1,999,949 colors ... and counting

Some years ago I read that the human eye can see more than 2 million different colors. I didn't believe it. It wasn't the capacity of the eye to carry out such a task that I doubted. Rather, it was the existence of more than 2 million different colors that left me skeptical. Even if I counted all those colors that ordinary people can't quickly identify - like puce or chartreuse - I could come up with only 51 or so. That left about 1,999,949 unaccounted for. Where were they all?

Since then, I've been on a quest to locate the missing colors.

I started counting with my very first color experience, the Crayola"big box" - 64 marvelous shades of writable wax. The folks at Binney & Smith, who make Crayola crayons, have since discovered new hues and now sell a massive 96-crayon set. Coupled with the eight colors they retired a few years ago, that brought my total to 104. I'm willing to be generous and count blue-green and green-blue as separate colors, even though I'm convinced they are identical.

A home remodeling project substantially bumped up the number. A trip to the paint store revealed hundreds of different colors. Now I was on to something. The salesclerk proudly proclaimed that they carried more than 1,400 distinct hues.

If I'm again generous and round that up to 1,500 and multiply by the 20 paint vendors I find in the Yellow Pages, I come up with 30,000 shades of paint.

Adding the Crayola colors, I have reached 30,104.

After a few months of exhaustive effort, I managed to bring the total to nearly 50,000 - three colors of Heinz ketchup here, 19 shades of bubble gum there. Tint by tint I crept closer to the goal.

That fish tie from the back of my closet produced 53 neon colors that would have been lost forever if my wife had succeeded in throwing it away years ago. Despite this progress, I wasn't even a tenth of the way to 2 million.

If I were a woman or a punk rock star, I would have seen many of those missing colors far earlier than I did. Nail polish, eye shadow, hair dye, and assorted other products that I don't pretend to understand brought me halfway to my goal.

Without stopping to catalog every red lipstick - I got "writer's cramp" somewhere among fabulous fuchsia, brandyberry, and rose cashmere - I'm confident that if I added them all up, I'd be somewhere in the neighborhood of 1 million colors.

I was certainly closer to my goal, but I was starting to think the 2 million number was some theoretical concept dreamed up in a lab somewhere.

I'd all but given up until a trip to Italy exposed me to an entirely new range of colors. The sight of the late afternoon autumn sun - sweeping across fields of ripe olive trees and fall-tinged grapevines clinging to the brick and stucco buildings in the hill towns of Tuscany - revealed a dazzling new palette of rich yellows, browns, and dusty greens.

The wall of an apartment in the village of Cortona vibrated with a brilliant, golden orange-yellow, looking as though the sun had taken up residence in one of its tiny rooms and spread a glow to every corner of the old building. These were colors I had never seen anywhere else. How did Crayola miss them? I'm sure that golden yellow-orange alone would have sold far more boxes than blue-green - or green-blue.

I was suddenly struck by the thought that my quest for 2 million might actually be achievable. Maybe I could travel the world and capture the greens of Ireland, the whites of the Cliffs of Dover,and the various hues ofOrange County, Calif. The possibilities were endless.

Maybe, I speculated, each place has a certain number of colors of its own. The only way you could see all 2 million would be to go everywhere.

Being from Minnesota, I thought that I'd seen all the shades of gray. But does Siberia in January hold tones I've never even dreamed of? I doubt I can convince my wife to travel there just to find out.

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