Writers look at colors like spices in the batter of their descriptions. A little, well-placed and grounded in the character's perspective, gives the batter just the right flavor. The wrong one sits on the tongue, indigestible.
Maybe it's because I slide over the random Crayola on my way through the kitchen at 1 am. Words like cerulean and bittersweet clog my workspace along with a half-dozen stick figure drawings of me in every conceivable shade of a triangle dress. Somewhere in my files is a list of a hundred plus words divided by the basic color spectrum. Although well meaning, the writer who compiled this list is the literary equivalent of the chef who dumped an entire jar of nutmeg into the batter.
What hero would use the word "Tyrian" for red? Even "vermilion" is a stretch for most men. On the other hand, a Texas cowboy who uses the word "saddle" to describe the heroine's hair color comes from a place of authority. Staying true to character is where description sings.
Tone and atmosphere is also crucial. Symbolism and imagery resonate when each line of description is grounded in the character's emotions, internalizations and perspectives. Use it as a way to tie key scenes together. Description of snow, water and darkness weave through pivotal moments in Chasing Midnight, my time thriller set in Colorado. Even if the reader can't remember in the inciting incident whether or not it was snowing, her subconscious will find the connection--the sense of something deeper woven throughout the story.
Stephen King describes a cliche as anything you've ever heard or read before. It's the lazy writer within that settles for "blood red" (my crime). Only your character's back story and experience will determine the color palette he uses to see the world.
Surprise your reader by using non-color descriptions steeped in texture and smells. Forage a relationship with them that says you trust them enough to bring their experiences to your description. Like a test smear of paint on a wall, they'll weave the perfect hue into your words. The symbiotic magic between author and reader.
What's your worst Crayola-offense?
Crayola that best describes my mood today:: Wild Blue Yonder (now that's something the cowboy would say)