations when trying to express color...sure, you could hold to a Pantone color chart, but then come the effects of the different materials, as you that "eggplant" rendered in an oil, a watercolor, a pastel chalk...the immediate depth of the medium, the way it captures the light, the way it affects the colors around it...

This is a pondering I love, but has the ability to send me into madness. Or at least waste an afternoon. :) I'll have to think hard on far, I had only dared (publicly) think of perfumes in terms of if they were best rendered in color or in black and white.

Perfumeshrine said...

Very good and it prompts thoughts about amateur synzesthetic visions. :-)

Personally I find Barbara Bui a bronzey-nude, Premier Figuier a deep dusty green, Nu in EDP a light grey edged in anthracite, Opium the colour of rust, No.19 is silver and white and Fracas is fuschia top to bottom.

Acrylics do have a nasty smell though!! (I mean when painting with them, not dried up) I thought you'd mention it. It makes me almost sick personally.

Perfumeshrine said...

synaesthetic of course...try typing when little hands are tagging at you to give them attention! Off I go!

Anonymous said...

Nice post!I'm a painter who's in love with perfumes so this was a pleasure to read!
Every time I experience perfume, I also have a textural association. PG Tuberouse Couture is the color and texture of butter, L'Oseau de Nuit is an orange creamsicle, Sarassins is a deep dusty chalky green with a purple cast, BA Musc is a minty transparent oil. I can go on and on...
What I wonder, though is whether one scent can call to life similar associations in most of the people?
As in most of us recognize that the color red is red.

Olfacta said...

Hi S -- Until I began studying perfume, color was the most complicated subject I'd ever attempted. It took me years to really know pigment, which is as you know not just different from color to color, but by medium to medium and in varying lights and depending on how it's juxtaposed with other colors and so on; interesting how perfume is so similar.

Olfacta said...

Hi E - What was that word? Um, synaes-something, syntheatic/synthesistic, um, syn-as-something; oh! That's it,synaesthetic! (I was in a rush when I wrote this post; I wanted to use the word but couldn't figure out how to spell it and of course my spell-checker got confused. Thanks!

I love your color choices. Light gray edged in anthracite (er, a deep charcoal grey-black?) That does sound like "Nu." And the acrylics, they do have a nasty smell. I guess I'm just used to it. I miss the old artists-studio scent of linseed and turpentine. In most painting courses now, they want you to work in acrylic unless the course is specifically about oils.

Great to hear from you!

Olfacta said...

Hi Nika -- That would be an interesting comparison to make. I guess I could say, "What color is Chanel No 5 to you?" So far, at least in these comments, there is variation, for example me calling Barbara Bui white and someone else saying it's a bronzy nude color. Anyway, I don't think I've seen you here before, welcome!

Anonymous said...

Thanks, I forgot to introduce myself. I've been reading around here a while and enjoy your honest and thoughtful perspective on the world of perfume.