COLORS in Audio Description: White

White in Audio Description

Life, innocence, and purity but also death, brutal cold, and sterility. There is no one white hue, its shades are manifold. How is, then, the color WHITE rendered in Audio Description?

(0, 0, 0, 0) (#FFFFFF) [255, 255, 255] (-°, 0%, 100%)

A round white moon that flooded the night with silver.
(1912, C. N. Williamson & A. M. Williamson, Guests of Hercules, xvii)

Is white devoid of color or full of red, green and blue hues? How to mathematically render the nature of white? How to describe it in words? Encapsulate its emotional value? ― Those seemingly contradictory notions have so often been associated with the beginning of life but also with its end, with passion (white fury) or its lack, thereof (clinical white). With the smoothness of alabaster, argent of silver, and shining of light.

What color is white?

Science and nature WHITE is what you see

White is an achromatic color associated with color-sensitive cone cells in the eye being stimulated equally. Its contrastive nature is reflected by two distinct color systems that the eye will see it through: either additive (looking at light sources that emit a combination of red, green, and blue) or subtractive (looking at pigments that reflect unabsorbed light). These basic concepts translate into wider meanings of white light (a spectrum of components), the cinematographic white point (“a calibration value determining the ‘color temperature’ of an image,”, astronomical white dwarves (stars so dense from mass similar to our sun compressed into volume similar to earth that it burns white), or white noise (a mostly uniform mixture of sound waves).

Isn’t natural white purely white, then? It might still seem so, at least in nature. After all, as the poet says, “The accidentally opaque state of a pure transparent substance might be called white; thus pounded glass appears as a white powder. The cessation of a combining power, and the exhibition of the atomic quality of the substance might at the same time be taken into account” (Goethe: 1840: 111). Hence, blazing white surrounds us with white cliffs (of chalk), white beaches (sand rich in quartz and limestone) and white glaciers (made of ice & air). Natural ingredients, crushed limestone mixed with salt and water, gave source to the simplest and cheapest paint and disinfectant, whitewash:

For those engaged in fighting epidemics, though, blotting out the pestilence using a pail of milky, disinfectant lime must have been profoundly comforting, even ritualistic. Is it a coincidence that it was around this time that white coats were adopted by doctors, and would become a visual symbol of the medical profession?

K. St. Clair (2016) The Secret Lives of Color. New York, NY: Penguin, 53.

Natural white, then, is associated with purity. But is it always undistorted and “as pure as the driven snow”? Scarcely. Abraham Gottlob Werner, an eminent 18th century geologist of Freiberg, Saxony, and his student, Robert Jameson, a professor of natural history of Edinburgh, created color charts for natural sciences, later adapted for arts by Patrick Syme. Known as Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours… for Zoology, Botany, Chemistry, Mineralogy, and Morbid Anatomy and often consulted by Darwin and his alike, the charts see snow white of carara marble in the “breast of the black headed gull” and “snow-drop”; the skimmed milk-white of common opals in “white of the human eyeballs” and “back of the petals of blue hepatica”; or purplish white of aragonite in the “junction of the neck and back of the Kitiwake Gull” and white geranium or storks bill. Reddish, greenish, greyish white… Possibilities are plentiful. And so are the hues ― which prove so useful in audio description.

Chemists and alchemists, however, with painters at their side, have always striven to find the whitest white, if not in nature, then in natural or artificial compounds. Exploited as a pigment was titanium (di)oxide, this famous titania, perceived as the brightest of the white. It replaced the queen of white paints, white lead (remember the brilliant pallor of Cate Blanchett’s “Elizabeth” portrayal of a Venetian ceruse covered face?) ― as a healthier alternative. Both paints, however, are notorious for their carcinogenic qualities. To remedy that, another compound source of white was found in zinc oxide, or zinc white. Known in medicine since the dawn of times, it caught on in paints as late as the 18th century, in hope to replace its toxic sisters. It was not as successful, though, as painters complained about its price (four times higher than white lead) and its brittleness. And so, titanium white still maintains its dominance, going well beyond the world of paints into the food industry, cleaning supplies, and many more.

WHITE symbolism ― white is what you mean

Physical associations translate to metaphorical use, clearly visible in our everyday language. White implies innocence: white lies are not supposed to hurt, white balls introduce virgin debutantes. But the color also encodes emptiness when you bleed white (drain completely of resources, OED) or white out, when your mind goes blank, you have a loss of vision from a sudden blinding light, or you are about to lose consciousness (OED). Further still, if you whitewash, you cover up a criminal behavior, exonerate through biased presentation of data (MW).

Throughout centuries, the color has evoked social, political, and religious connotations. The world of business embraces white pages and white papers, white collars and white shoe firms, and it’s rescued by white hat hackers (“ethical hackers” who attempt to find and fix security holes) or white squires (who purchase minority stakes in companies facing an unwelcome takeover bid, OED).

In religion, white has been present ever since the ancient times. The Egyptian priesthood of Isis would wear robes of white linen. Roman Vestals clad themselves in white pallas and white veils. Islamic pilgrims have worn white robes when traveling to Mecca, while rabbis dress in white during the atonement ceremony of Yom Kippur. Christian priests would adopt this symbolism at mass; Cistercians (White Monks), Carmelites (White Friars) and Dominican monks took white as the color of the day. Dominican was Pope Pius V, hence the white papal robes ever since the 16th c. AD. Usually associated with loyalty, purity and sacrifice (cf. crusaders’ white tunics), white would also symbolize mourning ― it was the color of mourning garb in medieval Europe and still is the color of reincarnation in Asia. Where one might expect to see black worn at many western culture funerals, white would be prevalent in China.

In the history of politics, white has often been the color of power and the color of kings. Many countries would thus see white togas (Roman symbol of citizenship), white armies (monarchists in Russian Civil War), or White Guards (Finnish Civil War, WWII Slovenian Alliance), usually associated with counter-revolutionary or anti-communist movements. Why “white”? Some trace this back to the 15th c. Albus Rex, ‘the white king,’ referring to Ivan the Great; others to the white House of Bourbon flag waved during the 19th c. royalist revolution. White would also translate into surrender, hence the white flag.

WHITE in fine arts

Painters translate this plethora of literal and metaphorical associations onto the canvas. They use white consciously, many times making it the key player in the storyline. We see it in the blinding white of Father Kordecki’s habit against the crimson red and brown sea of the battle for the Jasna Góra sanctuary (Suchodolski, “Defense of Jasna Góra”). It is present in the long-stemmed white lily, a symbol of mercy, and symbolic white cloths of those judged souls who wrap themselves as if trying to hide their shame from omniscient eyes (Memling, “The Last Judgement”). It pulsates with a glorious white glow from God himself (Bosch, “The Last Judgement”). Like a pristine shroud, it wraps the sad Pierrot and blends in with his un-whitened porcelain skin (Watteau, “Pierrot, formerly known as Gillés”). These are easily recognizable symbolic roles of our color in question, evoking the most immediate associations, deeply rooted in history and culture.

One of the most brilliant canvases, though, where WHITE is fully encapsulated in its nature of being while NOT being there, is Julian Fałat’s painting “Winter Landscape with a River.”

Julian Fałat, "Winter Landscape with a River"
Julian Fałat, Winter Landscape with a River (NMW)

Our first instinct to describe snow is to refer to the color white; after all, the two – snow and white – are nearly synonymous, and well confirmed in virtually any dictionary entry (cf. e.g. Skeat, who defines it as “the colour of snow, very pale.”) And yet, somewhat surprisingly, Fałat is said to have captured the brilliance and vividness of pristine snow without using white paint at all. How, then, to describe this vast whiteness of his winter landscape?

Here’s our proposal, in Beata Jerzakowska‘s collection of audio described works:

This luminous winter landscape shows a calm river which flows among billowy snow-blanketed fields. The light of early day break casts the snow in harmonic gradations. They effortlessly toll, inviting, from the warm golden-yellow caps of the vast fields to cool lavenders that slope into deep electric blues along their steep shadowed curves. Right there, they intimately press down on their reflection in the dark icy water. The flat and gentle terrain defines the various tempos of these gradations, which are sometimes sudden and other times as gradual, and then barely perceptibly gradual, as the density of a pressed cotton tuft, broken down with glowing strokes of light, from rising-sun-yellow, through whiffs of pomegranate, to frozen-berry-blue. Contrasted dark hard-brown patches and strikes of russet are here and there.

Further reading:

“Color in Digital Cinema” [At:] Simple Digital Cinema Projection,

Goethe, Johann Wolfgang (1840) Theory of Colours. Trans. Charles Lock Eastlake. London: John Murray.

“Julian Fałat” [At:],

Kastan, Scott, and Stephen Farthing (2018) On Color. London/ New Haven: Yale University Press.

St. Clair, Kassia (2017) The Secret Lives of Color. New York, NY: Penguin.

Syme, Patrick (1821) Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours, with additions, to the Arts and Sciences, particularly Zoology, Botany, Chemistry, Mineralogy, and Morbid Anatomy, annexed to which are examples selected from well-known objects in the Animal, Vegetable, and Mineral Kingdoms. Edinburgh: William Blackwood.

“Titanium dioxide in our everyday life; is it safe?”

“White” [At:]